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Well, it looks like nobody heeded my call to stop making education news while I was on vacation last week. The big news while I was out: The San Diego Unified school board decided to press its labor unions to put off promised pay increases it granted just one year ago and extend mandatory unpaid days off.

Those steps would be part of a larger plan that would use $32 million in added state revenue to spare jobs for teachers, counselors and other school workers. That money hinges, in part, on tax extensions that are still in doubt, so relying on it to restore jobs could be risky.

School board members said the controversial plan would control class sizes in the youngest grades, which would otherwise balloon to roughly 30 students next year. The plan also sketches out some future savings and revenues, including closing schools and selling off property, to help with future deficits.

San Diego Unified is now facing a $114 million deficit, leading to layoffs for more than 750 teachers and hundreds of other school workers. That has also lead the school board to grapple with the decision it made last year to promise pay increases in the last year of a three-year contract with its employees.

Educators took five furlough days this year — mandatory unpaid days off — cutting their pay by 2.7 percent annually. They will also take five furlough days next year. Then next summer, the furloughs disappear. Educators then get three increases over the course of a year: a 2 percent increase, then another 2 percent increase in January, and a 3 percent increase by July 2013.

The new plan being pushed by board members Scott Barnett and Richard Barrera would extend furloughs for another two years and defer the salary increases until revenues improve. If more state money comes to San Diego Unified, that money would go into raises. If not, the raises would be delayed again.

Labor leaders complain that they’ve already given up millions through the furloughs and shouldn’t be pressed to give more. Bolstering pay was supposed to be a tradeoff for those furloughs and a way of making San Diego Unified salaries, low compared to other nearby districts, more competitive.

Here’s some analysis from yours truly on what this means and what to watch for:

The Layoffs vs. Pay Increases Tradeoff

The idea forces a tradeoff for labor: sacrificing pay versus sacrificing jobs.

The teachers union argues it’s a false choice. It dubbed the tradeoff “completely unnecessary and intentionally divisive,” arguing that the school district could cancel layoffs, raises or no raises. Labor leaders dispute the numbers projected by the school district.

School district staffers say that while San Diego Unified may get another $32 million to spare teachers this year, the future raises would quickly force them to turn around and make more cuts. That’s why they’ve cautioned the school board against canceling any of the planned layoffs, something that the school board has considered in light of the revised budget.

The school board can’t just cancel pay increases; it has a pact with teachers that it must sit down and renegotiate. Union President Bill Freeman told KPBS that he just doesn’t plan on reopening their labor contract. That means the salary increases would stay put.

Yet in the next breath, he also said, “We’re going to have to sit down with them and talk to them — we don’t want the teachers to lose their jobs.” The school district has to polish off its budget by the end of the month, which means time to talk is fleeting.

Another School Renovation Bond

There’s a ton of other interesting stuff thrown into this plan, which extends beyond the budget mess of this year to set out some ideas for future savings and new revenues. One of the most intriguing is another school renovation bond, this one earmarked for overdue repairs and maintaining technology. Voters just approved a $2.1 billion bond for school renovations and upgrades less than three years ago, which includes all that new technology. Creating a plan to mop up all those repairs was a big part of winning support from the Taxpayers Association for that last bond; now the school district could seek another bond for repairs.

The Political Bedfellows

The Union-Tribune remarked on the seemingly unlikely alliance of labor organizer Richard Barrera and Scott Barnett, a Republican who once led the county Taxpayers Association.

For Barnett, this kind of bridge-building delivers on a key promise in his campaign: That he wouldn’t be an isolated critic on the school board. Barnett criticized John de Beck, the longtime school board member he defeated in 2010, for making noise but not getting things done.

By forging this joint plan with Barrera, Barnett has shown he can join hands and give ground. For instance, Barnett isn’t comfortable counting on the $32 million from the revised budget, but included it in the plan as a compromise. For Barrera, however, crafting this plan with Barnett only deepens the divide between him and the teachers union, which could cost him politically next year.

The union now derides him as a “supposed ‘friend of labor,’” sarcasm quotes included, and has stepped up its tactics, sending out his personal cell phone to teachers last week and urging them to call.

Board members Kevin Beiser and John Lee Evans both voted for the plan as well; Beiser said while he disliked some of the details, he couldn’t say no to a plan that would spare teachers. Shelia Jackson was the only school board member to vote against it, but her reasons aren’t likely to please the unions. She argued the school district shouldn’t count on the added money from the revised budget.

The ‘Trust Deficit’

One theme that popped up over and over was what Evans called a “serious trust deficit.” The teachers union has disputed the need for this tradeoff, chiefly by challenging its numbers. These disagreements have stalled any deeper debate: If the two sides can’t even agree on what’s at stake, how can they make a deal?

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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