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When budget cuts menaced San Diego Unified last spring, the school board struck a tit-for-tat deal to get out of the hole. Employees agreed to take furloughs that shortened the school year by five days and cut their pay for two years. After that, San Diego Unified would gradually increase their pay roughly 7 percent.

The tradeoff for workers from custodians to principals was clear: Take a cut now but get more money later. It hinged on the hope that school funding would start to recover before the raises went into effect.

Now, less than a year and a half later, school board members who struck the deal are seeking to amend it, saying they fear the district’s financial situation could be worse than they’d hoped. San Diego Unified is pressing its unions to put off those raises as it projects future shortfalls ranging from $25 million to $97 million. The board believes it could afford to cancel hundreds of layoffs if it delays the raises.

The promise has left the school board in an awkward spot. San Diego Unified could get more state money this year, enough to tear up hundreds of pink slips. But their budget staffers warn that future budgets already look tight and say they should save the money to make good on the promised raises.

Under a revised budget from the governor, San Diego Unified actually stands to get an estimated $32 million more than it expected this year, which could help spare teachers, librarians and others. Teachers have pleaded with the school board to spend the money to save jobs and keep classes small.

But the boost isn’t guaranteed, hinging in part on tax extensions, and even if the millions do roll in, the district finance chief warns that spending it would only put San Diego Unified deeper in the hole next year, when the promised raises begin to kick in.

The agreement to give raises is sealed and can only be opened if the unions consent. The school board is also proposing an escape clause that would reinstate raises if it gets more money. The idea has infuriated unions and reignited the debate about whether it was prudent to promise raises at all.

“We negotiated in good faith,” Joan O’Hara, who leads the union that represents educational aides, told the school board recently. “Because we could see what was coming down the pike.”

Faced with unpredictable budgets, San Diego Unified has tried to survive one year at a time. Now the battle about whether to tear up pink slips is being fought not over next year, but the year after and beyond. It’s not so different than the challenge the board faced when it struck the deal with teachers in the first place: How to balance immediate savings from furloughs against the future costs of raises.

“There were two things they were hoping for: that (a parcel tax) would pass and that the economy would not get worse,” said Scott Barnett, who is new to the board. “Well, the opposite happened.”

School board President Richard Barrera said offering the raises was the only way to persuade workers to take furloughs that saved $17 million this year and will save $12 million next. That spared the arts and kept more nurses and counselors at work for another year, Barrera said.

The money may or may not ultimately be there, Barrera said. But without workers taking furloughs, “where would our finances be?” he asked. The deal was also supposed to help bring its teacher salaries, which are now lower than in neighboring districts, closer into line.

There were some glimmers of financial hope when the deal was struck. A state report predicted school funding would increase by the time raises were planned; San Diego Unified estimated it could mean $70 million in restored funding for them. But financial staffers aren’t counting on it. The latest financial report from San Diego Unified predicts day-to-day funding will actually dip in the next two years.

One economist said no government agency should have been optimistic about its financial future. “There’s no reason anyone should have been expecting local revenues to come roaring back,” said Chris Thornberg, founding partner of Beacon Economics, an independent research firm. “The only reason you would have done that is you just needed to get the negotiation done with.”

The debate over whether to tear up pink slips has revealed a rift on the school board about how to weigh future risks against present problems. Nobody actually knows what will happen in a few years, Barrera said. He said he’d use the promised $32 million to spare school workers, raises or no raises, and risk future problems to prevent overcrowded classes next year.

Board member Kevin Beiser agrees, saying planning is good, but budgets are variable. “How can we look parents in the eye and say, ‘I’m sorry, your first grader has to be in a class with 29-and-a-half kids’? How can we do that knowing we’ve got $32 million sitting in the bank?” Beiser said.

The teachers union has argued the same point, saying future budgets are so unpredictable that it’s senseless to use them to justify withholding money that could prevent class sizes from ballooning now.

“We’re the last people that would sit and watch the district dive,” said Bill Freeman, teachers union president. “But we are also the last people that would surrender our people based on blind projections.”

But Barnett and board member John Lee Evans have argued that San Diego Unified needs to stop the year-to-year scramble for cuts. They believe the school district needs to craft plans for several years at a time to avoid instability. That has made them loath to spend the $32 million, eyeing projections that predict, even in the best case, that San Diego Unified faces a deficit of more than $100 million in two years.

“If we try to get through this year and don’t look at next year, we’ll just begin next year by planning on more layoffs,” Evans said. “That’s sickening.”

Finance chief Ron Little has stressed the same thing, urging the board to take the long view. But that view is still cloudy: School districts are used to seeing their planned budgets evolve dramatically even during a single year, using one set of predicted numbers to plan in January, another in May, and yet another when state lawmakers actually pass the budget in summer or even later. The years beyond are even more nebulous.

The school district is shopping the plan to its unions, but so far, none have agreed. The teachers union voted against the idea on Wednesday night, calling it an attempt to “pit us against each other.”

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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