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Ever since his election in 2008, Richard Barrera has been gambling. He says he never wanted to pit kids’ welfares against fiscal responsibility. Nor did he want to use class sizes or teacher pay as chips. But Barrera says he and his colleagues on the San Diego Unified School Board have been forced by an irresponsible state government into making terrible decisions at a terrible time.

The gambles Barrera and his colleagues have made have been dependent largely on the state’s finances turning around drastically. They haven’t, and it could be about to cost the school district its financial independence.

Barrera says those choices had to be made, and defends them passionately. He says the gambles he and his colleagues took were based on cold, hard reasoning and were not, as may be suggested by his background as a union organizer, as a result of any allegiance to the district’s labor unions.

Indeed, Barrera said he’s just as unpopular now with the teachers union as with anti-union hawks. After making deep cuts to the district’s workforce and issuing pink slips to hundreds of teachers, he’s found himself facing attacks from all sides, and insists that what he’s always cared about most is the welfare and education of the thousands of children served by the district.

I sat down with Barrera for a lengthy interview on the district’s woes, how San Diego stacks up against other districts, and to ask him why he made the gambles he’s made. And I followed up by phone to address some of the comments, concerns and questions of our readers after we published a piece of the interview detailing Barrera’s plan for a solution.

For the last week or so, you and Superintendent Bill Kowba have been stressing the issue that the school district could face insolvency. Why now? What was the tipping point?

The prospect of midyear budget cuts.

But that prospect’s been around for a while, hasn’t it?

I don’t know that a lot of people, certainly the folks from Sacramento, were taking the prospect of midyear cuts to K-12 education that seriously.

Because they thought the economy would turn around, or because they didn’t think the political will would be there to actually make the cuts?

They thought revenues would at least grow by $2 billion. They thought that they were protecting K-12.

The fact that we’ve now had three straight months of revenues that have put us on course to trigger the K-12 cuts is the reason that we felt a need to start having a pretty serious public conversation about this.

A lot of people have been speculating over the last week that this is really a political tactic by the board to get the labor unions back to the table. What do you think of that?

If people think that, they don’t understand unions.

Unions respond to the concerns of their members, not to some general public sense of what they should do.

Let me say absolutely, that’s not our intention. We’re very clear that we want to go back to the table with the unions. This isn’t about some manufactured attempt to build public pressure on the unions, because unions are concerned about what’s concerning their members, not what’s in the newspapers.

But there’s a crossover there too. Everybody that’s in a union is in the general public too, right?

What we’re doing is saying here’s the situation that we’re in. Everybody who’s got a stake in the schools needs to understand the situation that we’re in.

People keep emailing me and tweeting me and saying things like “Hey, Poway Unified’s not facing insolvency,” and “L.A. Unified’s not facing insolvency …”

Yeah they are. L.A. Unified is absolutely facing insolvency.

OK, so is this a large school district problem? Is it a mismanagement problem? Why are some school districts in so much trouble while others seem to be weathering the storm?

There are big differences between a district like Poway and a district like San Diego or L.A. or Fresno or Long Beach. The difference is the situation that our kids are in.

Poway Unified, a couple of years ago I believe, increased its kindergarten through third grade class size to about 30 kids. Well, I’m sure that that’s having negative impacts for the students in Poway Unified. It would have disastrous impacts for schools where 100 percent of the kids are on free and reduced lunch.

That would absolutely put kids on the track to drop out of high school.

Our kids and at other large urban district, the incidences of suicide risks of our kids are going up dramatically. The instances of kids with hunger issues are going up. The big crisis mental health issues of our kids are going up, and that’s because of the situation that families are in in this economy.

But poorer families are in that situation to a much more severe degree than upper-middle-class families.

So richer, smaller school districts have cost-saving solutions available to them that perhaps larger urban districts don’t?

The kids are able to weather those cuts in a way that our kids cannot. Many, many of our kids rely on the schools literally for their only real meals that they’re going to get that day, their healthcare, and, of course, for their education.

So if we’re not able to reach those kids in the classroom, during the school day, the idea that they’re going to have parents or private tutors or others that could be working with them after school is just not a reality to many, many of our kids.

Also, Poway, they’re constantly hitting their parents up to contribute a couple hundred bucks. And we do too at certain individual schools and individual school foundations, but schools that do that are in Scripps Ranch and La Jolla and Point Loma and the wealthier parts of town.

You can’t hit parents up in most of our schools, for most of our kids.

L.A. Unified is a nightmare. That’s where you have, you know, 50 kids in a class, kids sitting out in hallways. L.A. Unified faces probably more extreme challenges than our district faces, but it’s not exactly educating its kids.

The bigger point is, a couple of districts like San Diego or Fresno or Long Beach, or one L.A. Unified, that says “we can’t do it,” we can’t pay our bills, there is no way for the state to simply come in and bail districts out. They don’t have the money. There has to be a revenue solution. A revenue solution is the only way out of this crisis.

We’re going to continue to see cuts to public schools that make the concept of public education in this state a lie. We’re already on the brink of that being true.

Bill Kowba said last week something along the lines of “How can we think about asking teachers for concessions?” But clearly that’s got to happen. Are you going to ask teachers to make concessions?

We have and we are.

Bill’s point is that it’s not fair.

It’s shameful, but there are many, many people in our district who are working poor already. It’s not fair that we’re saying that in order to educate our kids, we’ve got to take more money out of your pocket when, again, people making millions of dollars a year don’t have to pay anything for the education of our kids.

Parents want to know what other programs might be on the chopping block to stave off insolvency. If I have a child in San Diego City Schools, what other programs can I reasonably expect to see go away?

The main impact will be in class sizes and support for the kids — counseling, nursing support. That’s where the biggest impact will be.

So what about things like athletics, music, art?

I believe the savings we would get from cutting those programs aren’t worth it.

All the talk so far has been about blaming the state for the problems the district’s in. We’ve said in our articles that the district has made decisions essentially gambling that the situation at the state would get better; decisions that were also made against the recommendations of your staff.

Ultimately, they’ve been decisions that have made the situation worse. Do you think the school board has had some responsibility in getting the district to the situation it’s in today financially?

I’m not entirely agreeing with the question as you just framed it.

You guys have focused on two decisions: Agreeing to the three-year contract and the decision to restore K-3 class size this summer.

Yes.

I want to break down each specific decision, because I’m not going to accept the broad statement that the decisions have been a major contributing factor.

So, let’s take them one-by-one. Let’s talk about the contract and the pay raises first.

If you analyze agreeing to the contract versus not agreeing to the contract, the risk of agreeing to the contract as opposed to not having the contract in place means that for the 2012-2013 year, we are on the hook for incurring approximately $20 million of additional costs in the form of the raises.

That’s the only financial risk associated with that.

Otherwise, we would’ve had a 180-day school year for all three years. So I don’t accept at all the idea that restoring the 180-day school year next year is an additional risk that we took on, because, without a contract, we would have had that.

(The first two years of the 2010 contract inked between the district and the labor unions each included five unpaid days off, bringing the school year down to 175 days from 180 days. The furloughs saved the district an estimated $20 million a year. They are set to expire next year.)

Let’s take the raises exclusively then, because in the 2012-2013 year, yes, it’s $20 million, but the year after that, when the rest of the raises kick in, it’s dramatically more, right?

Except the contract expires at the end of 2012-2013.

What does that mean, though? The contract expires, but the raises are still in place, right? The district’s on the hook for paying out an awful lot more money going forwards.

It gives the district, and the unions, an opportunity at that point to go back to the table and negotiate to the point that if those raises are placing too high a financial burden on the district, we can negotiate to reduce or eliminate those raises.

And, it would open up the step, which I don’t want to take, for the district to make the argument that we simply don’t have the financial capacity to handle those raises and impose a solution.

So, the actual risk is in the closed contract, which expires at the end of the 2012-2013 year.

Still, there was an option two years ago to not give any raises at all. We’ve been talking as if asking for concessions from a labor union when times are tough can’t be done without also offering a sweetener to them.

But aren’t there lots of school districts, fire departments, police departments that have said “You need to have concessions, you need to tighten your belts just like everyone else, and we’re not going to build into this deal a sweetener that could end up putting us under huge financial pressure going forwards?”

Couldn’t you have made a deal like that?

No, we couldn’t have made a deal like that.

Negotiations require both sides to agree, it’s not simply what the district wants to do.

So, no. I’m absolutely convinced that the choice on this hard-bargained contract was that we were going to agree to the contract as it exists, or there was going to be no contract.

So, if you hadn’t agreed to the contract, in order to make the savings you needed over the last two years, you would have had to lay people off?

The $40 million savings, yes.

The only option available to the district, had we not gotten those savings in the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 years, would have been to find those savings through layoffs.

That would have meant moving to the K-3 class size increases in the 2010-2011 year, it would have happened last year.

What about the decision to hire the teachers back in the summer?

Again, fundamentally, what that’s about is the destruction that we would do to our youngest kids and to our schools that have been doing an amazing job working with our youngest kids, if we had increased class sizes to 30 kids in a K-3 class.

That’s just an absolutely unacceptable situation, for two reasons:

One, the impact it would have on the students throughout the district, in particular on the students in the highest poverty schools, and, two, the impact it would have on the success of stable teams of teachers that have been working so successfully in so many of those schools.

That was four months ago, and you must have known that making this decision would accomplish those goals, but the flip-side was then, and is now, that if the state issued midyear cuts, the district would be quite seriously talking about insolvency.

So was that decision about either choosing to blow up programs, or choosing to place the school district in the situation where four months later it was facing insolvency?

No, absolutely not.

You have to go back to the numbers. The risk is a $25 million risk going forward.

The risk of the ongoing reduction in funding levels from the midyear cuts inevitably leads to insolvency. Whether it does so in 2012-2013 or 2013-2014, with or without the decision to restore class sizes in K-3, it would lead to insolvency.

Every single major decision we’ve made around budgets since I’ve been on the school board has involved risk. Of course it involved risk.

We either risk the education of kids or we risk the financial health of the district, that’s the situation we’ve been in, over and over and over again.

We’ve balanced that risk. We’ve made unbelievably harsh cuts to the education of our kids. Our class sizes K-3, we went from 20-1 to 24-1. That’s a big damage. And then you go above K-3 and our class sizes are much larger than they should be.

Our cutbacks in nurses and counselors and other support programs absolutely risk the education and the health of our kids.

At the same time, we’ve had to say doing something like pushing class sizes up to 30 kids in K-3 is simply going too far. Yeah, it puts the financial health of our district at more risk, but the fact that we’re in this position, to have to make that kind of choice — between the basic education and health and needs of our kids versus the basic financial health of our school district, that is a situation we’re in because of the situation at the state.

That’s an unacceptable position to put school districts in.

A lot of people say you’re a representative of the unions, you were put in there by the unions, that you’re looking out for the unions above all else. What evidence do you have that that’s not the case?

Pretty obvious evidence in the strained relationship I’ve had with the teachers union, in particular since agreeing to issue pink slips this March 15.

That’s not evidence of a person who is going to do whatever the union wants, whenever they want it.

And, if people want to go back and check the record, when I ran for office, I ran unopposed. I received no contribution — none — from the teachers union.

You guys have been talking insolvency at the district for years. That’s been raised as a possibility for a long time. Was that weighing on your mind as you made those decisions?

Of course, always, yes.

So you were aware that this could happen and that helped drive your decision making?

Especially, more than ever, the decision to issue pink slips in March of this year.

Will Carless is an investigative reporter at voiceofsandiego.org. You can reach him at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5670.

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Will Carless

Will Carless was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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