It’s the battle to take school closures off the table.

San Diego Unified school board member Scott Barnett today proposed halting the district’s school closure process at a press conference at Dana Middle School in Point Loma.

Meanwhile, School board President Richard Barrera said he’s already directed staff to place a motion on next week’s board meeting agenda that, if successful, would radically scale back possible school closures.

Barrera wants district staff to only consider closing schools if doing so would result in students getting better services at another school. He said that eliminates 11 or 12 of the 14 schools currently being considered for closure or combination with other schools.

With the school district facing a minimum deficit next year of $60 million, closing schools has been one option on the table to save money. Earlier this week, district leaders warned the district could be headed towards insolvency and a state takeover, bringing an even finer focus onto its financial problems. District staff is worried that the district may have trouble borrowing money next year.

And, as the news was breaking about the plan to stop even talking about school closures, the district learned that its credit rating had been cut by one of the three major agencies, underscoring staff’s worries. The move could significantly increase the district’s cost of borrowing but won’t affect the interest rate on more than $1.6 billion of existing bond debt.

Despite falling enrollment, the district has long put off the unpopular decision to close any schools. The district has estimated that closing each school could save about $500,000.

While the process is still in its early stages, even the mention of closing schools has caused uproar, galvanizing hundreds of parents and teachers to protest this week’s school board meeting.

To take effect, both Barnett’s and Barrera’s proposals would have to be voted on by the rest of the board.

Barnett coupled his comments on closings with the announcement that he will release a comprehensive plan to get the district’s finances on track at a separate press conference Monday.

He said a confrontation between the school board members at Tuesday’s board meeting led him to conclude that his colleagues are unwilling to make the sort of hard decisions the district needs to get rid of the threat of insolvency.

That confrontation involved a discussion on whether to further reduce school busing, a move Barnett said could save the district about $9 million.

The board voted 3-2 to reject four proposals presented to them by staff. Barrera argued that the proposals would barely save the district any money, and said the harm they would do to students wouldn’t be worth it.

If the rest of the board’s not willing to consider cutting busing he thinks is unnecessary, Barnett said, he doesn’t see why he should even discuss whether or not to close seven schools in his district. (Of the 14 schools slated to be closed or moved to new sites under the district’s provisional recommendations, half are in the coastal district Barnett represents.)

“I’m willing, and have been willing, and will continue to be willing to make tough decisions to save our school district from insolvency,” Barnett said. “But I will not allow schools in Point Loma and Mission Bay to bear most of the burden when my colleagues continue to spend rashly in other areas of the budget.”

Barrera said he and his colleagues have made dozens of tough decisions that have saved the district tens of million of dollars. They’ve voted to cut back on nurses, counselors, landscapers and other staff, and they’ve voted to cancel popular programs like sixth grade camp. Those decisions were worth it because they ended up saving the district tens of millions of dollars, he said.

Tuesday’s busing decision doesn’t even compare to those hard political choices, Barrera said.

“The benefits, in terms of potential savings to the district, were so far outweighed by the damage to kids, that frankly this was an easy decision.”

Moody’s originally implied the downgrade would impact the district’s existing debt, but the district said that won’t be the case. This story has been updated to reflect that.

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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