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Last month, San Diego Unified school board member Scott Barnett released a detailed plan for tackling the monstrous deficit the district faces next year.
The teachers union immediately reviled Barnett’s plan, which calls for salary cuts across the district. And trustee John Lee Evans dismissed the document, saying the district shouldn’t balance its budget on the backs of employees. Even mayoral candidate Bonnie Dumanis chimed in, panning Barnett’s idea for a tax increase. But, unpopular as it may be, Barnett’s plan has so far provided the only tangible movement we’ve seen from the school board towards addressing its deficit problem.
Board President Richard Barrera has called on Sacramento to raise taxes to increase education funding and trustee Shelia Jackson has berated the state for cutting funding to San Diego schools. But there’s been no clear message from the board on the crucial question of how they intend to handle the big decision they have control over: a budget gap next year that will amount to at least $60 million and could be as much as $136 million.
The board has a month to come up with a plan. On Dec. 15, the district must file its first budget report of the year with the San Diego County Office of Education, which acts as a type of financial overseer of local school districts. In the report, the district will have to spell out where exactly it plans to cut in order to close that minimum $60 million deficit.
The trustees know their options at this point. Financial staff has been calculating for months how much the district can save from all the different cuts available.
This summer, Chief Financial Officer Ron Little presented the board with a bullet-pointed list of those options, and at last week’s board meeting Superintendent Bill Kowba updated the board on the various ways it can make savings going into next year.
Two cost-saving options that have so far been discussed — closing schools and cutting busing — were wholeheartedly dismissed. Others, like selling property and increasing class sizes by laying off teachers, have not yet come before the board for a vote.
So, what are the trustees willing to cut?
I asked the school board members to spell out, in detail, what specific cuts they would make to save two amounts of money: The minimum projected deficit of $60 million, or the maximum projected deficit of $136 million.
Each trustee was asked to presume no new revenue from the state.
What’s clear is that seeking labor concessions — or at least a rollback of promised pay increases — will be a major part of the discussion, and the responses I received back shed a little more light on where the board stands on this crucial issue.
Much of the minimum projected deficit the district faces next year is the result of two major cost increases resulting from salary changes employees won from the board last year.
Under their current contract, employees are due to receive a series of pay increases beginning next year, which will eventually cost the district $53.2 million annually. The contract also cancels five unpaid days off that have been saving the district about $20 million for each of the last two years.
Barnett and Trustee John Lee Evans are the only board members to publicly advocate for employees to put off their pay raises. However, while Barnett wants to rescind the five unpaid days off, Evans thinks they should be extended as part of the minimum concessions he expects from the unions.
Barrera’s stance on those issues is a bit more complex.
He said he wants to work with the unions to save between $80 million and $100 million over the next two years. But he wouldn’t discuss whether he would ask employees to give up or delay their pay raises, saying it would be irresponsible to publicly lay out demands that should be made during labor negotiations.
Here’s a summary of the responses:
SCOTT BARNETT | Elected: 2010. Up for re-election: 2014.
Barnett proposed his plan last month. The basics of the plan:
• Restore the five days of school lost in the most recent contract with teachers, an added cost of $17 million, and maintain the regular pay increases employees get for their experience at the district.
• Eliminate the proposed across-the-board pay increases that go into effect next year, saving $21 million that year, $22 million the next and $43 million ongoing. He would also restructure health care to save $12 million, charging a premium for employees who chose providers beyond a free Kaiser plan.
• Cut pay across the district, saving $58 million a year. The cuts would be on a sliding scale.
• Put a $50-per-parcel tax before voters to raise $60 million a year and restore the employee pay cuts.
This week he released more details of his plan.
RICHARD BARRERA | Elected: 2008. Up for re-election: 2012.
Barrera has so far built his plans for the district around pressing Sacramento to introduce new taxes to get more money into the education system. His position has been that the district can patch things up and stay afloat for another year or two, but that if funding doesn’t turn around, he can’t see the district staying solvent.
But Barrera’s plan offered a few other solutions too, most notably acknowledging that staff will have to make concessions.
(Barrera calculated the deficit differently to how I had presented it to him. Rather than looking at a minimum deficit of $60 million and a maximum of $136 million next year, he said the best way to calculate solutions is to calculate the deficit across the next two years.)
First off, Barrera stressed that he’s against any additional layoffs:
Trying to solve a $120 million to $170 million gap through more layoffs would mean the loss of an additional 2,000 to 3,000 employees. The first few hundred additional layoffs would devastate the education, as well as the health and safety of our students. Beyond those first few hundred, additional layoffs would violate some combination of collective bargaining agreements and state law.
Barrera then laid out three options he thinks are available to the district at this point:
• The district can pull together about $15 million to $20 million by selling or leasing excess property that will never be used for schools again and by carefully controlling rising healthcare, fuel, utility and other costs.
• Here’s Barrera’s exact wording on asking for employee concessions: “The district and our unions, by developing new agreements — not by opening closed contracts — can negotiate a three to five year financial plan that can save $80-$100 million over the next two years; that can provide stable learning environments for our kids and job security for our employees; and that can guarantee that our underpaid employees who have faced the rising cost of living without raises for five years will benefit as district revenue increases.”
• Lastly, Barrera said the district needs to join forces with other large school districts, local state legislators and advocacy groups to make sure that the threatened midyear funding cuts to education don’t happen. Those cuts would increase next year’s deficit from $60 million to $136 million, and Barrera said part of any solution should be making sure they don’t happen.
KEVIN BEISER | Elected: 2010. Up for re-election: 2014.
Did not respond to repeated calls and emails.
JOHN LEE EVANS | Elected: 2008. Up for re-election: 2012.
Evans said Superintendent Bill Kowba has come up with a list of potential cuts and that he didn’t have any to add to the list.
Most significantly, Evans made clear that he wants the board to ask employees to postpone their salary increases and continue with the five unpaid days off, known as “furlough days.” He wrote:
We will not be able to balance the budget without substantial employee concessions, meaning continuation of furlough days and postponement of salary increases at a minimum. There is no way around that. We will also have to sell property.
If we have midyear cuts, we will have to follow the contingency plan set out by the Superintendent, which includes using up reserves, property sales and staff reductions to meet the shortfall. But we will not know until November 16 or December 15 whether that is going to be a reality.
SHELIA JACKSON | First elected: 2004. Up for re-election: 2012.
Did not respond to repeated calls and emails.
I will update this blog if hear anything from the two trustees who failed to respond.
Beiser is also yet to respond to an earlier question about why he voted in the summer to bring back more than 300 teachers, despite warnings from CFO Little that the funding for those positions may never materialize.
Will Carless is an investigative reporter at voiceofsandiego.org. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.550.5670.
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