San Diego Unified is beyond figuring out what it wants to cut from its tattered budget. Now school officials are trying to decipher simply what they can cut without breaking the law.

They’re running headlong into a thicket of rules and regulations. Schools can only pack so many children into each classroom. They have to employ a minimum number of teachers, nurses and bus drivers.

Some money can only be spent on specific things like busing or tutoring whether the district likes them or not. And now that it could be forced to cut its budget in the middle of the school year, it finds that it can’t cut some things once it’s already drawn up a budget.

Many of the rules were created to help kids. They keep class sizes in check. They also protect teachers and other employees from being dumped with little warning. But as schools face an unprecedented budget crunch, the rules have become a minefield for school districts already facing a host of difficult decisions.

The budget threats are daunting: If the state’s economy doesn’t pick up quickly, San Diego Unified might have to cut as much as $97 million from its roughly $1.1 billion operating budget. It would also have to cut another $26 million smack in the middle of this year. Superintendent Bill Kowba has warned that those cuts could push the school district toward insolvency. Even if California spares them, the school district estimates it still has to make major cuts — as much as $72 million.

“At the beginning of the downturn, school districts made the easy cuts,” said Lora Duzyk, assistant superintendent of the San Diego County Office of Education. “When you’re in this deep, there are no easy cuts.”

School officials fret they might not be able to come up with enough cuts that don’t break the rules. Districts have to come up with a budget plan by the middle of December. They are planning for the very worst.

“I don’t know how we would do it,” Deputy Superintendent Phil Stover said two weeks ago.

The San Diego Unified attorney, Larry Schoenke, is trying to figure out exactly how many workers the school district could lay off without breaking the law. If they cut deep enough, California could strike back with still fewer dollars. For instance, if first grade classes swell to more than 32 students, schools could lose state money.

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Then it has to watch out for even stricter rules in its labor contracts. San Diego Unified is supposed to provide one teacher for roughly every 26 first graders. High school classes will soon be capped at 36 students.

The school district has to have enough teachers to keep those classes small enough. If it cuts too many of them, it could end up in a battle with the teachers union for violating their agreement.

Exasperated parents and taxpayers often ask why the school district is weighing some cuts and not others. These complicated rules are one reason. The result is that schools have a much thinner menu of distasteful cuts than most people imagine.

And if California cuts schools in the middle of the year, it has even fewer choices than usual. Almost half of the San Diego Unified day-to-day budget goes to educator salaries, but the school district couldn’t shed teachers or principals to make midyear cuts.

The reason: State law bans them from being laid off without months of warning.

The district also can’t break contracts with outside companies if it already bought services or supplies for the year.

The state offered to relax one of its rules: If the worst cut happens, schools could shrink the school year by seven days. But to save money on a shorter year, schools would need to negotiate with unions, getting them to agree to pay workers less for working fewer days. San Diego isn’t sure if it can count on any cuts that unions must agree to. It has already promised to increase salaries next summer at a cost of $21 million.

“Just because the state has financial issues doesn’t mean you can abrogate any other law,” said Joel Montero, who leads a state agency that assists school districts with financial issues. “A contract is a binding agreement that you can’t just walk away from.”

So if San Diego Unified can’t jettison principals or break off contracts with outside companies, what could it do if the state cuts schools in the middle of the year?

School district officials say they would sweep out money that it had been counting on for next year, which would only deepen the cuts it would have to make later. It would also turn away school workers who can be cut loose with less notice, such as clerks, janitors and other employees who don’t teach.

Such workers are also more vulnerable because schools are not mandated to employ them. The one exception is school bus drivers: San Diego Unified is typically supposed to employ at least 393 drivers under its labor contract. But it has already fallen short.

That isn’t the only rule that San Diego Unified already appears to have broken. The school district struck a deal with its teachers union that insisted on minimum staffing for counselors and nurses. The teachers union argues the district has violated those rules. Both the teachers union and the bus drivers are locked in labor battles with the school district. If districts lose cases like these, it can cost them.

Emily Alpert is the education reporter for What should she write about next? Please contact her directly at

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

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