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Don’t celebrate. Don’t even be happy. Stay strong.

That’s the message San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Bill Kowba sent out in a memo to district employees today.

“I am very concerned about Board meeting testimony and casual conversation that suggests that this will be a better budget cycle with new resources and minimal cuts. That is not the case based on current information,” the memo reads.

“Contrary to some early media reports, the proposed 2012/13 budget IS NOT a good one for school districts. The great ambiguity associated with state revenues, the legislative turmoil in Sacramento, and the high stakes gamble of a November ballot measure has put us out on a limb.”

Kowba’s main concern: In the best-case scenario, Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget will keep California’s education funding flat. That’s bad news for San Diego Unified because it consistently spends far more than it gets each year in state and federal funding.

The district’s costs go up every year. Some of the basic costs of doing business like paying for utilities and gas rise due to inflation, as they do for everyone. And in recent years the district’s spending on employee benefits and its special education program have been growing significantly.

When times are good, the state has increased education funding to cover the rising cost of living in California. But in 2008, the state stopped upping education funding, and the amount of money sent to school districts has been gradually declining, despite increasing costs.

To keep afloat, San Diego unified has had to eat into its reserves to make up the difference between what it gets from the government and what it spends. It’s also had to lay off hundreds of employees.

Those reserves are now depleted, and the district will have to make about $150 million in cuts from its budget over the next two years just to stay afloat, Kowba’s memo states. That will mean that class sizes will grow and teachers and support services like nurses and counselors will have to be cut.

“Unfortunately that is our reality,” the memo states.

Earlier this month, Brown released a draft budget that counts on voters approving tax increases. If the tax increase passes, education won’t be cut.

But even if the tax increases pass, just to deal with its rising costs the district will still likely have to issue “unprecedented numbers” of layoff notices to staff, Kowba warns in his memo.

One way to reduce the number of layoff notices is to seek concessions from its unions, something the district has long been seeking.

From the memo:

We are hopeful that the conversation with the employee collective bargaining teams will begin in the very near future. Some suggested concessions include deferring the negotiated salary increases in current contracts, continuing the current five-day furlough of the last two years, applying salary rollbacks, and/or reshaping health benefit contributions.

But, remember, all this is the best-case scenario.

If the governor’s tax increase doesn’t pass, schools will face additional cuts in the middle of this school year, a prospect it narrowly avoided this year. That’s currently estimated at about a $4.8 billion cut across the state.

“The governor’s staff has said that a funding reduction of this magnitude would be the equivalent of cutting three more weeks off school next year. Such an outcome translates into a devastating resource cut halfway through the school year,” Kowba’s memo states.

The district should get more details about the budget in the coming weeks, and Kowba’s memo says the superintendent plans to keep employees informed.

For now, district employees have to stay strong, Kowba urges.

“We are a team and by working collectively and collaboratively, we will get through the worst of times in California public education,” the memo states.

Meanwhile, Fox 5 San Diego is reporting that seven local school districts have listed themselves as “qualified” in their reports to the County Office of Education. That basically means the districts have put the county on notice that they may well not be able to pay their bills in the near future.

As Fox 5 notes, qualified status is just one step up from insolvent. San Diego Unified is not one of the seven districts, despite its insolvency scare earlier this year.

Will Carless is an investigative reporter at voiceofsandiego.org currently focused on local education. 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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