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The union for teachers at the San Diego Unified School District has a response to Superintendent Bill Kowba’s recent memo on the district’s budget woes: We’ve heard this all before.

In a strongly worded statement sent out to members of the union yesterday, San Diego Education Association President Bill Freeman accused Kowba of spreading disinformation about a budget that is still in its infancy. But he stopped short of saying the union wouldn’t be willing to negotiate on salary and benefit concessions that could go a long way towards fixing the district’s looming $150 million budget deficit over the next two years.

Every January for the last five years, the school district has issued dire warnings about vast numbers of layoffs that will happen if the union doesn’t agree to concessions, Freeman wrote. And every year the district ends up actually laying off only a fraction of those workers, despite the teacher’s union not making the demanded concessions.

He’s right about the district’s actions. The latest data from the district shows that of 1,374 layoff notices sent to educators last year, only 223 remain in effect.

“As is always the case in January, the District simply does not know what their financial reality will be for the next school year, let alone the year after that,” Freeman’s response reads.

Freeman’s response also disputes Kowba’s assessment, meant to blunt budget optimism, that this year’s state budget is bad for school districts. He points out that Gov. Jerry Brown opened his state of the state speech this week with the words “California is on the mend.” Brown’s budget, however, also relies on voters passing a tax increase to avoid a possible $4.8 billion in midyear cuts to education.

What’s especially interesting about Freeman’s response, however, is that it stops short of actually saying that the union will not negotiate about possible concessions. Indeed, it falls pretty far short of that. Here’s a key excerpt:

[T]he only responsible course of action is to wait for reliable and accurate information to continue to emerge, and to respond accordingly.

I can only really guess what that means, since the union won’t talk to me. I couldn’t get Freeman, or anyone else at the union, to talk to me about Kowba’s memo.

But the fact that Freeman doesn’t entirely rule out negotiations over concessions is notable. In the few times I’ve spoken to him in the past, he’s simply argued that the union’s current contract, which remains closed until 2013, is non-negotiable.

Now, he’s saying he wants to wait to see the numbers.

District leaders have been seeking concessions for months. Pay raises and the restoration of unpaid days off the employee contracts represent a considerable chunk of the district’s looming deficit.

If the school board can convince the unions to continue taking five unpaid days off, that will save the district about $40 million over the next two years.

Employees are also due to start receiving a series of pay increases later this year that will cost the district about $26 million in the 2012-2013 school year and about $53 million the following year. Those raises were negotiated as part of a deal made with the unions in 2010.

Added together, a continuation of the unpaid days off and a delay in giving the pay raises would save the district about $119 million of the $150 million Kowba says it needs to cut out of its budget in the next two years.

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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