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The bulk of a teachers union’s press conference on Wednesday afternoon was devoted to pouring scorn on San Diego Unified School District’s budget numbers.

Several union officials took turns at the podium to discredit the district’s projections and lambaste the school board for insisting on issuing layoff notices when nobody yet knows how California’s state budget will look in the summer.

That’s nothing new for the union. It’s been taking this hardline, confrontational approach towards the district for years. But at the very end of the press conference and in an interview afterwards, the union offered something of a new approach.

San Diego Education Association President Bill Freeman said the union understands that the district has to work within a frustrating system that requires it to put out a worst-case-scenario for its budget every year. But, he said, it doesn’t have to be like that.

“Now is the time for us to come together and to demand that this broken budgetary system be corrected,” Freeman said.

SDEA Vice President Camille Zombro expanded on this in an interview after the press conference. She told a TV reporter the district needs to stand up against the system. It should use its power as the second-largest district in the state to refuse to participate in a budget process that results in hundreds of teachers receiving layoff notices that are later rescinded.

And San Diego Unified should work with lawmakers to change state law that governs the budget process, she said.

“Great things happen when committed people decide they’re going to do it,” she said. “Absolutely, we could change things. Absolutely we could change the law.”

The idea that the state budget process is broken is shared by just about everybody I’ve spoken to who works in education in California.

The state requires school districts to come up with preliminary budgets six months before state lawmakers have decided on a budget for California. Because so many things can change in those six months, those projections are often way off and the result is frustrating for school board members, parents and teachers alike.

That dance is complicated by the fact that in order to lay off teachers, districts have to provide them warning by March 15. So, to be conservative, districts have to issue the maximum number of pink slips by March 15 even if they’ll have to ultimately lay off significantly fewer teachers.

But officials at the district said simply refusing to partake in this flawed process isn’t an option.

And rewriting state budget law for school districts would require the cooperation of not just amenable lawmakers, but of the unions themselves.

Civil Disobedience and Cash Flow

Every year, San Diego Unified borrows lots of money from banks to pay its bills as it waits for tax revenue to roll in.

Those big loans are known as Tax Revenue Anticipation Notes, or TRANs, and, as I detailed in this story last year, school districts across California increasingly rely on those loans to keep their schools open. They essentially borrow money to pay their bills until tax money comes in later in the year.

If San Diego Unified had held firm this year and refused to send the county a budget balanced by hundreds of layoffs, district officials said it would have received a negative certification from the County Office of Education, which acts as the district’s financial overseer.

The result: It couldn’t borrow any money at all.

The district’s currently lining up a $200 million loan that it hopes to get in June. With a negative certification, it wouldn’t get that money.

“That would be calamitous for us,” said Phil Stover, district deputy superintendent of business. “We couldn’t make payroll in the summer.”

Civil disobedience to end the budget cycle therefore may sound like a noble aim, but the result would be that teachers ultimately wouldn’t get paychecks because the district wouldn’t have the cash to pay them.

I don’t know whether the union would be willing to fight that fight.

Perhaps it would. Union officials won’t speak to me, but I’d love to hear from them.

The Pink-Slip Catch-22

The school board is more than willing to consider working with state lawmakers to change the way the state’s budget process works, said district Chief of Staff Bernie Rhinerson.

He agreed that the current system is harmful and causes grief to teachers, who for months don’t know if they’ll have a job the next year.

School board member Richard Barrera concurred.

“We absolutely agree that the budget process is broken,” Barrera said. “Sending pink slips to teachers months before the state finalizes its budget just hurts schools.”

Here’s the thing though: Under state law, the district has to send out those pink slips by March 15 each year to give them the chance to rebound properly from being laid off. The California Teachers Association and other unions have traditionally fought against any changes to this deadline, Rhinerson said.

The district could work with lawmakers to change its budget deadlines, Barrera said. It could attempt to change the system so that it no longer had to come up with a preliminary budget for the county six months before the state budget came out.

But that wouldn’t solve the layoff issue. That would take a change to state law rescinding the March 15 deadline. The district would certainly support a move to change that deadline, Barrera said, but that would require cooperation from unions around the state.

“We would love the opportunity to work with the SDEA and the California Teachers Association to form a budget process that makes sense,” Barrera said.

Again, I would love to know where the SDEA stands on that issue. Is it willing to change the March 15 deadline in order to free the district’s hands when it comes to issuing layoff notices?

Maybe they’ll call and let me know.

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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