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If anyone in San Diego knows the value of education, it’s Fatima Abdelrahman.

Five years ago, Abdelrahman arrived in City Heights from Darfur, Sudan, with her five children. None of her kids had ever been to school before arriving in the United States.

At first, her children struggled. They sat in classes at Fay Elementary School with blank looks on their faces. All around them, students jumped, played, read, learned. Abdelrahman’s kids didn’t even know how to ask to go to the restroom. They sat, alone, at recess, confused and cold in their new country.

As time passed, however, the children began to learn. They memorized the alphabet. Then grasped how to string together letters to form words. The strange, inelegant script of the English language began to take form, becoming familiar, then second-nature. The kids made friends, began to jump, to play.

Abdelrahman’s children are now thriving at schools across San Diego Unified School District, and every day’s education is precious. If they’re not at school, her children are cramped into the small duplex where she often also looks after children from other families. Or they’re out in the streets of City Heights, among the dark influences of drugs, gangs and violence.

Last month, Abdelrahman overcame her natural shyness to speak at a school board meeting. Addressing the trustees quietly from beneath her tiger-print hijab, she urged them to approve a deal to avoid more than 1,000 layoffs, including 27 of the 29 teachers at her beloved Fay Elementary.

A week later, the deal was done. Teachers agreed to forgo a series of raises and continue working a shorter school year so their colleagues could keep their jobs. Abdelrahman was delighted.

But while the agreement averted the catastrophe of layoffs, it also ushered in a whole new worry for parents like Abdelrahman. If Californians fail to pass either of two new tax measures on November’s ballot, the deal calls for the district to cut the school year by up to 14 additional days. For most schools, that would reduce the school year to 161 days of instruction — shaving nearly three school weeks from a calendar that was already among the shortest among the developed world.

A shorter school year would affect children across the district, but would have a particularly profound impact on children like Abdelrahman’s — English language learners whose parents rely heavily on schools and don’t have the resources to pay for summer camp or tutors to make up for lost instruction time.

“Oh my gosh! School is so important. They cannot miss these days,” Abdelrahman said. “One day less school is enough for us, and that’s already been happening.”

The labor deal therefore represents the school board’s latest gamble: In order to guarantee smaller class sizes for all, the trustees are betting the taxes will pass. If they don’t, kids will enjoy a full complement of teachers, but could spend almost three fewer weeks in classrooms next year.

The deal plays perfectly into the hands of California Gov. Jerry Brown.

The governor has thrown down a gauntlet to voters: If they want to continue enjoying the same quality of education they’ve come to expect, they’re going to have to pay for it with an increase in the sales tax and taxes on the wealthy. If the taxes fail, Brown has vowed to cut billions from state education funding in the middle of the school year.

For Abdelrahman, the vote on the taxes is a no-brainer.

She said of course she would shell out a few more cents every time she visits the grocery store, if it means her kids will continue to enjoy the benefits of the full school year.

But Abdelrahman is just one voter in a state that has long been reticent to pass new taxes. And she’s just one of tens of thousands of parents and students in San Diego who could be impacted next year if the district’s gamble doesn’t pay off.

The Best of the Bad Options

The press conference to announce the district’s labor compromise was all smiles.

And no wonder. For months, the very future of the district had seemed to hang in the balance. There had been talk of insolvency and angry demonstrations outside schools. Board meetings had been poisonous, filled with furious parents and teachers bemoaning the constant flow of bad news.

A deal, then, was something to bask in, and politician after politician stood up in the sunshine, among a row of beaming kids, to extol the virtues of collaboration and doing what’s best for children.

In an interview after the press conference, school board President John Lee Evans explained the reasoning behind the most controversial aspect of the deal: the possible shortening of the school year if the taxes fail.

“Of all the bad options, this was the best option,” Evans said.

Evans said the deal the district has now may not be perfect, but it puts the district in a much better position than it was a few weeks ago. Even in the worst-case-scenario, at least kids enjoy smaller class sizes, he said. That’s preferable to cutting hundreds of teachers, counselors and nurses, he said.  

There are, however, several ways the district and the teachers union could have dealt with the governor’s threat to cut school funding that do not involve compromising children’s education.

Instead of insisting on furlough days, for example, teachers could have agreed to take a flat pay cut if the taxes fail. Or educators could have agreed to make concessions in their healthcare benefits, which would also have saved the district tens of millions of dollars.

But none of these options were on the table in San Diego.

San Diego Education Association President Bill Freeman said in a recent interview that his bargaining team from the teachers union would never have accepted a deal to simply cut teachers’ pay rather than introducing furloughs. Likewise, the union refused to talk about making concessions over healthcare, he said. It simply wasn’t up for discussion.

“If you did that, you wouldn’t have these educators in the classroom,” Freeman said. “They have responsibilities too, they have families.”

Freeman said it’s not fair to take pay away from teachers without expecting them to also work fewer days.

But there’s another good reason why the teachers union, and the district, might prefer the trade-off for the taxes failing to be furlough days, rather than pay cuts: Pay cuts only impact teachers themselves. But shortening the school year ensures that parents are impacted by the state’s inability to pass a tax for schools.

Simply put, a shorter school year ensures everybody shares the pain.

‘Why Not?’

The teachers union and the school district have a consistent mantra: “It’s all about the kids.”

That’s perhaps hard to reconcile with the current labor deal.

In the event the taxes don’t pass, teachers could see the number of days they spend in classrooms reduced further, from 175 to 161, equating to a pay decrease of about 7 percent. That’s the only way the district could bring back all the laid off-teachers.

Reducing pay can either be done by cutting into the school year, or by just cutting teacher pay and leaving the school year intact. The union insisted on the option that could impact students like Abdelrahman’s.

Why?

“Why not?” Freeman said.

“This should not be something that only hurts educators,” he said. “This is a problem we all need to step up to the plate on.”

Freeman’s position is this: If teachers are allowed to bear the brunt of education cuts, he said, those cuts will continue ad infinitum. Teachers will see their pay and benefits cut until the profession has been gutted.

That’s not a viable option, he said. The only way to ensure the state’s education funding woes truly get fixed is to make sure that everybody in the state is invested in finding a solution.

District trustee Richard Barrera feels the same way.

“I think it’s absolutely moral, principled, and incredibly fair to expect that all of society contributes to a decent public school system,” Barrera said.

On one level, then the labor deal is about giving teachers a fair deal. But on another level, it’s also about forming a direct, tangible connection between education and taxpayers.

San Diego Unified is doing locally what Brown wants to do at a statewide level.

Déjà Vu: Waiting for the Trigger Cuts

If the district’s current gamble has an eerie ring of familiarity about it, that’s because it’s pretty similar to what happened last year.

Last summer, California legislators engineered a bizarre budget gimmick that essentially created $4 billion out of thin air to plug a hole in the state budget. If the $4 billion of additional tax revenue failed to materialize, the state budget called for automatic “trigger cuts” to education and state social services.

San Diego Unified, which had recently announced a slew of layoffs, pounced on the additional imaginary revenue, using it to rescind hundreds of pink slips.

Once it hired those teachers back, however, the district was committed to paying them for the whole school year. If the trigger cuts happened, the district didn’t have the option of layoffs. It had to find tens of millions of dollars elsewhere in its budget.

As a result, the district sweated throughout last fall over the dreadful possibility of the pending trigger cuts. Officials worried the cuts might would bring San Diego Unified to the verge of insolvency.

The school board had gambled that the state wouldn’t end up cutting education. It eventually won that wager. In the end, education was largely spared from last December’s trigger cuts, thanks to higher-than-expected tax revenues.

This year, however, the gamble has different stakes.

Rather than betting on the state’s economy, the school board is instead wagering that California voters will get on board with Brown’s plan and vote for either his tax measure or a second tax increase placed on the ballot by a wealthy civil rights attorney.

Both the school board and the union have pledged to do everything they can to convince voters to pass one or both of the two measures. They’re likely to be joined in their effort by mothers like Abdelrahman, who will campaign to get Californians to pay up and invest in public education.

This being California politics, where budget shell games, tricks and sideshows are a fundamental part of every budget season, even if the taxes don’t pass, Brown may find some way to renege on his promise and avoid the political toxin of cutting education funding.

Until November, he and everybody else involved will continue to make very grave speeches about what will happen if the taxes don’t pass. In San Diego, those speeches will be made all the more poignant by the provisions of last month’s deal.

The school board and the union have made things very clear with the agreement: If the money doesn’t materialize this time, kids like Abdelrahman’s will feel the pain just like their teachers.

Correction: The original version of this story confused the number of days teachers work total with the number of days they actually spend teaching. Most teachers at the district work 179 days a year, but only 175 of those are instructional days. Therefore, cutting 14 instructional days from the year will reduce the total number of days of student instruction to 161, not 165 as we originally stated. We regret the error.

Will Carless is an investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego 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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