The San Diego Unified School District basically has two approaches to solving its projected $86 million deficit next year.

One: It sells off land. Two: something called the “attrition-based model.”

Explanations from the district on the attrition-based model have been somewhat vague, so we decided to find out exactly how it works and what the impact will be on teachers, principals and students.

The central premise of the model is simple: The district needs to eliminate 300 full-time positions from its budget. Rather than laying 300 employees off, however, the district plans to not replace 300 employees who leave the district next year because they either retire, quit, move or die. By doing so, district officials hope to save about $27 million in wages and benefits.

Every year, about 500 to 600 staff members leave San Diego Unified, said District Chief of Staff Bernie Rhinerson.

So, it should be pretty easy for the district to eliminate 300 full-time positions, right?

Not quite. The procedure of eliminating full-time positions isn’t as straightforward as simply not replacing the first 300 teachers who leave.

In making this budget solution a reality, the district faces two main problems.

The Wiggle Room Problem

The upshot of teachers not being replaced is ultimately that class sizes will increase, just as they would if teachers were laid off.

But the district only has the wiggle room to increase certain class sizes in certain schools.

This wiggle room exists primarily in K-3 classrooms, where San Diego Unified has managed to hang on to significantly low class sizes despite its budget woes. The district can therefore afford to lose teachers from K-3 classrooms without seeing excessive class size increases.

But the district doesn’t have that wiggle room elsewhere. California has statewide rules governing how many kids can be taught by a single teacher, and many middle schools and high schools in San Diego Unified are already approaching state-imposed limits.

So, every teacher the district chooses not to replace will therefore have to come from a school that has the wiggle room to lose a staff member.

The Qualifications Problem

There are lots of different types of teachers at San Diego Unified. There are elementary school teachers and high school teachers. There are those who teach physics and those who teach special education students.

Just like the class size issue, the district is also limited in the types of qualified teachers it cannot replace.

There are state rules, for example, about teaching children with special needs. If a school needs a certain number of specially qualified teachers to meet state law, the district can’t just choose not to replace one of those teachers who retires or quits.

Similarly, if a high school physics teacher is hit by a bus halfway through the year, the district can’t just cancel that physics class. It has to make sure the students complete their year of study.

That means every teacher who is not replaced must also be a teacher whose qualifications are not vital to the district in some way.

Solutions

The district recognizes it has to eliminate positions in schools where there is wiggle room, and knows it can’t just not replace teachers whose qualifications are crucial to schools, said Lamont Jackson, the district’s chief human resources officer.

As teachers leave, school principals will submit documents called “personnel action reports” to the human resources department, which will decide whether to fill the newly vacant position based on the above factors, he said.

Principals will be able to appeal the department’s decision and, if the position is considered crucial to the district’s core mission, the position will be filled.

Jackson said he’s confident that enough San Diego Unified teachers whose qualifications are not critical to the district will leave from schools where there is wiggle room.

“It’s certainly a little scary,” Jackson said. “But it’s a calculated risk.”

And Rhinerson said the district will also eliminate classified positions like bus drivers or landscapers. So, not all of the 300 eliminated positions will be teachers, he said.

Impact

Juan Romo, president of the union that represents district administrators, said many San Diego Unified principals are still confused about how the attrition-based model will actually work.

And he said several of his peers are skeptical about whether enough teachers will leave for the “calculated risk” to pay off. They’re worried the district will actually end up not replacing teachers with crucial qualifications or those from schools that can’t afford to lose staff.

“That makes principals nervous,” he said.

The potential impact of the district’s new model, however, looks a lot like what would happen if teachers were laid off: students will end up in larger classes, being taught by fewer teachers.

For the last few years, the school board has been holding on to low class sizes, especially in K-3 as something of a sacred cow.

Next year, the board will finally lose that battle.

Clarification: An earlier version of this post said the district does not plan to replace 300 teachers who leave the district next year because they either retire, quit, move or die. The district does not plan to replace about 300 staff members who leave, a number that will likely include teachers and other staff members.

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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