For the moment, San Diego Unified can pay its staff and keep its lights on. But next year, it’s set to spend $115 million more than it has coming in. And things don’t look much better for 2016.

It gets worse yet. One school board member says that if the district can’t make up enough of its balance by selling off property and shooing teachers into early retirement, hundreds of employees — from janitors to area superintendents — could face the ax.

How could this happen? This situation was hard to imagine back in 2012 when voters passed Prop. Z, a $2.8 billion bond measure that promised to save money by investing in projects that would pay off in the long-run.

And this year Gov. Jerry Brown made good on his promise to inject cash into school districts based on student needs. San Diego Unified is counting on about $260 million through 2021 — about the same time it hopes to clear its debt.

But the new revenue streams aren’t enough to help the district shake off the damage of several years of budget cuts.

Trustee Scott Barnett says the shortfall is a natural result of the past administration’s failure to lead. At the same time the state’s economy tanked, the school board promised salary raises that it didn’t have the revenue to back up, he said.

In fact, the district is setting aside a chunk of its next budget to deliver on pay raises that teachers deferred to save jobs in 2012.

To close the gap financially, the district is relying on two main strategies: encouraging some staff members to retire early and selling off its land. Those approaches come with a big caveat: They involve scenarios the district largely can’t control. And if they fall short, Barnett predicts it will be time to cut staff.

More Land Sales

To fill the biggest part of its budget hole, the district will double-down on its practice of selling off land.

But the district has a lot of work to do to make up the $80 million it needs to balance the budget, especially since the school board learned on Wednesday that the $22 million sale of one of its properties to High Tech High might not go through.

The missed opportunity highlights the risk of banking on unsold property. And in the past, the district hasn’t been the savviest real estate agent.

Barnett has been the loudest critic of property sales, urging the district to establish a viable stream of revenue by leasing property instead of selling it outright.

Moving forward, San Diego Unified will open up its real estate portfolio to see what other properties can go. But deals can move slowly, and the district has only until June 30 of next year to make the sales for it to count toward that year’s budget.

Early Teacher Retirements

The other major component of this budget balancing-act consists of an early retirement deal for qualifying employees.

The incentive for teachers to leave early is a final year’s salary, which would be paid out over the next five years.

Teachers with the longest tenures are generally the most expensive, so the district would spend less in the long-run. Taken together, the San Diego Unified hopes to save $8.3 million.

And some teachers have an extra incentive to say goodbye: Common Core. Barnett said he’s heard whispers that long-tenured teachers would rather leave than learn a new system. He also said it might be easier to train new teachers who are open to new methods.

But the plan won’t work unless 547 teachers take the early retirement deal. That’s the number the district needs to make a profit. If that number isn’t reached, the offer will be rescinded.

Those most likely to be impacted are classified employees like Sarah Archer, who works as a special education aid at McKinley Elementary.

For less than $12 an hour, Archer moves from the classroom to playground-duty and back again. A big part of her time is spent helping teachers break students into smaller groups in the classroom, so they receive more individual attention.

She says she keeps the job because she loves the work — and the health benefits don’t hurt. But Archer said few people realize classified employees’ role in classrooms.

“We’re really the grease that keeps schools running so teachers can teach,” she said.

Barnett says currently the budget picture is just a snapshot the district’s balance. Next month, the school board will hear an update and learn how many people have opted for early retirement.

Layoffs would be the worst-case scenario, Barnett said, but they’re a real possibility.

“We have to pay our bills,” he said. “And there really isn’t anything else that can be cut.”

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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