This post has been updated.

When Superintendent Cindy Marten was handed the keys to San Diego Unified, she inherited some daunting mandates: Make good on the salary raises promised to teachers, honor employment contracts, give students access to more resources. And do it all with a $106 million budget deficit.

A year into her tenure, Marten’s first budget passed Tuesday with unanimous support — the first time that’s happened since 2008.

How it Came Together

The picture looked bright in January.

The district was still facing a structural deficit – meaning it’s fundamentally set up to spend more than it takes in – but there was hope that the additional funds Gov. Jerry Brown would be allocating to schools through the Local Control Funding Formula would be enough to keep the lights on.

That’s when Marten took a bold step, promising to beef up services for preschool-aged children, improve services for English-language learners in middle school and expand credit recovery and dropout prevention efforts for high school students.

But in May the district got word that the influx of cash from Brown wouldn’t be as lucrative as first thought. In fact, the district would be asked to pay more into CalSTRS, the state’s pension system for teachers.

Marten needed to find a new way to make up cash – fast. So, just a weeks ago, she threw a Hail Mary.

She’d move resource teachers – certificated teachers who help students with reading, or support English-language learners – into the classroom, where they’d lead class full time.

This way, the district wouldn’t have to hire as many new teachers to replace the ones it lost. The last-minute play would save an additional $11 million.

Not everyone is applauding, however. The teachers union has been supportive of the plan for years – but didn’t like the fact that Marten acted without consulting them. And some principals reject the plan because they don’t have the resource teachers to spare (they can appeal, if so) or because many resource teachers help with administrative duties.

Marten still plans to sell off some district land to bring in money, but a small fraction of what was proposed in recent months.

The budget shortfall, along with the amount of land needed to sell in order to balance the budget, was a moving target. The district didn’t know exactly how much money it would get from the state until recently, and when the hole looked bigger, the de facto plan was to sell more land.

Marten planned for an additional $7 million worth of property sales to balance the books, but in order to secure Trustee Scott Barnett’s vote, Marten agreed to look for money in other places. District staff will go back to work on this part of the budget, and revisit the issue at a board meeting next month.

In the future, the district plans to look for ways to lease property – that way it can profit while still maintaining ownership.

Passing the budget is a huge win for Marten, but she said it’s important to frame the budget in the appropriate context: California schools are still woefully underfunded.

“As a teacher, and then a school principal, it was my job to find a way to teach students regardless of funding, or how many students I had in a class,” Marten said.

“I’ve done the best I’ve done putting this budget together with bubble gum and scotch tape, but I can’t take this to scale unless the adequacy of funding is there,” she said.

What the Budget Will Do

Here are some highlights from Marten’s budget proposal. It seeks to:

• Reduce class sizes from a ratio of 27-to-1 for kindergarten through third grade to 25.5-to-1. The 29 high-poverty schools identified by the district will have 24-1 ratio for K-3.

• Fully fund implementation of Common Core

• Allocate more resources for English-language learners, including language development classes and better monitoring of programs and expanded training for teachers

• Ensure that all elementary schools will have their libraries open at least one day a week (Marten said she plans to grow this, but calls the guarantee a down payment on future improvements)

• Bring counselors back to school earlier to help ensure students have class schedules ready for the school year begins

• Maintain GATE and Seminar (programs for gifted and talented kids)

• Maintain arts, athletics, school safety, custodial, nursing and counselors

• Meet contractually obligated salary increases for teachers

• Maintain existing health benefits for employees

• Maintain i21 program (technology in the classroom)

• Initiate about $223 million in facility upgrades through Prop. S/Prop. Z funds

• Phase out real-estate sales and initiate strategies to lease and keep properties

• Kick in $200,000 for a bus pass program so students can get to school

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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