Without batting an eye, San Diego Unified School District trustees Tuesday night unanimously approved $116.6 million in loosely defined budget cuts for next year.

More specific cuts will come to the board in January and February, but staff will proceed with plans to shave $44 million from the district office, $52 million from school sites and $21 million from centralized support services, which includes things like special and early education, transportation and IT.

On the table are “strategic” layoffs, changes to health benefits, reducing the work year for some employees and eliminating vacant positions, among other things. The district’s new CFO, Patricia Koch, noted that some proposed cuts will be subject to bargaining.

Even with the cuts and regular short-term borrowing, “We are skating on thin ice,” Koch warned. Unlike recent years, Koch said, “We cannot expect to see the large infusions of funds. … We cannot wait for a miracle to happen.”

Without the cuts, by next fiscal year, “The district would no longer have the cash to continue to operate,” Koch said.

Despite Koch’s sober assessment, nearly every trustee downplayed the board’s action Tuesday as a routine “exercise,” and some expressed optimism that more money would come from the state than currently planned.

“We have been good stewards,” said Trustee John Lee Evans. “There is no plan for mass layoffs. We always balance our budget. We have the required reserve fund. We don’t have a huge reserve fund, because we are using our money to educate our kids.”

The district’s general fund revenues and expenses have both risen dramatically in recent years. Officials often used onetime resources — like the reserve fund and property sales — to avoid making major cuts. The reserve is now at bare minimum levels required by the state.

Worsening the budget outlook for the district is declining student attendance, rising costs for pension contributions and health benefits, and a slowdown in state funding increases seen in recent years. A strengthened economy could help the district’s financial picture.

Ashly is a freelance investigative reporter. She formerly worked as a staff reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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