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For the past month, district officials have been scrambling to plug the looming $124 million budget shortfall they face for next year. Thus far, district officials have been mostly mum on how those cuts would impact schools and classrooms.
Any layoffs of teachers would have to be announced next month.
Now, as school leaders across the city start talking about what is going to happen, the district has addressed it. In a message posted on Facebook, Superintendent Cindy Marten wrote that parents are meeting at schools across the district to find creative ways keep the brunt of the cuts away from classrooms.
“We will cut from the top first. Before we ask schools to do more, we will cut central office staff.”
But if that’s the plan, word apparently hasn’t reached E.B. Scripps Elementary School. In a message a Scripps parent passed to VOSD, Principal Liz Sloan urged parents to brace for cuts. In addition to reduced library hours and fewer staff members to monitor lunch and recess, Sloan told parents all elementary schools with fewer than 1,000 students will lose their vice principals.
Sloan was not immediately available for comment.
San Diego Unified spokeswoman Shari Winet said she could not confirm Sloan’s message because budget decisions are still preliminary. Members of the public will know more in two weeks, she wrote, when staff presents budget solutions to the school board.
Winet couldn’t say how many schools may lose their vice principals – or whether any will at all. If Sloan’s missive ends up coming true – it could mean every elementary school in the district but one could lose their vice principal.
That has some parents worried.
Dale Huntington, a parent at Chollas Mead Elementary, grew concerned after school leaders informed parents their vice principal was on the chopping block. The school’s head principal is a strong leader, he said, but the vice principal, who is bilingual, provides a vital communication link between parents and the school. That’s especially important given the school’s demographics: About 62 percent of students are counted as English-learners.
“Personally, I don’t believe the most important thing for a school is its teachers. I believe it’s engaged parents. And if we don’t have anyone who can help parents, the kids, who are already in an impoverished area, are going to fall further behind,” Huntington said.
This week San Diego Unified officials unveiled a list of several multimillion-dollar construction projects in the works for this year, including a strategically designed classroom at Kearny High for students to complete elaborate projects on computers and 3D printers.
But because those are paid for with a special pot of money that generally can’t go toward employee salaries, the district is in the awkward position of celebrating those costly projects even as it figures out how to hang on to the vice principals, librarians and health aides who work in schools.
The extent of the budget woes started coming into focus in December, when the district approved $117 million in loosely defined cuts. At least part that shortfall came from a 4 percent employee pay raise approved by the school board, which takes effect this year.
The district plans to outspend general fund revenues by about $100 million this school year, district records show.
The district’s new CFO, Patricia Koch, warned in December that even with planned cuts and short-term borrowing, the district was “skating on thin ice.”
“We cannot expect to see the large infusions of funds,” she said at the time. “We cannot wait for a miracle to happen.”
Still, school board members expressed optimism that more money would come from the state.
“We have been good stewards,” Trustee John Lee Evans said in December. “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 following month, however, optimism was dampened when it became clear the district would not see as much money from the state as it hoped. The looming shortfall grew from $117 million to $124 million.
News of the potential impacts is reaching schools just as they set out to plan for next year.
Meanwhile, the district’s construction department, flush with cash from two bond measures that raised or extended property taxes and provided the district $4.9 billion to spend on repairs, renovations and technology, is moving full steam ahead.
In an update provided this week, San Diego Unified said it has thus far spent $1.32 billion on 53 new classroom buildings, technology overhauls and athletic stadiums.
By law, that bond money can’t be spent on salaries, maintenance or operations, so none of it can be used to directly plug the shortfall. Still, this week’s press conference – where officials unveiled plans for new multimillion-dollar projects while schools are simultaneously bracing for cuts – made for jarring optics.
Though Marten’s Facebook message doesn’t address whether vice principals are on the chopping block, it does single out another leadership position:
“Every possible qualified teacher will be in the classroom serving students, and not on special assignment to support other district goals – no matter how worthy those goals may be. We need all hands on deck,” she wrote.
Over the course of Marten’s administration, she has moved a number of principals – several of them amid controversy – out of schools and onto “special assignment,” which are often loosely defined roles within the district’s Central Office.
Last year, for example, Marten removed then-Serra High principal Vincent Mays from his post after an internal investigator could not find conclusive evidence that the Ph.D. he claimed to have earned came from a legitimate institution.
After the investigation concluded, Marten moved Mays to a special assignment in the Central Office – a lateral move that allowed him to keep his $143,000 yearly salary.
Amy Redding, a parent and chair of a committee that supports schools in the Kearny cluster, said she isn’t surprised by the looming shortfall.
“When things seem rosy and resources are thrown at you, nobody bothers to look behind the curtain. And until the curtain gets pulled back and you see what all this feel-good stuff has cost us, we don’t see the hole we’re in,” Redding said. “The responsibility of keeping the district financially healthy is solely in the hands of the school board and the superintendent. The blame is on them.”