Earlier this month, in an effort to close a $124 million budget deficit, San Diego Unified notified roughly one in seven of its teachers they could be laid off.

Most schools in the district have at least one teacher who could be laid off, but poor schools are set to bear the brunt of those cuts.

Neither San Diego Unified nor the San Diego Educators Association, the local teachers union, agreed to provide a list of schools facing the most layoffs.

But according to data obtained by VOSD, at 16 of the 20 schools with the highest percentage of teacher layoffs, at least 75 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch – a rough measure of a school’s poverty level.

Graphic by Ashley Lewis

The list shows the percentage of teachers in each school who received a layoff notice, and the percentage of students in those schools who qualify for subsidized lunch. Some schools may see more layoffs than reflected in the list because school nurses, psychologists and counselors also received pink slips and are not included here.

At this point, the list reflects the worst-case-scenario for layoffs. As has happened in previous years, the district could cancel some or all of the layoffs if it receives more money from the state later this year or if a significant number of senior educators retire early and free up more money.

Teachers, however, say even layoff notices have a detrimental impact on morale and school climate. Educators worry where they’ll work next year or whether they’ll have a job at all.

The highest concentration of layoffs are in southeastern San Diego neighborhoods, one of the most economically disadvantaged areas of town. At Fulton K-8 in Encanto, where roughly 90 percent of students qualify for subsidized lunch, more than half the school’s teachers are facing layoffs.

Poor schools disproportionately shoulder the layoff burden in large part because of the last in, first out policy, based in state education code, which requires that school districts use seniority as the key factor for determining which employees to layoff. That is, the last teachers to be hired are first to be fired when it comes time for layoffs.

Because teachers are placed in schools based on seniority, the more senior teachers generally seek more affluent schools with better test scores, and poorer schools see more layoffs.

The same pattern holds true if we rank the schools by raw number of teacher layoffs instead of by percentage of teachers facing layoffs – though to lesser degree.

Ranking schools by the number of layoffs, instead of the percentage, means more schools in middle class areas climb the list.

University City High, for example, isn’t a particularly poor school. Only 46 percent of its students qualify for subsidized lunch – under the district average of 61 percent. And because it has a teaching staff of 71, its 11 layoffs don’t affect a high percentage of teachers.

Still, 11 layoffs are more than the majority of schools are facing, which lands it safely on the list.

At 13 of the 20 schools on the list, at least 75 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

The forecast is grimmer at Porter Elementary, in Lincoln Park, where 16 out of 38 teachers got layoff notices. About 93 percent of Porter’s students qualify for subsidized lunch. According to data from the U.S. Census, the neighborhood’s poverty rate is more than double the average of San Diego and San Diego County.

Even though the second list contains fewer high-poverty schools than the first, Southeastern San Diego neighborhood schools are still overly represented, with nine schools appearing. That includes Lincoln High, which in recent years has been plagued by leadership problems and a revolving door of administrators.

All nine schools are represented by trustee Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, who was elected to the school board in November.

Last week, trustee John Lee Evans encouraged parents to use caution when considering the current list off layoffs. Because senior educators could jump on offers to retire early, a number of layoffs could be rescinded.

“You could say potentially half of these layoffs could be canceled. The final layoff numbers will be lower,” Evans said last week.

School board president Richard Barrera chalked up the problem to an underfunded education system.

“Layoffs are terrible. And they do have ripple effects in terms of morale on students and teachers. We have layoffs in our teaching ranks this year because there’s not enough money in the public education system. And that’s the bottom line,” he said.

SDEA, the local teachers union, is generally sympathetic to Barrera’s argument. But its leaders aren’t convinced the district’s budget picture is as bleak as officials are letting on.

“The district doesn’t really know what its budget will be until June,” reads a flyer SDEA is sending out to parents and educators. “Right now they are just guessing, and they have a long history of guessing wrong.”

SDEA is pushing back against layoffs, holding a series of town hall meetings in April to mobilize parents and educators.

But while district officials and SDEA members agree that layoffs disproportionately hit poor schools, neither group criticizes seniority-based policies that play a role in placing higher percentages of new teachers in poor schools to begin with.

Not so with Dwayne Crenshaw, CEO of RISE San Diego, a nonprofit that fosters leadership and civic engagement in urban communities.

Crenshaw said the layoffs underscore a pattern of institutionalized racism that has historically kept families of color on the margins and denied them equal access to quality education.

“Because we have a historical structure in this city that has divided neighborhoods by race and income, any time seniority plays a factor in layoffs it’s going to impact the most vulnerable students hardest,” Crenshaw said.

“It’s troubling that our most marginalized children who are already underserved are the students bearing the brunt of this pain,” he said.

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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