Sweetwater Union High School District Superintendent Karen Janney / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

It became something of a running joke between teachers and administrators in Sweetwater Union High School District: “What new job did they post today?”

Indeed, the district increased its central office staff by roughly 75 percent over three years, according to Sweetwater’s organizational charts. The charts show that central office staff hovered somewhere between 35 and 45 positions between the 2010-11 school year and 2014-15, when it stood at roughly 37. In the three years since, the district increased its central office staff to about 65 workers, according to the charts.

District officials don’t dispute the authenticity of the charts, but say there were more central office workers in 2014-15 than that year’s chart reflects. Spokesman Manny Rubio said that only eight new positions were created, which would reflect a 20 percent increase.

During the same time, the amount Sweetwater spent on administrators – which includes central office staff, but also principals and assistant principals – went from $14.6 million to $20.7 million, a 41 percent increase.

During the same time central office staff increased, enrollment at Sweetwater actually declined. Previous superintendents had reduced central office staffers after the 2008 recession, and Superintendent Karen Janney said at least some of the increases were designed to reinstate needed staff.

But a 2015 state report warned Sweetwater would face fiscal insolvency in the coming years if it didn’t either cut costs or raise revenue. Janney, who was hired in June 2015, and the board of trustees did neither. In addition to the expansion of the central office, the board also approved an across-the-board 3.75 percent raise.

Now, Sweetwater Union is battling fiscal insolvency just as the report warned.

When pressed on the question of whether the district overspent on raises and central office expansion, Janney and other Sweetwater officials on a conference call fell silent. Asked again, Janney said, “I don’t think we can answer that question because [the budgeting process] is such a complicated process.”

Central office staff are generally costlier than teachers and other school workers. They often earn around $150,000 per year and get better benefits. But some are also executive assistants who make less than a teacher. Janney’s biggest expansion appears to be the creation of an office for equity and culture, overseen by a newly created assistant superintendent and staffed by roughly 14 others. It is the biggest department listed on the district’s most current organizational chart.

Sweetwater’s current budget crisis was discovered in early September, when district officials realized they overspent in the previous year’s budget by $30 million. The massive miscalculation stemmed from several line errors, which included $16 million in overspending on salaries and benefits. Even though budgets require regular adjustments, mistakes like Sweetwater’s are rare. Because of the miscalculations, Sweetwater officials are now rushing to cut roughly $19 million from the current school year just to keep the district from going into default.

District officials have provided no explanation for how the mistake happened.

The district’s reduction plan includes cuts to special education, curriculum specialists and cafeteria costs, as well as furlough days, but does not reference any reduction in central office staff. However, “everything will be on the table,” Janney told VOSD in reference to potential cuts.

Several central office workers migrated to Sweetwater from San Diego Unified School District. At a recent state of the district event, San Diego Unified board president Kevin Beiser – who sits on the San Diego Unified school board but is a teacher in Sweetwater Union – said San Diego Unified had significantly cut administrative costs in recent years to help eliminate its structural deficit.

Structural deficits are increasingly common around the state. Many districts, like Sweetwater, face a painful trifecta of budget challenges: increasing special education costs, increasing pension obligations and decreasing enrollment.

California has been increasing education funding in recent years to make up for cuts that came as a result of the 2008 recession. This is the first year funding levels, when adjusted for inflation, have risen above pre-recession levels. But the increases aren’t keeping up with rising costs. A recent Stanford University report claimed the state needed to spend $25.6 billion more than it actually did in 2016-17 school year to provide an adequate education for each child.

State analysts who conducted the 2015 audit of Sweetwater’s finances factored in some, but not all, of the state’s increases. Still, that report predicted Sweetwater officials would need to “implement difficult budget decisions” if they wanted to maintain a balanced budget, as state law requires.

In a recent letter to members, union officials acknowledged Sweetwater’s “unprecedented situation” and “fiscal crisis.” But they pushed back against the suggestion that the recent raises had anything to do with the current crisis, referencing recent increases in state funding.

Sweetwater’s board will meet again Monday at 6 p.m. to consider an early retirement package to help ease its fiscal strain.

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at will@vosd.org...

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