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

Amid its ongoing budget crisis, Sweetwater Union High School District is considering laying off more than 200 employees and shutting down learning centers dedicated to struggling students.

Sweetwater’s financial dilemma began at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year, when it became suddenly apparent the district had overspent by $30 million in the previous school year. At least some officials knew the overspending was happening, but did nothing to correct it. Sweetwater is currently being investigated by state officials and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Sweetwater’s administration recently raised the specter of the layoffs during negotiations with union leaders. The layoffs could hit as many 220 people who hold a teaching credential, confirmed Julie Walker, president of the Sweetwater Education Association. The layoffs could affect teachers as well as credentialed administrators like principals and vice principals.

Sweetwater houses learning centers within each of its 12 high schools. These learning centers serve students who cannot be in regular classrooms for a variety of reasons.

The students might have anxiety or behavioral issues. They might work or be struggling to keep up academically. The centers generally have two full-time teachers and a counselor. More than 1,300 students are enrolled in the centers districtwide.

Closing the centers could save $3 million, said Sweetwater spokesman Manny Rubio. Sweetwater needs to slash more than $20 million off its spending next year to avoid going into the red.

“This move will hurt the District (sic) more than help the bottom line,” wrote Walker in a statement. Many of the 1,300 students “will be lost due to dropping out or going to charter schools,” she wrote.

Rubio countered than an independent study model – which the district would use in lieu of its learning centers – might actually serve students better. In an independent study model, students would enter into a learning contract to do coursework and credit recovery. But they would not have access to drop-in locations, like the current learning centers.

A third proposal by district administrators would remove full-time librarians from their positions in the library and push them into roles as full-time classroom teachers.

“The librarians provide teaching services, technology coordination, curricular materials distribution and management specialized programs and clubs. Not having a dedicated certificated librarian will leave our students without a safe place during the day,” Walker wrote.

Rubio pointed out that all libraries would still be staffed by library technicians.

Any of the three proposals would need to be approved by Sweetwater’s Board of Trustees. If the district does send out pink slips, teachers need to receive them before March 15. Even if a teacher does receive a pink slip, the district may decide not to lay them off in the end. Sending the pink slip by March 15 is a pre-requisite for any layoffs.

Administrators had hoped an early retirement program last year – which led to hundreds of early retirements – might save the district enough money to avoid layoffs and further cuts. But the early retirement plan has not saved enough to eliminate Sweetwater’s structural deficit.

Superintendent Karen Janney has repeatedly referred to the early retirements as the “most humane way” to achieve savings. She has previously praised the fact that the district avoided layoffs last year.

Union leaders are organizing a rally to protest the potential cuts at Chula Vista Middle School before a board meeting on Monday.

Will Huntsberry

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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