San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Cindy Marten announces school closures amid the coronavirus pandemic. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The budget outlook for schools is bad.

But it brightened just enough on Wednesday that San Diego Unified officials now say they can plan for at least a partial reopening of schools next year.

In May, Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed a 10 percent cut for California schools – based on the dire economic recession caused by coronavirus. That led San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten (along with five other big city superintendents) to push back. They said they simply could not open their doors next fall based on that level of funding. Instead, they would need to continue all next year with distance learning, they said.

Now, legislators are saying they want to restore schools to full funding, plus a 2 percent cost-of-living increase. (First and foremost, they want the federal government to make up the difference. But if that doesn’t happen, they will make up the difference with money from state reserves and through deferrals. A deferral means some money to schools will be delayed by a year.)

This new development means that schools can now at least plan on some form of partial reopening, said San Diego Unified board vice president Richard Barrera.

“The Legislature’s budget is a lot better than the governor’s,” said Barrera. “It allows us to plan for some form of physical reopening – and there are a lot of different scenarios – but to pay for full physical reopening for the entire year we do need the [extra] federal money.”

Let me unpack that. Marten and Barrera were previously saying that under a 10 percent cut, schools could not and would not physically reopen. Period. Now they are saying that they will at least be able to do a partial reopening. We still have no idea what that will look like. It could mean students physically attend school every other day or every other week. Poorer schools might also have more physical school days than more affluent ones.

For a full physical reopening, Barerra argues that even the Legislature’s proposal is not enough. Schools need an extra 20 to 30 percent funding to make schools as safe as they need to be, he said. Schools need extra bus drivers, nurses, counselors and sanitation staff, he previously told me.

For now, the federal government is San Diego Unified’s only hope to come up with that extra funding. The U.S. House and Senate have not come to an agreement on what another round of relief funding might look like.

The San Diego Unified board will meet on June 16 to discuss the district’s reopening plans.  Barrera said the district will need to remain flexible throughout the school year, but that the board needs to finalize plans for at least the beginning of the school year at that meeting.

Another Way? The Mythical Summer Layoff Notice

In California education circles, everyone knows the significance of March 15. It is the last day a school district can issue layoff notices, and it is virtually sacrosanct.

That date had already come and gone by the time governments realized they were about to be crushed by revenue shortfalls. That meant, as far as laying off teachers, their hands were tied on cutting costs. (Classified employees, like sanitation workers or bus drivers or administrators can be laid off with 60 days’ notice at any point in the year.)

But then last week, I read a commentary by one of the state’s top school finance experts that mentioned “the seldom available July-August layoff window.” The what?

It turns out that under limited circumstances, school districts actually can lay off teachers during the summer. I called Mike Simonson, chief business officer at the San Diego County Office of Education, to explain it to me.

“Two things have to happen for the window to open,” he said. First, the Legislature and governor must finalize the budget by June 30. Second, school budgets must either decrease from the previous year or increase by no more than 2 percent.

The Legislature’s current proposal would increase schools’ budgets by 2.13 percent – just enough to not trigger the window.

“I don’t think it’s going to happen,” said Simonson. “Based on what we’ve seen this week, I don’t think the window will open.”

That’s because the Legislature’s current budget proposal includes a type of trigger. It works like this: If the federal government doesn’t kick in the money to make up the state’s revenue shortfall by Sept. 1, then legislators will reach into the coffers of the state rainy day fund.

Here’s the problem: The summer layoff window only lasts from July 1 until Aug. 15.

If the state’s budget trigger doesn’t go off until Sept. 1, then the summer layoff window will have already closed.

Of course, if Newsom decides to fight the Legislature on its most recent proposal, everything could change. Barrera, of San Diego Unified, said his district has no intention of introducing layoff, but he has heard that other districts have considered how they might use the summer layoff window if it opens up.

What We’re Writing

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at or 619-693-6249.

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