Universal transitional kindergarten students at Clairmont Canyons Academy on Feb. 7, 2023. / Photo courtesy of San Diego Unified School District
Universal transitional kindergarten students at Clairmont Canyons Academy on Feb. 7, 2023. / Photo courtesy of San Diego Unified School District

The budget for the San Diego Unified’s 2022 – 2023 school year was unanimously approved by the board at its June 27 meeting. But during that meeting, officials projected a looming $128.9 million deficit in the 2024 – 2025 year. It also projected the deficit would continue to expand the year after that, ballooning to $182 million. 

The projected deficit comes from a confluence of factors: One-time Covid money is running out, school funding from the state decreased this year and enrollment and average daily attendance continue to decline. But another factor is rising costs, including increased staff pay.  

The district recently inked a three-year deal with the teachers union that included a 5 percent pay increase for employees beginning next year and a retroactive 10 percent pay increase that goes back to July 2022. All told, the deal will cost the district around $517 million. The cost of the retroactive pay increase alone amounts to around $130 million, Maureen Magee, the district’s communications director wrote in an email.  

Granting a pay increase while also projecting a deficit may seem incongruous to some, board member Cody Petterson acknowledged at a recent board meeting.  

“When you see these outyear projections it’s a little scary for us as a board and leadership team, and then you see the negotiations we’ve had with our labor partners,” Petterson said. But to attract and retain staff, he said, the district needed to offer raises. 

“There’s no way we can have high quality staff without doing that,” he said. 

While the projected deficit is daunting, board member Richard Barrera said the district is used to deficits like this.  

“This is my fifteenth year on the board, and every year when we look out over the following couple of years, we project a budget deficit,” Barrera said. “It’s the reality of running public schools in California, which has chronically underfunded public education.” 

The History: Back in the 2017 – 2018 school year, the district had to plug a $124 million budgetary hole. Its path to doing so included the layoffs of nearly 200 employees, though the exact number was hard to come by. But Barrera and fellow board member Shana Hazan are confident the district will be able to balance the budget, and that it won’t have to resort to layoffs this time around. 

“If we need to reduce staff to maintain sort of the same ratios as enrollment and [average daily attendance] decline the district is very, very skilled at figuring out how to do that without laying people off,” Barrera said. Taking advantage of retirements and staff attrition is one way to get there, he said. 

District leaders have floated a hiring and spending freeze and reductions in central office staff to plug the budget hole. They’ve also floated attempting to increase average daily attendance in the new post-Covid era of skyrocketing chronic absenteeism. Officials hope leaning into universal transitional kindergarten and the hiring of 14 family services assistants that work to support students can help them make headway on that goal. 

Another potential strategy is to cut back on some as-of-yet unnamed programs. Barrera said that prospect would be unfortunate. 

“Our students and our families are facing more stress than they ever have, so the needs are greater than they’ve ever been,” Barrera said. “The federal Covid fund temporarily provided the level of funding that our schools have always needed, but that money is going away.” 

Much is still unknown about what’s to come. California could increase funding for schools, as it has done in some past years. But with public school enrollment projected to continue falling, the current outlook is gloomy.  

“This is a roadmap for sweating. We’re going to have to sweat a bit,” Petterson said. 

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Jakob McWhinney is Voice of San Diego's education reporter. He can be reached by email at jakob@vosd.org and followed on Twitter @jakobmcwhinney. Subscribe...

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  1. Richard Barrera’s claim that chronic budget deficits for SDUSD are a reality of “chronically underfunded public education” in California is a false narrative to deflect his culpability in fiscally irresponsible budgeting practices. In the 15 years that he has served on the SDUSD Board of Education, per student funding in SDUSD has more than quadrupled from approximately $4,800 during the Great Recession to approximately $20,000 per student annually last year. The primary reason that SDUSD has faced large budget deficits repeatedly during his tenure is due to the fact that he and the other SDUSD Board trustees have repeatedly voted to use increased funding–including using one-time funding–to provide employees with pay increases that the district cannot afford long-term, thereby necessitating budget cuts in future years to balance the district’s budget.

    And to clarify Maureen Magee’s figures that Mr. McWhinney quotes, the increased cost for the retroactive 10% pay increase is not a one-time $130 million but $130 million per YEAR in perpetuity. The additional 5% in 2023-24 would presumably cost approximately another $65 million per YEAR in perpetuity. $130 million times three years plus $65 million for two years totals approximately $520 million over the three years published in the budget forecast, but the actual cost is approximately $195 million per YEAR starting in 2024-25. It is therefore clear how that additional cost is creating the budget deficits in future years.

    1. Exactly right.

      As Joe Biden says, “don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value…”

      We can easily see what San Diego Unified – and particularly trustees Barrera and Pettersen – value. Higher pay for employees, not the education of kids.

  2. It’s past time for govt schools to be discontinued. We don’t need them anymore as the private sector does a much better job at lower cost. Public Schools have been failing for 30 years….it’s time to do so.ething about it.

    1. Yes, Prop 13 has worked it’s magic and destroyed public schools. Congratulations property owners.

  3. Always remember the SDUSD board’s priorities:
    1. More pay and benefit for teachers and staff.
    2. More pay and benefits for board members.
    3. Equity, in all its many forms.
    4. Woke policies such as CRT and grooming gender change.
    5. Students’ education.

    Contrary to what some critics have said, Students’ education IS important to board members. It’s just not MOST important. It’s not even somewhat important. It’s an afterthought — at best.

    The ranking of numbers 2-4 are admittedly debatable as to their relative importance to the board, but #1 and #5 have a lock on their respective positions.

  4. I often see t-shirts for a really bad charter school on kids all over downtown SD. If you look it up it’s rated 2/10 but all of these kids have the shirts. What does that tell you about the public schools if they are willing to go to a charter that’s 2/10?

  5. Question for these administrators and their bloated budgets …how do you explain the combination of record high funding with record low performance ?
    It’s time to make property taxes portable ….If I am funding schools , I should be allowed to choose which I fund and which I don’t.

  6. We are spending $20,000 per student in tax payer money for this education system. At this point I would much prefer to have that $20,000 back in the form of a voucher and enroll my kids in the best high quality private school, sadly not really a choice. Why do we keep doing so badly while paying more and more for this system? I realize that quality does not come cheap, but even the most expensive private school in San Diego costs a little over $30,000 per student, but the kids that go to those schools get into Ivy League schools and outperform public school students on every metric. How is it that a private school manages quality education at 30k but the public system just keeps failing at 20k?

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