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S.D. School Board Targets Class Sizes, Busing

Trustees make progress closing budget gap

Above: Backpacks hang outside of a San Diego classroom.

Audio

Aired 6/3/09

The San Diego Unified Board of Education approved millions of dollars worth in spending cuts in a pivotal, nearly 12-hour budget session yesterday. KPBS Education Reporter Ana Tintocalis explains how the board is closing a budget shortfall without closing schools or resorting to layoffs.

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Above: KPBS reporter Ana Tintocalis speaks with San Diego Week host Gloria Penner about San Diego Unified School District's budget cuts.

— The San Diego Unified Board of Education approved millions of dollars worth in spending cuts in a pivotal, nearly 12-hour budget session yesterday. KPBS Education Reporter Ana Tintocalis explains how the board is closing a budget shortfall without closing schools or resorting to layoffs.

It was decision day for the San Diego Unified school board. After months of deliberating and analyzing budget numbers, the five trustees must finally make some tough decisions.

The best news of the day was the district's budget deficit is not $180 million but $106 million. The board wasted no time in approving smaller cuts -- from school supplies to landscaping.

But deliberations slowed down with the issue of increasing class sizes. District officials wanted to increase class sizes from 20 students to 25 in kindergarten through third grade, as well as ninth grade.

Trustee Richard Barrera was against that idea. He says bigger class sizes will translate into fewer teachers helping kids learn.

"What I worry about are schools that are starting to achieve some stability in their staff," Barrera said. "(Schools) that are going to need see some substantial reductions in their staff as a result of these very large class size increases."

Barrera wanted an increase to 22. But the board voted for an increase to 24. Trustee Katherine Nakanura says balancing the budget trumps the need for smaller class sizes.

"I'm looking at some other things down the list that impact children a lot," Nakamura said. "(Increasing class sizes) is not one of my favorite items on the list by any means. But unfortunately we have to make some decisions, and they are going to be hard decisions."

The school board opted to increase class sizes but voted against cutting popular programs such as arts and athletics. The trustees also voted to keep six small schools open, and keep longstanding student excursions to Mount Palomar, Old Town and Balboa Park.

Trustee John de Beck says those programs give many inner-city kids their first exposure to arts and culture.

"If you're a fourth grade kid you're going to go to Old Town. In fifth grade, you're going to Balboa Park. In sixth grade you're going to go to camp. You get to look forward to it," de Beck said. "There is instructional value there that is far beyond the cost of the programs. I will never vote to cut them."

But by preserving these type of big budget items, the board was forced to look for cuts elsewhere.

That came in the form of school transportation. The board voted to consolidate bus routes. That will translate into longer bus rides and students will have to walk farther to catch the bus.

Board president Sheila Jackson worries kids might get home too late.

"I'm sorry. I can't support taking kids back home at seven or eight o'clock at night. Six o'clock is bad enough," Jackson said.

Trustee Richard Barrera says given the current reality, he doesn't think so.

"We got to remember that if you go to school in your neighborhood, you don’t get the bus. You walk or your parents get you there. So in the end, I'm not sure if we are going to be asking people who are taking the bus to be any more put-out than we're asking the families of kids who go to their neighborhood schools," Barrera said.

Among the other changes board made was to increase lunch prices and reduce the number of vice principals. The board is expected to make more cuts next week. The district has to submit a balanced budget by July.

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