Time Running Out for S.D. Unified to Balance Budget
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
San Diego Unified school officials are demanding the district's board make some tough decisions to balance next year's budget. The panel needs to have a spending plan ready by next week. However, the trustees still can't agree on what sacrifices to make.
SAN DIEGO San Diego Unified school officials are demanding the district's board make some tough decisions to balance next year's budget. The panel needs to have a spending plan ready by next week. However, the trustees still can't agree on what sacrifices to make.
San Diego Unified is the only large urban school district in California trying to balance its budget without laying off teachers. Three of the five school board members, backed by the teachers union, took a hard stance against that option earlier this year.
But some say that decision has made it increasingly difficult for the board to balance its budget in the face of California's money problems. San Diego Unified is losing $180 million -- that's 80 million more than what was expected.
Superintendent Terry Grier told the five-member school board at a special meeting that his team has done all it can to find ways to save money. He says its time for the board to consider cutting programs, schools and boosting class sizes.
"We'll come in and sit down with you as a whole board, and start at eight in the morning, and we'll go line item, by line item, by line item, every single nickel and dime in this budget," Grier said. "We've done it. At the end of the day, you're $45 million short."
Grier says the district's survival hinges on more than $50 million in cuts to teacher pay and benefits -- all of which need to be negotiated with the teachers union. So far there's been no progress.
Trustee John de Beck says its time the district takes matters in its own hands by declaring an impasse and moving forward without union support.
"We're not really facing the problem at all," de Beck said. "What we're really doing is painting ourselves into the corner. I did it once when I was varnishing a floor. But in this case, you're gambling with the kids and the school district. And so we don't have a chance to tippy-toe across the varnished floor anymore. We're back to the wall and we have no place to go."
de Beck and other school officials say if the district doesn't take drastic measures to balance its budget, there could be a state takeover.
But trustee Richard Barrera says moving forward without the teachers union support is not an option. He believes school officials should use all of the district's $52 million in federal economic stimulus money next year to stop the bleeding. However, the program calls for the money to be spent over two years.
"We've got to listen to the schools," Barrera said. "If we're going to need absorb these cuts as a result of the state budget crisis, that if we get additional federal stimulus money that could help us, this is the way that we got to use that money. Unless, the federal government says its against the rules. That's the conversation I think we need to be having."
Even if the district is allowed to spend all their federal stimulus money next year, it still doesn't solve the problem because officials would have to scramble to replace the money the following year.
Trustee Katherine Nakamura says she would rather see the cuts come from layoffs, teacher pay and benefits.
"Our options are rather foreclosed," Nakamura said. "(District) staff is turning itself inside-out and every which way, looking for dollars and pennies in between the seat cushions when we've got, in fact, a $45 million problem where we are going to fall far short."
The board is considering a host of other options -- including cutting arts, music and athletics, closing seven small schools and increasing class sizes across the board. The trustees decided to put aside making any big decisions until next week.
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