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S.D. Unified School Budget Expected To Be Worse Next Year

The budget crunch for the San Diego Unified School District in the next school year will be worse than the current one, and teachers will be hit with layoffs or salary reductions in the next round of cuts, the Board of Education was told today.

At a budget workshop in Kearny Mesa, district officials estimated the shortfall for the 2010-11 budget is projected to be $100 million, a figure that does not account for a likely drop in K-12 education funding by the state of California.

"Unfortunately, we're confronted with another declining budget cycle," interim Superintendent Bill Kowba said.

According to district staff, the $100 million figure is comprised of up to $16.6 million in unexpected expenses in the current fiscal year, a projected $63 million deficit in the 2010-11 academic year, and $20 million of budget solutions for the following year because school districts are mandated to plan on a two-year cycle.

The school board came under fire earlier this year when cuts were made in programs for the 2009-10 budget, but not for teachers. Labor-backed members hold a 3-2 majority on the board. Still, the district employs 13 percent fewer teachers this year than last because of attrition and an early-retirement program.

Kowba warned board members there is no more "low-hanging fruit" for them to choose from, and that future cuts will involve very difficult decisions.

James Masias, the district's chief financial officer, said salaries and benefits make up 84 percent of the unrestricted general fund, which this year is nearly $720 million.

Salaries for teachers alone make up 49 percent of the fund, Masias said.

"Most of our expenses are people, so it's getting very difficult to make cuts that don't involve people," Masias said.

He said the remaining amount of the unrestricted general fund budget not involving personnel costs is $118 million, to lend perspective if $100 million in cuts are necessary.

The problem could eventually become worse because the state economic and budgetary picture remains poor, according to Monica Henestroza, the district's government relations manager in Sacramento.

"The range of possibilities goes from bad to catastrophic," Henestroza said.

She said funding for K-12 education could be cut severely because it represents 40 percent of the state budget, and the governor and legislative leaders have made public safety and health care higher priorities.

The upshot for the SDUSD could be state funding reductions of $50 million to $100 million, Henestroza said.

The saving grace could come from a deal the state struck with the federal government that would keep K-12 education at or above 2005 levels. So if California officials can't find their way around the restriction, state funding cuts wouldn't be too bad, she said.

Since the meeting was only a workshop, no decisions were made by the board. But staff did request the board begin taking action on the budget by December.

In the meantime, district officials plan to form a "SWAT team" to ferret out additional efficiencies in operations, and a public education campaign is being set up to let area residents know about the bleak budget picture.

"I don't think the public realizes that we're in trouble," board member John De Beck said.

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