Friday, September 24, 2010
The San Diego Unified School District is discussing ways to cut $141 million from its budget for next school year. What options are left for the district after four consecutive years of major budget cuts?
GLORIA PENNER (Host): I’m Gloria Penner and I’m joined by the editors These Days in San Diego. Today, we’ll look at how both the City of San Diego and city schools are projecting more severe cuts as voters consider whether to pass tax measures to bolster those budgets, and the face of San Diego is changing. Why does it matter that our population is growing more diverse and younger? The editors with me today are Andrew Donohue, editor of voiceofsandiego.org. Hi, Andrew. Glad you could be with us.
ANDREW DONOHUE (Editor, voiceofsandiego.org): Always good to see you, Gloria.
PENNER: Okay. Good to see you. David King, editor and founder of sandiegonewsroom.com. David, we’re delighted you could be with us.
DAVID KING (Editor/Founder, sandiegonewsroom.com): Good morning, Gloria. Great to be here.
PENNER: And Alisa Joyce Barba, western bureau chief for NPR News. And, always, again, Alisa, a delight to have you in the studio.
ALISA JOYCE BARBA (Western Bureau Chief, NPR News): Pleased to be here, Gloria.
PENNER: Okay, well our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Dire warnings are coming forth from the school superintendent that, quote, something has to give, unquote. The San Diego Unified School District is facing its fifth year of making cuts. At the same time, Proposition J on the November 2nd ballot could raise $50 million for city schools in parcel taxes for the next five years if two-thirds of the voters vote yes. So, Andrew, let’s start with the cuts. How much is the budget and how much needs to be cut?
DONOHUE: Sure. Well, the overall budget is about a billion dollars. They’re going to have to – right now the initial estimates are that they’re going to have to cut $140 million. But there’s only about a little bit less than $700 million that can cut. There’s all sorts of strings that are attached to all kinds of different school funding. So it’s a sizeable chunk if that is, indeed, what they have to cut, and I say that because for the last many years we’ve seen these sort of initial estimates be huge, we’ve heard about all sorts of dire warnings at all, you know, thousands of teachers to be laid off and everything like that. This is an initial estimate. A lot of time passes and in the last many years we’ve seen schools or the state actually be able to come up with a decent amount of money to actually avoid these sort of cuts. So I think what we’re going to see this year is are these warnings really for real? Have they sort of cut everything else and are they going to have to really dig into the classroom.
PENNER: But the interesting thing for me, Alisa, is that this’ll be the fifth year that they’ve made cuts and I don’t remember in my history in San Diego where we’ve had five consecutive years of cuts and no year when we seem to have recovered our budget.
BARBA: No, and, I mean, and you cannot hear any voices of optimism out there right now about what’s going on with the schools, and I think everybody in the schools, whether it be the superintendents, the principals, the teachers and the parents and the students, are looking ahead and they’re seeing that life is going to be radically different at least for the next five or six years until they do something about this.
PENNER: Well, I guess the question is how radically different? I mean, how devastating will all this be to our children? David King.
KING: It will be. Again, the schools don’t have a whole lot of wiggle room. 80% of the school budget comes from the state, and you can see what the state’s finances are, so that’s just going to trickle down year after year. And anyone can look out into the foreseeable future, you don’t really see a firm base to rely upon in what the state’s going to fund our schools locally here. The state – the school districts don’t have a whole lot of wiggle room in terms of cutting costs because 80% of their costs are personnel, and if you’ve got the same number of students coming in, you’ve either got to increase class size or cut the school year or do both. And that’s what schools are doing. This is terribly unfortunate.
PENNER: Yeah, they’re even thinking about cutting kindergarten back to half a day, which is the way it was when my kids went to school. Alisa.
BARBA: But that’s not such a bad idea. That’s not going to hurt any five-year-old, I don’t think, to have a half day of kindergarten. I know when my kids were in school, it was always a big debate whether they – you really needed to send them to school for eight hours because they’re pretty young. That’s not such a big deal. But when – I mean, you look at some of the cuts that they’re talking about, some of the electives that – the interesting new languages that they’re bringing into the schools, they’re going to probably go by the wayside, whether it be, you know, Chinese, which everybody believes is very important but, you know, it looks like that may be cut. Cutting staff, I mean, there’s going to be teacher layoffs for sure. There’s going to be a loss of a lot of extra personnel, you know, whether they talk about the school police going, things like that. I mean, I think…
BARBA: And if you go onto campuses these days, you know, these are not – most of our public school campuses, at least the ones in my neighborhood, they’re not pretty places. They’re looking run down. They need some maintenance and they’re not going to get it.
PENNER: Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. We’re talking about the dire warnings about the cuts that are going to have to be made in the San Diego Unified School District, and before we talk about how those cuts might be avoided, I’d like to get your response. I mean, do you take a look at what’s going on in the schools and you say, yeah, they can afford to cut a little bit more. So some teachers can go, kindergartners can be cut back to half a day. Who needs the school police or librarians? Let us know how you feel about the San Diego City Schools and their condition. $141 million is the projected deficit and that’s about 10% of the budget, isn’t it, Andrew?
DONOHUE: It’s more than that, actually. And like we said earlier, they’re build – I think their budget is about $1.1 or $1.2 billion dollars but there are so many strings attached to all those sort of different funds that really they only have so much flexibility in about $680 million of that. So, I mean, that’s a sizeable chunk of what they have. And, you know, this is forcing them to start to sort of look at some of those third rails of education that they’ve been trying to avoid for a long time. Closing under-enrolled schools is a big thing. There’s a number of schools out there in San Diego Unified that cost the district a lot of money but every time they talk about closing them, you have an absolute rebellion among parents. And so they’re starting to bring these ideas up again, and I think we could really see a battle over those.
PENNER: Andrew, I thought it was rather interesting that John de Beck, longtime trustee, longtime member of the board of trustees of the school system considers the list of possible cuts that’s been submitted by the school district, the word he uses is minimalist. So he’s looking for draconian cuts, is he not?
DONOHUE: Yeah, and I think he wants to see more options. I think anytime you start off in this process in a government, you’re sort of offered as an elected official the – maybe the easier things that a staff could put up there, and I think he wants to, like a lot of people, sort of dig into everything and see everything that’s out there.
PENNER: But it’s interesting, too, David King, that the board president, Richard Barrera, refuses to discuss cuts. He’s suggesting that the $50 million that Proposition J might bring in from the parcel tax would cover the projected deficit but…
KING: Well, no. $50 million is not going to make up for the $141 million shortfall. We can do the math on that. But out into the foreseeable future, too, I don’t know how he could say that he can rely upon what the state funding is going to be. You’ve got the uncertainty in state funding and then you’ve got all these legal mandates that risk – and then you’ve got union contracts with teachers that really limit their flexibility, so it does sort of call for draconian cuts if you could do things, you know, across the board pay cuts, if you could, you know, eliminate certain legally mandated programs, you could work with greater flexibility but you don’t have that flexibility so it kind of requires these sort of draconian cuts, including potentially shutting down schools, making the school year shorter, so…
DONOHUE: They’ve started – in the past years, they’ve made some of the softer cuts, some of the easier things to do, hoping that people leave through attrition or cutting into school supplies. They did this thing, the golden handshake, where they essentially gave people a bonus to retire early. Well, all those sort of measures are getting exhausted and so I think this is kind of the year where the rubber hits the road. Are they actually going to start cutting into those teachers?
PENNER: Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. We’re talking about cuts in the city schools and we’re talking about Proposition J which, if passed by two-thirds of the voters, would bring in about $50 million in revenue from parcel taxes. It would cost you about $100 a year if you live in a house, if you own a house. So let’s hear from Chuck now. Chuck is on with the editors. Hi, Chuck, welcome to the Editors Roundtable.
CHUCK (Caller): Good morning, Gloria.
PENNER: Good morning.
CHUCK: I wanted to speak to one of your editors. He said that there was something about pressing schools to make kind of harder cuts. He said something about soft cuts. Just from my own experience, I’m a parent at a charter school, we get to see the books. We have a business manager. The school is – our school in particular is deep in debt. And our situation is not unlike many, many other schools, and there’s just no more room to make cuts. Our teachers have had pay cuts in the past and they have not had a raise in three, maybe four, years now. Our principal, whose job it is to make sure that our children are being educated is having to, herself, teach classes, and so that takes away from the main point. And we – I’m just afraid to see the schools go into receivership…
CHUCK: …just shut them down and turn the kids out. Where are they going to go for their education?
PENNER: Well, that’s – that really would be an extreme maneuver but I understand your frustration. Thank you much for calling, Chuck. What about that, Alisa? I mean, is there any chance they would just, you know, say, okay, no education for the kids who live in the San Diego Unified School District?
BARBA: No. No. I mean, I – I believe, I hope, it’s a federal mandate that we educate our children. I think that, you know, as Andrew was saying, if we have to shut down some under-enrolled schools – I mean, arguably, perhaps, some of these charter schools are a luxury that the school district can no longer afford. I mean, that’s kind of a radical idea but as we cut and cut and cut, you know, more kids are going to be flowing into these mainstream public schools. But, I mean, we also need to look at the demographics. I think – My understanding is, is that the number of kids going into schools are diminishing year by year and this kind of baby boomlet, all the baby boomers’ kids kind of move through the school system. So that will shrink things just a little bit as well.
PENNER: Okay, well, I do want to get a chance to speak about Proposition J but we have so many callers on the line. Let’s hear from John, who’s on Highway 8, and then let’s talk a little bit more about Proposition J because that’s where the voters have the power. That’s where the voters can decide whether to pass a parcel tax or not. John, you’re on with the editors.
JOHN (Caller, Mobile): Good morning, and thanks for taking the call.
JOHN: We always hear about cuts to school programs, cuts to teachers, layoffs in teachers, but we don’t really hear about what is the administration doing to cut their own costs. Are we cutting head count in that space as well? You know, we talked about charter schools taking control of the school away from administration, and I’m concerned that that leadership pyramid is getting really wide at the top.
PENNER: Okay, let’s find out about that. David King, aren’t there cuts being considered in the central offices?
KING: There are and, commendably, the school districts generally look to their own administrative costs, central administrative costs, before they start pruning out the schools. But he’s got a good point and you’ve raised it previously in the past, within San Diego—and I may have my number wrong here—I believe it’s 26 or 28 different school districts that we have. We’ve also got a County Board of Education that sits over above all of them. Why do we need so many different school districts and so much local control? There’s some districts that only have two high schools in them, that there’s no need for so many different school districts and so much duplication of administrative costs. That needs to be an effort that maybe the county or via voter initiative we should consolidate school districts.
PENNER: You know that’s so interesting. I never expected to hear that from you. You know, a word against local control? I kind of thought that you’d be in the local control market.
KING: I’m not in the market for duplicating efforts every single city block. That’s not what we need to be doing.
PENNER: Andrew, what about that consolidation of all the school districts? Is that a possibility. It certainly is an idea that hasn’t been talked about already.
DONOHUE: Yeah, you know, David caught me as off guard as he did you, I guess. I don’t know enough about – I know, you know, a decent amount about San Diego Unified, so I don’t know enough about the other districts to really chime in on that. But I think now is the time to start kicking out as many ideas as we can because, you know, we’re talking about an estimated $140 million deficit. Even if this tax passes, which, you know, obviously it’s going to be a difficult thing to achieve, that’s only $50 million so that doesn’t – that only goes, you know, only a little bit more than a third of the way there to filling the gap. So we’ve got to throw out all the ideas we can right now.
PENNER: Well, before we go into our break, I did want to mention that you have – is it Emily Alpert?
DONOHUE: Yes, it is.
PENNER: And – Yeah, at voiceofsandiego.org has started a community conversation about where people think the cuts should be. So I think that’s just great. So I’m driving you all over to voiceofsandiego.org and check in on Emily’s conversation about where should the cuts be. I’m going to hold off on your comments, Alisa, and all the comments that are coming in until we take this very short break, so hang in with us. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.
PENNER: This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner. We’re talking about cuts in the San Diego City Schools at San Diego Unified School District. I’m here with Alisa Joyce Barba from NPR, from voiceofsandiego.org, we have Andrew Donohue, and David King from San Diego Newsroom. And I’m going to go back to Alisa because she had a comment just before the break, and then I want to take your calls because you have really interesting things to say, I know it. Just make them brief so we can get to as many of them as possible. And I especially want to know whether you’re going to vote for Proposition J or against it, the parcel tax that would collect about $50 million a year to help out the schools, and that’s a five-year tax, as I understand it. So, first to Alisa and then to our callers. Alisa.
BARBA: Yeah, I was just going to throw out this crazy idea. David was talking about consolidating school districts, you know, instead of having all these different school districts. But what about the idea of your taxes going to fund the schools in your neighborhood? What about having a decentralized structure where you knew your $50 a year or $100 a year was going to go to Point Loma High School or the local elementary school rather than go into this vast San Diego City Schools administration. It’s just a crazy thought.
PENNER: Well, I don’t know how crazy it is but it might be unfair. There may be neighborhoods that are all single homes.
BARBA: Well, absolutely. When you look at…
PENNER: And there may be neighborhoods that are apartments where you don’t pay a parcel tax where the owners would only pay $50. I mean, it brings up the whole idea, some schools in wealthier neighborhoods aren’t feeling the pinch, thanks to the substantial contributions from the parents. Shouldn’t, let’s say, contributions, private contributions, be pooled and spread out all over the district?
BARBA: I think that’s why we have the system the way we have. But you look at – right now, you look at Del Mar or La Jolla or you look at Coronado. Those schools just certainly are not suffering as much as San Diego.
PENNER: That’s exactly what I mean.
BARBA: Yeah. That’s a good point.
PENNER: So, yeah, pool them so the rich don’t get a richer education and the poor don’t get considerably underserved. All right, let’s go to the phones now. Mary in San Diego is with us. And, again, I ask you to make your comments brief. And, by the way, if you don’t get on the air, I urge you to go to KPBS.org/editorsroundtable and you can continue the conversation online. Mary, you’re up next.
MARY (Caller, San Diego): Thank you. I’d like to respond to a comment made by, I believe, Alisha (sic) earlier, that it’s not such a big deal to cut the kindergarten day to half a day. First of all, there’s substantial social scientific research supporting the benefits of a well-designed, appropriate full day curriculum for kindergarteners. Secondly, most parents are employed. Over 70% of mothers of school age children have jobs that their families depend upon. Half-day kindergarten really creates massive problems of work-family conflict.
PENNER: Okay, I…
MARY: Thank you.
PENNER: And I thank you a great deal for what you had to say, Mary. You know what we’re going to do, I’m going to ask the editors if they have any comments on any of these callers, just make a note and I’m going to come back to you all at the end of the discussion in about two or three minutes and I’ll get your comments. So let’s hear from Michael now. Michael, you’re in Lemon Grove, aren’t you?
MICHAEL (Caller, Lemon Grove): Hi, good morning. The Lemon Grove School District has closed the Lemon Grove Middle School, which is a, you know, it’s for the sixth, seventh, eighth, and redistributed the kids. So it’s impacted class sizes. The teachers are having to take – they shortened the school year, and the teachers are having to take extra furlough days.
PENNER: So that’s another way of cutting, just having the teachers work less and cutting out a school in the middle.
Okay, Michael, another suggestion. Maybe that will go over to the San Diego School Board. We’ll see. Now we have Justin on 15 going north. Go ahead, Justin, you’re on with the editors.
JUSTIN (Caller, Mobile): Thanks for taking my call. I had a conversation with a school board member from the El Cajon Valley School District and a couple of the questions I raised about consolidation of school services, and specifically this was like IT services. Each school district kind of manages their own set of computer systems providing security and, you know, whatever maintenance the computers need for the staff and the students. Well, you know, a lot of those services are being duplicated across the districts. I don’t know why there isn’t a San Diego County IT Services. But she mentioned that there was some union control over outsourcing that sort of work. Now I’m not saying they have to outsource to India or someplace like that but maybe, you know, they can consolidate and manage all the school districts in the county in one location. And then also, attendance is a big deal, and that’s a revenue stream for the school district. So, you know, if they can raise their attendance rates by having parents bring in their kids more often, you know, that’s going to bring in a little more money to the school district.
PENNER: Well, these are all very creative thoughts, and I think we have time for one more and then we’re going to comment on all of them. I think that the race for Senator from California, the Fiorina-Boxer race, they would be interested in this whole outsourcing thing. That’s been sort of the crux of their discussions thus far. Okay, and I thank you very much for your comment, Justin. And let’s hear from Lynn in North Park. Lynn, you’re on with the editors.
LYNN (Caller, North Park): Good morning. Gloria, you asked earlier whether the callers were going to be voting yes on J, I would say that I am absolutely voting yes on J, and I’m encouraging everyone else to do so. $100 a year per homeowner, compare that to maybe how many cups of Starbucks coffee you could buy for $100 or you could buy one fancy pair of jeans for $100. And now let’s compare that to the potential benefits to the schools.
LYNN: It’s huge, and when your guests suggest that schools can just cut more, that infuriates me. I have children in school. I’m watching class sizes go up. I’m watching teachers having to buy supplies out of their own pockets. I’m watching after school programs being diminished, etcetera.
LYNN: The impact of our children’s education on our current society and our future society, how can you even consider not putting out $100 a year. It could potentially have a positive impact on education.
PENNER: Thank you, Lynn. And, you know, Lynn reminds me that we don’t pay teachers all that much actually, and we had a program on These Days, oh, last week, I think it was, with a Dr. Flores who was talking about the general education. He said that one of the reasons that Asian students seem to do so well in school is because they come from a culture where teachers are venerated and paid substantially. They get big amounts of money, and education is a big deal. And it’s sort of like the number one priority in many of the Asian countries. So I think that’s really interesting, and I picked up on that and I can’t seem to forget it either. All right, so with that I’m going to ask the editors for their final comments. I’m going to end up with you, Andrew, because you started the whole thing. So let’s start with David.
KING: I agree with the caller who emphasized that to make it in San Diego, a lot of people, both parents have to work and so kindergarten kind of functions as both education and free daycare. Kids need to be out in the backyard slinging mud at each other and having as much fun and that’s as much education as they’re getting in the classroom but just you can’t afford to be home with your kids all the time. So, I mean, you – and I saw a commercial this morning that people – kids are arriving at kindergarten without – with inadequate skills to compete at the kindergarten level so you should buy a Dora the Explorer educational package. There’s no reason to buy your four-year-old a laptop and start them testing for, you know, teaching to test and that sort of thing. But kindergarten, the full day, the consideration there is just the financial strain upon families to make ends meet in San Diego.
BARBA: I’m not sure the taxpayers should be covering free daycare for five-year-olds but I, you know, there are benefits surely to full-day kindergarten but I also think that if we’re going to look at places to cut that not every five-year-old needs to be in full-day kindergarten and we can find alternatives. I know that in many, many neighborhoods in San Diego, we’re already seeing an outflow of kids from the public schools into the private schools into the Catholic schools into the schools that don’t cost so much, you know, not the really high end private schools but the medium – medium – and that’s going to affect everybody.
PENNER: Okay. And Andrew, as part of your wrap-up, do you think Prop J is going to pass?
DONOHUE: Oh, I don’t make guesses like that.
PENNER: Oh, Andrew.
DONOHUE: I – You know, to the last caller’s point, you know, nobody’s suggesting that these are going to be easy or painless cuts. I think we’re just laying out what will happen if estimates turn out to be correct. And so we’re going to have to deal with whether or not kindergarten is proven to be – a full-day kindergarten is proven to be a great benefit. We’re going to have to deal with cuts because we frankly just don’t have the money at the moment, and I think that’s what a lot of Prop J’s going to come down to.
PENNER: Anybody willing to risk a guess as to whether Prop J is going to pass? Anybody?
KING: In this political environment, needing a two-thirds vote, I say it’s slim and that’s, I would say, unfortunate.
PENNER: Okay, well, let’s move on, and I thank our callers. Once again, San Diego – rather, KPBS.org/editorsroundtable and you can keep this conversation going.