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President Of City School Board Discusses All-Cuts Budget

Aired 6/22/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

What will an all-cuts budget mean for the San Diego Unified School District? We speak to school board president Richard Barrera about how the district plans to cut $115 million, and how uncertainty about the state budget influenced the board's decisions.

San Diego Unified School District Board President Richard Barrera

Above: San Diego Unified School District Board President Richard Barrera

What will an all-cuts budget mean for the San Diego Unified School District? We speak to school board president Richard Barrera about how the district plans to cut $115 million, and how uncertainty about the state budget influenced the board's decisions.

Guest

Richard Barrera, president of the San Diego Unified School District's board of education

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: We begin with last night's meeting of the San Diego Unified School Board on next year's budget. There are lots of cuts in this budget, lots of unknowns, largely because there's no state budget in place yet. All the uncertainty led to tense moments during the meeting last night. There are many parents in San Diego uncertain about what their kids' classes are gonna be like this fall. Joining us now is Richard Barrera, president of the San Diego Unified School Board's board, hi Richard.

BARRERA: Hi, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: How much did the School Board have to cut to balance its budget?

BARRERA: Unfortunately, we've gotta be working on two different levels at once, not knowing what the state budget is gonna be, and when it's gonna pass. Assuming no state budget or no additional rev news to education, we have had to move forward with what we're calling an all cuts budget, which is about a hundred and $15†million cut from a general unrestricted operation budget of just over $650†million. At the same time, we did take action and came to consensus last night on what we will do if the state is able to pass a budget that keeps their rev new for education that the governor is proposing. And if the state is able to do that, then we're gonna be able to do a lot of restoration to particularly our kindergarten through third grade class size, some of our important magnet programs, in the middle and high schools: We were able last night to do restoration of our main arts and music program which was very important I think to all of us and to a lot of people in the community. We're ready to take action and preserve what's most important in our school district when the state actually passes its budget. And we're sitting on pins and needles because we don't know when that is. And we very much hope it does not drag out through the summer and into the school year like it did last year.

CAVANAUGH: Let me stick with the all cuts budget version for a minute. Where will the cuts be made?

BARRERA: If we actually end up with an all cuts budget, we're talking about kindergarten through third grade class size going up to 30 kids in a class, which is incredibly detrimental to where young kids need to be. We've actually had a pilot program the last couple of years that we're desperately trying to preserve, where kindergarten through second grade class is kept at about 17 kids per class in some of the poorest areas of the city. And those kids are really catching up, ready to go by third grade. But we're gonna lose that and double that class size if we face an all cuts budget. We're seeing huge cuts to some of our most important magnet schools in the district, our language academy, our school for creative and performing arts, our international baccalaureate program, which is the equivalent of as fine an education as you can get in any school in the country, and here in our public schools we're gonna see devastating cuts to that under an all cuts budget. And huge cuts to our support staff in the schools, the people who answer the phones, greet parents, take attendance, which could -- we're worried about chaos in our schools without that support staff in place, counselors and nurses as well. That's what we're facing in an all cuts budget scenario.

CAVANAUGH: If indeed the state budget does restore $36†million to your budget.

BARRERA: Yes, yes.

CAVANAUGH: For next year, the School Board voted last night that you're gonna use that money to bring back 500 school employees that have received layoff notices. Why do you think it's important to keep those positions for next year?

BARRERA: It's incredibly important. The first thing is about 300 of those positions keep class size in kindergarten through third grade at small, manageable levels. We always talk about how important it is, those early years. Kids either catch up and get ahead and are gonna be fine for the rest of their time in school, or if they get behind by third grade, they literally are on a track to drop out. We need to keep our class size small. And we made a commitment to do that last night with the additional rev new. We also made a commitment to preserve the staff of schools -- preserve stability in so many of our schools where we're seen tremendous progress over the last few years. If we have to lay off these huge numbers of teachers, we cut positions and have people who have made a commitment to be at some of our most challenging schools and are doing a great job that are otherwise gonna have to go work in some other part of the district. You see this incredible destabilization in staffs that have come together and really made progress. So it's critical that if, and hopefully when, the state takes action, preserves K-12 funding levels that the governor has proposed, that we stabilize those staffs and keep our class sizes low, particularly in the kindergarten through third grades.

CAVANAUGH: There are a couple of board members who said if you get that 36 million from the state, it's better it use that money to pay down the district's long-term debts. They say if you hire book those employees, you don't know if you're gonna have money for them the following year.

BARRERA: Right.

CAVANAUGH: You might have to lay them off over again.

BARRERA: And we understand that argument. It's not so much long-term debts of the district. It's that year after year, when we look at the year in front of us and then try to project out the following year, we see huge holes open back up in the budget. So I understand, and I'm certainly sympathetic to the idea that, well, let's put that money in the bank and have it so we don't have to go through as much of that pain again next year. The reason I can't support that argument is I think all we're able to do in these times that we faced for the past few years is get by year to year and do as much as we can with our kids that school year, as we've got the resources to support. And then get at it again and figure out how to deal with the next year's challenge. We won't know what kind of rev new we're gonna have from the state, for the 1213-year probably until this time next year if then. We're sitting here today for the school year that's gonna open in September not knowing how much rev new we're gonna have from the state. So I think the majority of the board last night said where we've got certainty when rev new comes in, let's make sure we preserve what's most important to our students for the 1112-year and keep working at ways to balance our budget the following year. It's what we have had to do every year. And what we see in the past couple of years is despite the largest budget crisis that this district has ever faced, we're seeing the highest achievement scores the district has ever gained over the past few years. That again is due to the stability at the school staff. So the teachers and the principals, and the parents, and the support staff, and the counselors are making incredible progress in very, very difficult circumstances. And I think it's our job at the school board to make sure that those folks have the resources they need when we have them available.

CAVANAUGH: The uncertainty and the tension last night resulted in one of the newest board members, Scott Barnett, actually leaving the meeting. I'm wondering, how united is the School Board? Are you able to work together to get through this? Or are the continuations really getting to you?

BARRERA: It's an incredibly tense time. For Scott and Kevin Beiser, this is the first time they have been through this, having to make those decisions that there's just no good decision. We've talked before about you're either risking the education of kids or you're risking the financial solvency of the school district. And where do you take those risks? So the tensions always build this time of year. This is the third time I've been through this. The prior School Board had many situations where board members got into some confrontation with each other. I think we've got a great board. I really do. Scott is an incredibly hard worker. He's constantly trying to find solutions. He proposed a solution last night to try to preserve smaller class size in the younger grades that's not dependent on passage of the state budget. And I give him credit for trying to do that. His solution was to cut more of the support staff, which we think would further destabilize schools. So we couldn't support that. I know how important it is to him to try to figure out how to preserve that lower class size. And we're in the gonna just sit and wait for the state to figure things out. We think that there are potential areas within the budget that we can reprioritize even as we move forward, and we're all gonna be trying to do that. So I understand the frustration where Scott and everybody gets. But I think it's also important that we stick with this, and it can get emotional, but we've got a job to do. That's to figure out how we balance our resources in a way that supports kids. And I know that Scott and everybody'll be right back at it next week.

CAVANAUGH: What's the status of negotiations with the teachers' union? There were headlines earlier this -- just a couple -- earlier this month, about the board asking for concessions.

BARRERA: Right.

CAVANAUGH: From teachers. Where are you on that?

BARRERA: Under our current contract, not just with the teachers, but all of our employees, our different bargaining units, wee got a contract where this year the 1011-year that just ended, or for our year-round schools will go another few weeks, all of our employees are taking cuts. Then again next year in 1112, all of our employees are taking cuts. In the following year, the 1213-year, the deal was under the assumption that rev new would start to come back by the 1213-year, that we would then do some restorations and actually start to provide some raises that are a long time in coming. What we're doing now as the board and the superintendent have done, we've looked at that 1213-year. Nobody knows where our rev new is gonna be. We are seeing an uptake in state rev new. So it's very possible that the rev new could be there in the 1213-year to support those restorations and raises. But in the event that the rev new's not there, we've reached out to the different bargaining units and said let's begin a conversation of how we might deal with the 1213-year so we can preserve positions. I think the response from the unions has been -- it's premature to start those conversations. We're not gonna know until January of next year when the governor releases his preliminary knowledge about. I believe in the end, if we need to sit down at the table and negotiate in order to preserve positions and programs that we'll be able to do that. But I think people want to have a little bit more certainty before we start that conversation.

CAVANAUGH: Finally, and quickly if you could, parents listening.

BARRERA: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Who have children in San Diego Unified school district. What should they'd listen for over the summer?

BARRERA: What I would ask all parents to do, and I'm certainly one of them, is don't just sit back and wait and listen. Call your legislator today, call the good afternoon's office, encourage them to get their job done once and for all and pass their budget. We hear the governor saying that he wants to support education, we hear the Democrats saying that, the Republicans saying that, but that's just all talk unless they can actually get the job done and pass a budget. So I think we need to continue to be active. I think the community of people who support public education, parents in particular, have done a fantastic job over this year of advocating for no more cuts to public education. But we need to ramp that upright now over the summer. And if we're able to do that, we're gonna be in a better position when the school year begins.

CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with San Diego Unified School Board president, Richard Barrera. Thank you Richard.

BARRERA: Thank you Maureen.

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