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San Diego Unified Budget Cuts Spare Classrooms But Not Their Frequent Visitors

Parents and educators hold signs reading,

Photo by Megan Burks

Above: Parents and educators hold signs reading, "Save Our Schools," at a San Diego Unified School Board meeting, Feb. 21, 2017.


San Diego Unified officials have said they'd keep budget cuts as far away from the classroom as possible. Indeed, class sizes are expected to remain the same despite a $124 million dollar deficit. But many of the cuts impact support specialists who are familiar faces in the classroom. KPBS education reporter Megan Burks says they came out in force to Tuesday's board meeting to fight for their jobs.


San Diego Unified officials have said they'd keep budget cuts as far away from the classroom as possible. Indeed, class sizes are expected to remain the same despite a $124 million deficit next year. But many of the cuts impact administrators and specialists who are familiar faces in the classroom.

Those workers and their supporters came out in force to Tuesday's board meeting to fight for their jobs.

"Statements have been made by the district on various media outlets and social media that the proposed cuts are far away from the classroom. If anyone thinks that eliminating vice principals, early childhood education administrators and classified supervisory staff at school sites isn't cutting away from the classroom and from children, you are sorely mistaken," Donis Coronel, board president of the union representing supervisors in the district, said at the meeting.

Tuesday was the first reading of a plan to eliminate more than 800 positions and cut the work year — not the school year — by 14 days. That equates with an across-the-board pay cut of 5.6 percent.

The board will vote next week on whether to move forward with the plan. It's likely to pass.

"Having gone through a budget crises several years ago, I've never seen a school district approach a budget challenge in as serious and as thoughtful a way under Superintendent Marten's leadership," said school board President Richard Barrera. "As we approach a large budget deficit, to be able to do that and not increase class sizes in our core classes is an enormous effort."

Since December, district officials have said the central office would take the biggest hit. That's true. The plan calls for $94.9 million in cuts from the central office and centralized support services, and $29.5 million from schools. But as speakers pointed out Tuesday, many of the line items under centralized support services are people who work directly with students on a regular basis.

They include occupational therapy specialists and assistants, mental health professionals, pupil advocates working on drop out prevention and race relations, library technicians, Head Start workers, English-language support personnel, health technicians, noon duty workers, special education technicians, campus police officers, cafeteria workers, and custodian and maintenance workers.

"I love my job and the tremendous value that it brings to the quality of life to the most vulnerable of the student populations that we have," said Coloni Brown, an occupational therapy assistant who helps students with special needs.

"We focus 75 percent of our work day in direct treatment hours that not only deter parents' ability to successfully sue the district for non-compliance — I believe that's hundreds of thousands of dollars per student per suit — but also increases students' ability to learn, gain independence, access their learning environment and overall improve the quality of their life," she continued.

Schools must provide such care as laid out in individual plans for students with special needs. Failing to do so can bring lawsuits against the district. It's unclear how officials would fill the need left by layoffs of therapists and special education technicians.

Barrera said the district's goal is to have more educators equipped to serve students with special needs alongside their peers. This student population is dropping in the district.

RELATED: San Diego Charter Schools Lead The Pack In Special Ed Program Integration

Another office on the chopping block is Race, Human Relations and Advocacy.

"Today our president — or the president of the United States — announced an immigration ban that is wide-sweeping and will impact our students, and his press secretary announced it will be up to the states to decide whether to discriminate against LGBTQ students," said Aaryn Belfer, a mother in the district and head of Showing Up for Racial Justice San Diego. "This is our moment in this district to stand up and I would urge you to find someplace else to cut."

Mariam Ali, a mother in the district and advocate with United Women of East Africa, urged the board not to cut English-language support staff. Recently, the district eliminated some of those positions as part of a plan to have English learners better integrated into core classes.

"We want our children's education to go forward, not backward," she said. "They've been traumatized. We don't want you to give us more trauma."

Several speakers said they were concerned about campus safety with the news that noon duty, security, campus police and building maintenance would see cuts.

"We are eliminating one-third of the noon duties that cover 200 schools. I’m a health tech. Even with the current number of people that we have covering children, I’ve had concussions, broken arms," said Sabrina Hahnlein, who's also head of the union representing paraeducators. "What's going to happen to those kids when there's nobody out there watching them?"

Also at Tuesday's meeting, the San Diego Education Association threatened to file an unfair labor practice complaint if the board moves forward with a plan to lay off all elementary prep teachers. They're credentialed teachers who teach students for an hour while core teachers prepare their lessons. But that hour is when elementary students get instruction in physical education, arts, science, or social studies.

"We're the teachers that are out there that touch every single child every single week," said Lori Emerson, a 36-year veteran in the district. "At my school, I have 500 kids that I am blessed to be a part of their lives."

The district is banking on an early retirement program to offset such layoffs. Some 1,500 employees would be eligible.

There's also some hope that Gov. Jerry Brown will be more generous to schools in his May budget revision. But the district’s chief financial officer said Tuesday that would only make a small dent in the deficit, and the district would still need to make more than $1 million in cuts.

Barrera said declining enrollment — the birthrate is declining and many families are choosing charter schools — rising pension costs, and funding priorities at the state mean school districts will continue to have to make tough decisions.

"California is severely underfunded in terms of what we provide to public schools," he said. "And until as a state we fix that problem, we’re going to continue to see this kind of situation in school districts."


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