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Sweetwater School Board Approves Potential Layoffs To Close Budget Deficit

Parents, teachers and students protest on Monday, Feb. 23, 2020, Sweetwater Union High School District's proposed layoffs of more than 200 employees.
Joe Hong
Parents, teachers and students protest on Monday, Feb. 23, 2020, Sweetwater Union High School District's proposed layoffs of more than 200 employees.

UPDATE: 6:30 a.m., Feb. 25, 2020:

The potential cuts include more than 200 teachers, counselors and librarians, as well as a complete shutdown of the district’s learning centers, which serve students who don't fit in traditional classrooms.

Sweetwater Union High School District's school board on Tuesday approved a proposal to layoff of more than 200 employees to close a $30 million budget deficit.

The vote came after nearly five hours of public comment at a packed board meeting, during which teachers, students and parents contested the superintendent's proposal for staff reductions.

The approved cuts include more than 200 teachers, counselors and librarians, as well as the complete shutdown of the district’s learning centers, which serve students who, for a variety of reasons, don’t fit in the traditional classroom environment.

The proposed layoffs passed with a 3-2 vote, with board members Paula Hall and Nicholas Segura voting against.

"All I see is a one-year fix," said Hall before voting against the cuts. "I believe our budget should reflect our values."

Before the meeting, at a gathering outside Chula Vista Middle School, hundreds of protesters were vocal about their opposition to the proposed cuts and demanded the ouster of superintendent Karen Janney.

"Hey, hey, ho, ho, Karen Janney's got to go," the group chanted.

Sweetwater School Board Approves Potential Layoffs To Close Budget Deficit

Hundreds of employees will receive notices — known as pink slips — that let them know they are among those who might lose their jobs. The pink slips will go out by no later than March 13, and the district has until May 15 to give final notice to those employees. It's important to note that just because an employee receives a pink slip doesn't mean they will, in the end, be laid off.

"If all the services on the list were eliminated," Janney said at the meeting. "The projected savings to the 2021 budget is estimated to be around $20 million. We have a $30 million deficit."

The approved cuts include: 32 learning center teachers; 28 English teachers; 27 math teachers; 25 social science teachers and, and 23 librarians. More than 20 counselors and eight assistant principals are also being considered for layoffs.

“They don’t understand that we save lives. I’ve done hundreds of suicide assessments," said Verenice Herrera, a counselor at Montgomery Middle School. "The administration clearly doesn’t understand what it’s like to be in the trenches.”

Before voting against the layoffs, Board Members Hall and Segura said the district needs to cut from administration before cutting staff who work directly with students.

Janney said the board is committed to meet with all stakeholders to find a solution to the district's budget shortfall.

“I think that cuts need to happen across the district,” said Cesar Fernandez, vice president of the Sweetwater Education Association, the district’s teachers union. “The cuts need to be spread out among several years. That’s the biggest issue for me here.”

Fernandez is particularly concerned about the fate of the learning centers, where teachers meet with students for about two hours a day on high school campuses. He said a variety of students enroll in the learning centers, from teen moms to students who need to graduate quickly.

“The beauty of the learning center is it’s attached to a main campus, so they can be involved in clubs and sports,” Fernandez said. “It’s kind of the best of both worlds.”

A spokesman for the district said if the learning centers are cut, the 1,300 students they serve would be redistributed to the district’s independent study programs.

“They’d come in to see a counselor and see teachers who are on the main campus,” said District Spokesman Manny Rubio. “They’d be working under a tailored model to meet their individual needs.”

Rubio said he expects many of the teachers from the learning centers to be rehired into the independent study programs.

According to Rubio, the cuts will help the district reduce its overall deficit by $15 million, which would mean it would no longer be under county oversight.

Fernandez said the union was surprised by the lack of communication from the district administration before it announced these cuts.

“The district claims to have a collaborative relationship with labor unions, but we basically had zero input on these cuts,” he said.

Rubio said the district has been transparent about its fiscal troubles caused by shrinking enrollment, growing special education costs and rising pension costs.

“We’ve done significant work communicating with the community,” Rubio said. “We’re surprised that they’re surprised.”

Sweetwater School Board Approves Potential Layoffs To Close Budget Deficit
Listen to this story by Joe Hong.