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San Diego Unified School District Considering 900 Layoffs To Balance Budget

Danielle Zdunich, a teacher at McKinley Elementary School, reads a book to her students, March 2010.
Ana Tintocalis
Danielle Zdunich, a teacher at McKinley Elementary School, reads a book to her students, March 2010.
San Diego Unified School District Considering 900 Layoffs To Balance Budget
The San Diego Unified School District is facing an estimated $120 million budget deficit for next academic year. The deficit could be cut in half if voters approve tax extensions in a statewide special election the governor has proposed for June. We talk to the school board president Richard Barrera and the president of the teachers union, Bill Freeman, about the possibility that more than 500 teachers could be laid off. Plus, we talk about what actions the district should take to prevent future budget deficits.

The San Diego Unified School District is facing an estimated $114 million budget deficit for next academic year. The deficit could be cut in half if voters approve tax extensions in a statewide special election the governor has proposed for June. We talk to the school board president Richard Barrera and the president of the teachers union, Bill Freeman, about the possibility that more than 700 teachers could be laid off. Plus, we talk about what actions the district should take to prevent future budget deficits.


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


Bill Freeman, president of the San Diego Education Association.

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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.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The San Diego Unified School Board says teachers are just about the only costs left to cut. After the board votes on Thursday, hundreds of layoff notices are expected to go out to teachers in San Diego. The district faces its largest budget shortfall ever, and after years of avoiding it, board members may finally be forced to fire teachers. Also coming up on These Days, we'll hear reaction to the death of SDSU exchange student, Austin Bice. That's all ahead on These Days, first the news.

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and You're listening to These Days on KPBS. The San Diego Unified School Board has issued layoff notices before, but this year, those notices could result in hundreds of teacher layoffs. In years past, most notices which have to go out in March were ultimately withdrawn because other cuts were made or state money came through. This year, San Diego's largest school district is facing a $114 million budget shortfall, and as many as 900th District employees, including about 700 teachers could be getting layoff notices. The final decision on sending out those notices will be made at a School Board meeting this Thursday night, and I'd like to introduce my guests, Richard Barrera is president of the San Diego Unified school district's board of education. Richard, good morning, thank you for coming in.

BARRERA: Thanks, Maureen. Thanks for having us on.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And bill Freeman is president of the San Diego Education Association, informally known as the teacher's union. Bill, good morning.


FREEMAN: Good morning. Thank you for having us here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, we invite our listeners to join the conversation. Can San Diego Unified adequately educate our kids if there are layoffs of hundreds of teachers? Do you think there's anything the district can do instead of layoffs? Give us a call with your questions and your comments. Our number here is 1-888-895-5727. That's 1-888-895-KPBS. Richard, what is expected to happen at tomorrow night's School Board meeting?

BARRERA: Yeah. So and just to talk about the process a little bit and where we're at in the process.


BARRERA: Tomorrow night the staff is coming forward with a recommendation to issue layoff notices to actually, Maureen, what the staff recommendation will probably be in excess of a thousand teachers, nurses, counselors, and then another 500 what will be called classified employees, so those are the bus drivers, and the school attendance clerks, and the cafeteria workers. And the reason that those layoff notices that the staff is bringing forward those layoff notices tomorrow night is we owe the county office of education, what's called an interim report, by next Tuesday about how we plan to balance the budget. The whole system is out of whack. Because a good 80 percent or more of our district's revenue comes from the State of California. And we have no idea, and nobody has any idea, you know, what the eventual budget of the State of California is gonna be. I know that the legislature is planning to have a vote tomorrow that will hopefully result in the legislature actually putting before the voters in June an initiative to extend some current taxes. But we don't know if that initiative's even gonna make the ballot. Obviously nobody knows what the results of that initiative would be. And so we're in this position, you know, three months ahead of time where we've gotta make decisions that have consequences now, you know, working in a sort of a blind situation about what our revenues are in the end gonna be. We pass our final budget really around the middle of June. So some of the decisions that are made now will have certainly much better information in a few month. But we are up against this deadline for issuing these layoff notices this week.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Richard, I want to talk more later in our conversation about this proposed special election and how that could change things for the district. But just to focus once again on tomorrow night.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: When the staff brings you these recommendations.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is the School Board expected to whittle down that big number that the staff brings you, guys?

BARRERA: It's -- we have to have that conversation at the time that the star brings it forward. One of the -- what I thing is a good provision of state law in California, the Brown act. We as board members can't have these discussions with each other before the public meeting. So I assume that all five board members are gonna have a lot of questions for the staff, maybe some ideas. The staff, I think is gonna, you know, need to be very clear about why we need to in their minds we need to support the recommendations that we're making. So that will all happen in tomorrow night's meeting.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Can you give us just a little idea of what the criteria is for making those decisions? In other words, how do you decide which teachers might receive layoffs?

BARRERA: So the -- the way that we have gone about the budget process this year is we've projected about $680 million of what's called unrestricted revenue. So money that's in the tied to specific programs, coming from the state. And that's in the assumption that the governor's budget does not move forward. So a conservative assumption in that respect. And from that $680 million, we've identified things that we have to spend that we've got no choice, you know, utility costs and healthcare costs, and required reserves. We've taken a look at the minimum legally and functionally required expenses that we need to make for the central office in order to maintain the central office, and then we've pushed all the rest of the money out to the schools and let schools build individual budgets. Now those have come back up to us. So it's really the results of the central office budgets and all of the school budgets that result in here's how many teachers, bus drivers, up, that we'll need in order to -- in order to meet the needs of those budgets that then these layoff notices are based on. Of course everybody understands that the central office budgets and particularly the school budgets are simply not enough to properly educate kids of these are budgets that are put together on the assumption that this might be all the money that we have, all the revenue that we have. But nobody would defend any of those budgets as being something that we can educate kids on.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to remind our listeners that we are inviting you to join the conversation. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. I want to bring in bill freeman, he is president of the San Diego education association, the teacher's union. Bill, we've been hearing for a lot of years, as I said in the beginning, the layoff notices have gone out, and they have been mitigated by state funding or other cuts. Of but we've been hearing for months now that this is it. That this time, teachers are going to receive the layoff notices, those layoffs are gonna go through, and they're not gonna have jobs in September. What is your reaction to that?

FREEMAN: Well, one, as Richard stated, we have a truly archaic system that should be refined because it's really affecting the students. We go through this every year, the past 3 to 4 years, we have gone through this. The district's come out with numbers, we come out with numbers, we've challenged those numbers, and we challenged them again this year. We don't -- we know that attrition's not included in those numbers, and we know that nonpermanent positions are not included in those numbers, and there's just so many other things that we can do. My concern with this, if you can imagine, Maureen, standing before 20, 35 kids trying to focus on teaching, not knowing who you're going to be able to make your mortgage payment next year. It's very, very difficult. It's an awful position to put our educators in. And that should not happen. That should not have happened. Those positions have been called back year after year after year. When we've refined the numbers, there was no need for layoffs, and we don't feel there's a need for layoffs this year. We are fairly comfortable that when the district sits down, takes a look at those numbers, they will see that there's not a reason for layoffs. And if there is a requirement to layoff anyone, it will be a very small number that I think we could find the money around the district to comp says.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Where do you think the district is not finding the money now? Where do you think the money might be in the district that they're gonna find?

FREEMAN: Well, you can look at a number of places, we can look at contracts, we can look at consultants, we can look at management levels. The point is to keep the cuts away from the core of our educational system. We have to be outside of the box today. We cannot continue to do business in the way that we have in the past because of the fiscal crisis. I know you've heard me say it before, and I'll say it again: Our kids did not create this mess, and they should not have to suffer in the fix. And so I have to advocate on behalf of those who do not have a voice at this table, and that's the little kids, that if we don't protect today, it'll come back to haunt us in the future.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's take a call. We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Scott is on the line from San Diego. Good morning, Scott, and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, ma'am.


NEW SPEAKER: My question is how many administrators are gonna be pink slipped or terminated, laid off? I never hear anything about the administration side, only the teachers.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay. Let me get an answer to that, Scott. Richard?

BARRERA: Actually, every administrator in the district has already received a pink slip. And that's something that actually happens every year. And I hear what the caller is saying, but I can tell you that the level of cuts that the district has made over the past couple of years to the central administration, we went from a central administration budget of roughly about $90 million 3 years ago to now it's, I think about $40 million, you know projected for next year. And bill works very closely with us, and I think it's a great partnership. And we will continue always to turn over every rock to see where we can find expenses that we can cut that don't go out to the schools and don't hit the kids. But I can tell you, that's a process that we've been going at very, very thoroughly for, you know, at least two years now. And the issue's not that there's more places left to cut. The issue's there's not enough money coming into public education in California now. And there are choices that can be made in terms of where revenue could be identified to come into the school district. And I'm sure we can talk a lot about that. But we should not be in this position whereas bill is saying so eloquently, students are paying the price for the mistakes of adults. We should not be in this position, and frankly I don't think the priorities of people in San Diego and California support being in a position where we're making these kinds of cuts to public schools. But the issue isn't I believe where can we find cuts that we haven't identified yet. The issue is we need more revenue into the public schools.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: A lot of people, when we have had programs like this before, bill, most specifically ask teachers if they would be in favor of eliminating automatic raises, some kind of salary healthcare cuts, in order to save these teaching jobs considering that there doesn't seem to be a source of revenue that's going to change anything in the near future for this year's budget. Would there be -- the union be willing to make concessions in order to save teachers' jobs?

FREEMAN: Maureen, we've made concessions. We sat at the table just a little over a year ago and identified what was required in order to do this. We conceded probably around $20 million. My concern is this will never stop. We've conceded, the teachers do not mention the thousands of dollars that they spend in their classroom every year. That happens. We don't complain about it. It's necessary to insure the students receive a good education. We cannot continue to do this. We have a broken system that we need to fix and we should not fix it on the back of the students. If we continue to go into the pockets of teachers, we will literally ruin the teaching profession. So we are not willing to go into the pockets of those educators. We've talked about it with the leaders, and they're not willing to do it, because we don't know where this will end. We know that there has to be a better way. The educators did not make this mess, the kids did not make this mess. The budget should not be balanced on the back of the teachers or those students.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break. When we return, we will continue to talk about this with my guest, Richard Barrera, president of the San Diego Unified School Board district, the board of education, and Bill Freeman, president of the San Diego education association. And we'll continue to take your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Determine night, the San Diego Unified school district is expected to issue layoff notices for hundreds of district employees, more than a thousand may be sent out these layoff notices, it's part of state regulations that require the districts to send out these notices in March. There are a number of scenarios that might save some of those jobs, but many school officials fear that this time, lots of teachers are gonna lose their jobs in San Diego. Richard Barrera, president of the San Diego Unified board of education is my guest along with Bill Freeman. He's president of the teachers' union. 1-888-895-5727. Let's go right to the phones. Lots of people want to join this conversation. Sarah is calling from Tierra Santa. Good morning, Sarah, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, thank you for taking my call. I have a comment and a question. First of all, I completely agree with your guest who said that the system is archaic. My comment might be 50 of all with regards to teachers who are distracted with the unknown of whether they're gonna have a job in September or not, I would suggest to them that this is the real world and a lot of people don't know whether they're gonna have jobs in a few months. So I would hope that they would be professional enough to continue doing their job. But my question would be to the president of the board, and I am in agreement with the union representative, the system is archaic. When are we going to look at a new system written we're hiring teachers, paying them more, hiring teachers from the top third instead of the bottom half by getting rid of tenure, and frankly, pensions are a thing of the past. They are archaic also.


NEW SPEAKER: And that's the comment.

BARRERA: Well, I appreciate Sarah's call. I obviously agree with her that the current system that we're in, the education financing system is archaic. I disagree with some of the other points that she makes. The idea that pensions are archaic, well, is retirement security archaic? Here's my problem with this whole discussion, and to think big picture for a second. Wall street put us all in this position. Reckless people playing with other people's money led to an economic collapse in this country that all of us are now recovering from. As taxpayers, we've spent I think the number is up to $14 trillion now to bailout wall street. Wall street is now seeing some of the highest profits that it has seen in literally, 60, 70 years, and yet we're asking nothing back from the people who created this problem in the first place. Oil companies are seeing record profits, we're seeing the highest gas prices in California in the country, and yet we're the only state in the country that doesn't tax oil production. There are priorities, there are decisions that are being made by policy makers that continue to prioritize the interests of a small group of people with a lot of money and a lot of power, and the impact of those decisions is coming back on our kids. And then what people do is they point the finger at a teacher making $45,000 a year and saying somehow you're over paid, or a bus driver that hangs $30,000 a year and say you gotta give up your health benefits of it's not right. And what we have to do as I think an entire society is recognize that we value public education is the most important investment that we can make. No society can be healthy in the short term or long term without a strong public education system. And we've gotta challenge the decisions that policy makers are making every day that continue to frankly -- another example, and I don't mean to go and on and, but the tax cut extension for the wealthiest Americans in California alone is costing about $9 billion this next year. Of that's four times the amount that we're talking about to just simply keep us at status quo in the public education system. So where are our priorities? And we can't just attack the people who are working hard to educate our kids every day as the source of the problem of that's not the source of the problem. And we need to look where the problem really is. Of.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call. Matt calling from Northpark. Good morning, Matt, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi. Yeah, thank you for taking my call. The reason I was calling up was actually I was curious to know how much you guys looked into, like, public private partnerships and things of that sort. There's one program they heard about not too long ago called sweat the cause, and it does pretty much that, it helps businesses donate directly to school districts. And I've heard it being used in northern California. I'm curious if you've looked into programs similar to that or this is something that you guys are interested in.

BARRERA: Well, it's a great thought, Matt, and I appreciate it. And if you wouldn't mind maybe sending me a quick e-mail at the district with that specific program. We've got many, many partnerships with businesses, many of our individual schools have foundations where parents are out raising money every day, we're setting up a district wide school fund, and we've talked about this before, Maureen, is that a majority of San Diegans actually voted Y on prop J, that they would be willing to spend an additional $98 a year to support our schools of so we've set up a fund and we're asking people, you know, send checks into the San Diego foundation which is administering this fund. If you want to send in a $98 check to the San Diego foundation, that could help us, you know, with the situation that we're in. Those are important things to do. But we also have to understand the scale of what we're talking about. We're a $2 billion a year school district. And ultimately, the district has to be supported by decisions of taxpayers and policy makers to invest in our public education system. We always want to support these types of partnerships, and there's a lot of interest, but we also can't pretend those types of partnerships really solve the problem. The problem is at the level as a society [CHECK].

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to get back to specifically the whole idea of putting a ballot measure on the ballot in June, and how that might impact the budget for San Diego Unified. Of but Bill, we've heard a lot in recent days about these massive protests they have had in Wisconsin, largely about public employees, lots of teachers issue the governor there wants to basically take away their collective bargaining rights. But one of the things that has perhaps not been reported as much is the fact that the teachers' unions there have conceded to make big concessions in thirds requirement pensions and their salaries of all they want to do at this point is hang onto their collective bargaining rights. I'm wondering though, even though that focus is really, I think, stepped up the profile of what unions are and the services they provide to working people, do you think there's anything San Diego teachers' union can do to help in the short term to help the district get over this particular budget crunch?

FREEMAN: Well, we are we're talking -- excuse me, we're talking with the district, we're working with the district trying to identify and refine their numbers, we haven't gone away in our corner and not doing anything. We have a very good partnership with the district as well, and we are working with them. So we are doing as much as we can do to try and get through this difficult situation. As for the situation in Wisconsin, it appears that that's -- it's just an attack on middle class America. And it saddens me that elected officials would take such actions. These are people that as it pertains to educators, these are people that have dedicated their lives to educating the kids of this nation, and to do something like that is a slap in the face to them as well as to middle class America, I feel.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Richard, let's talk about the kind of twofold scenario you have for how the budget could come out.

BARRERA: Right am.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Tell us a lot bit more about the special election that the governor would like the legislature to approve.

BARRERA: So here's the -- here's the difference it makes in San Diego Unified alone. What the governor is saying is he wants the legislature to approve a budget, the state is facing about a $25 billion deficit, the governor has proposed making up half that deficit in the form of cuts, and these are devastating cuts of these are cuts to our basic [CHECK] higher education system, when our kids graduate, where they're gonna be going. But he's making those cuts, and what he's saying is fill the other half of the deficit with an extension of taxes that would otherwise expire at the end of this year. And if those -- if that measure goes forward and voters approve that measure, the difference it makes for us is literally in the following specific ways: With the governor's budget, we can maintain kindergarten through third grade class size at about 24 kids per class. Without the governor's budget, it goes up to 30 kids. Of with the governor's budget, we can maintain some of the really exceptional magnet programs in the district, you know, programs with a science focus, international studies focus, school, you know, creative and performing arts. Programs that really make a huge difference in the lives of thousands of our kids who have, you know, exceptional talents or exceptional interests, language academy. We can save those programs with the governor's budget. We lose those programs without. Arts and music education, we can save the core of it with the governor's budget. We lose it without. And nurses, school nurses, I just did a job shadow last week with a school nurse, with the governor's budget we can maintain advocate protection for our kids who need a school nurse. Many of our kids, their only healthcare provider is the school nurse. We can maintain that basic healthcare for our kids with the governor's budget. Without it, we're literally in a situation where schools that have, you know, diabetic kids have nobody to provide insulin shots. That's what we're looking at without the governor's budget. And in terms of being able to stay on a track of financial solvency, we can do that with the governor's budget. Without the governor's budget, as Bill was talking about, we just continue to spiral further and further out of control to the point that we can't even pay our bills. And here's one thing that we haven't heard a lot about, but we're starting to hear from some folks out of Sacramento, without the governor's billion we're not just gonna be looking at the kind of cuts that we're describing here. We're looking at potentially much, much worse cuts. The short treasurer was in town a couple of weeks ago, and he started throwing around the notion of a 130-day school year, that would mean school would end at the end of March, five months out of the year, kids are out of school of that's the situation we're looking at if we don't move forward with the governor's budget, and if it's just about more cuts to public education.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me try to get in another call. Upon Emily is calling Mira Mesa. And also I want to encourage people, our lines are full, if they would like to comment, to go on-line, Days. Emily, good morning.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, how are you?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Great. Thank you.

NEW SPEAKER: I just wanted to voice my support for the classroom and for teachers and the things that we need to spend inside schools instead of necessarily on brick and mortar. And I'm a CPA, I was, for Price-Waterhouse for ten years, and did a lot of work and hire. So I know how restricted funds work and all of this. Of and my observation of what's been happening here in San Diego is we're not looking at a higher over all financial health of our schools. For example, right now, the school wants to send $30 million on a building for a new school where we could be retiring those bonds and increase the over all financial health and reduce the debt of the over all school district. And what's happening is it would be essentially, like, we have a $30 million credit line, if we don't use that credit line and incur that debt, we will lose that opportunity. Of and that's a really unhealthy financial attitude to have towards what's happening here. We could forego the 30 million and increase the over all health of the subsidiary school district financially and end and more money on teachers, spend more money in the classrooms. I'm wondering why we're not doing this.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Sure. Let me stop you there and let me get a reaction to your scenario there. What about -- are we spending -- is the school district spending too much money on construction?

BARRERA: Well, again, and Emily understands this, one of the issues in the way that schools are financed is we can go out to the voters as we did in 2008 for a bond measure for school construction. And if 55 percent of voters approve that measure, then we can go forward with only construction projects. That money can only support facilities improvements to schools. And there's plenty of work to be done there. And we're actually moving forward with some really exciting work. But we cannot take that money and use that for a day to day operating expenses like teacher salaries. We passed a parcel tax measure that would have allowed us to provide money for operating purposes of we got a majority of the vote. But in this state, you have to get two thirds of the voters to improve a parcel tax measure for operating support. So far one of the things we need to do in this state moving forward is we need to bring that threshold for parcel tax down, [CHECK].

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Just to follow up though, her point was, even though you have this dedicated money toward this bond money toward school construction, is this the right time to bring on further debt for the school district.

BARRERA: Well, again, the construction money you've gotta understand that program in its own right, the money that supports the -- so when we go out and sell bonds to do the construction work, the money that supports that are the money the taxpayers voted in the construction bonds of that's a healthy program, it does not -- that debt does not then transfer over to the operation side.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, Richard, there's been a lot made -- we talked a lot about the governor's budget. The governor wants to eliminate redevelopment agencies across the state and allow municipalities, counties and cities to reallocate that property tax money in a different way, perhaps giving more of that to schools. What do you think of that plan?

BARRERA: Well, we think it's a good plan. And we think it's gonna support education up and down the state. And its actual specific impact on our district (REPEAT LAST PHRASE) other districts, we're still trying to do some analysis, and part of that is we don't have the specifics yet from -- what the governor's plan would do. Of what we are saying to the City of San Diego right now, to the mayor and City Council, is we've got an existing agreement with you where we share a portion of the tax increment from redevelopment, and you could advance us money that you will owe you a lot to ten years from now in the time that we need it the most. We're in the worst crisis this district has ever seen. And it's a pretty simple request. And we're continuing to have talks with folks at the city. But we hope that people in the city can over come this tendency to say, well, that's not my problem. That's the school's. Well, talk to any of your constitute unites [CHECK] our classrooms over crowded and losing our arts and music programs? People are gonna say our number one priority is investing in the schools. Of the city could do that right now and bring in some revenue that they're gonna have to pay us down the road, just bring it in right now, and we can get through next school year.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yes, that $64 million you asked for from the City Council, you didn't really get a very warm representation on that.

BARRERA: Not yet. We're continuing those conversations. And I think they're trying to figure it out. Part of it is, you know, they've committed a lot of that money for next year, but what we're saying is is it really more important to do downtown parking garages that we could push off a couple of years? Is that more important than saving our schools? And we'll continue to have that conversation and push that conversation with the city.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We are out of time, but I want to thank you both so much for coming in and speaking with us. Bill freeman, thank you.

FREEMAN: Thank you for having me.

BARRERA: Richard Barrera, thank you so much. Thanks Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Coming up, we ger more information on the tragic death of foreign exchange student, Austin Bice. That's as These Days continues here on KPBS.