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San Diego Unified Sends Out Layoff Notices

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 Sends Out Layoff Notices
Earlier this week, the San Diego Unified School District sent out 1,300 layoff notices to teachers and other district staff. We discuss how the district's budget could be affected by the yet-to-be-approved June special election, and the governor's proposal to eliminate redevelopment agencies. Plus, what can the district do to prevent future layoffs and budget deficits?

Earlier this week, the San Diego Unified School District sent out 1,300 layoff notices to teachers and other district staff. We discuss how the district's budget could be affected by the yet-to-be-approved June special election, and the governor's proposal to eliminate redevelopment agencies. Plus, what can the district do to prevent future layoffs and budget deficits?


Andrew Donohue, editor of


Kent Davy, editor of the North County Times

Michael Smolens, government editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune

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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.

A. St. JOHN: With that, let's take up our third topic which is the affect of the budgets on schools. Andrew the news has gotten even worse this week from last week. They are handing out even more pink slips. What's going on?

A. DONOHUE: The school board had gone back to the administration and said we need four million dollars more in cuts and the administration proposed cutting four million more from the administration in this sort unveiled or opened a window into how this whole hiring and firing process works at the school district which is you cut an administrator's job they have the right to go back to get their job when they were an educator, so that starts a trickle-down effect and means you have to advise more and more teachers of layoff.

One important thing we have to talk about is these are just warnings. This has happened many other years in the past where we have all worried about hundreds and hundreds or a thousand teacher layoffs. This is very premature. It's very much a warning that the district has to offer. We will not know until May or June if they have to layoff anybody or how many people they actually have to layoff.


K. DAVY: The California Teacher's Association said there are 19 thousand layoff notices given this year. There were 22 thousand last year, most of which didn't happen. The previous year to that there were 26 thousand and most not in effect. This is kind of a ritual of California school financing. It's part of the reasons why I think this has to be one of the most broken dysfunctional pieces of government anywhere in America

NEW SPEAKER: [CHECK AUDIO] There is a school in City Heights [CHECK AUDIO} Elementary, that three years ago when the San Diego School District offered all these layoff warnings I think something like 23 of 25 teachers got layoff warnings, while at the end I don't think any of them got laid off. Fast forward three more years and nearly every teacher at that same school is getting the same amount of layoff warning. This is very premature.

K. DAVY There is an underlying story underneath of this and that is when the layoffs do come it does tremendous damage to the educational system in this sense: The layoffs are enacted on the basis of seniority system. So all your youngest newest freshest still energetic teachers are given a pink slip and all kids in California teaching schools who would like to be teachers say, you know what? I am going to be walk into a profession in which I'm going to be the first one laid off every time.

NEW SPEAKER: [CHECK AUDIO] That is happening at a greater proportion of poorer schools as well.

M. SMOLENS: They are both correct. What is interesting is there has been at least one ruling in LA that affects LA Unified where they can side step the seniority thing in some cases and some are looking at that in other pending suits to see if by the time they actually layoff people if that seniority thing would be overturned or challenged in court where they have some room to move on that. They're right. As Andrew said, we are trying to attract these young kids I will call them, going into the tough schools some of them and to hit them with pink slips at this stage seem ver counterproductive to what we're trying to do in education in this country.

A. St. JOHN: Michael one of you editorials pointed out that 90% of the disctrict's budget goes to eployee compensation, so cutting staff is the only way we will be able to do that.

M. SMOLENS: Yeah. Let's face it, educational institutions the huge percentage of spending is going to be on personnel. At City College I think they talked about what was it about 85 percent. They don't make widgets, they try to improve minds. Other than these kind of physical amount that is there business. But that shows if 90 aspect, that's their business. If 90% is personnel that is really the only place to cut or at least to put the warnings of what the cuts may be.

A. St. JOHN: I understand the school district has entered an agreement to offer the teachers a seven percent pay raise in 2012 on the assumption the economy will be picking up by then. Andrew I wonder what you think? For people who have lost their jobs and not had a raise in years and years do you think the teachers are seeing the world through the same lens as everybody else?

A. DONOHUE: They are facing the same problems obviously. There was a contract they have gotten a lot of criticism for. That is a lot of short sighted contracts we see in government we will not give you anything now, but are going to assume in a couple of years everything is going to be okay.

But I think back to Michael's point it's interesting this Los Angeles case has given the district the ability to side step this seniority based firing sort of plan, but nobody in San Diego Unified is seizing this. They are worried there are legal complications and that it would cause quite a stir. But I think at the heart of it is a desire probably not to inflame anymore tensions with the teachers union, quite politically0 powerful and quite upset with people who are normally their allies.

K. DAVY Two brief points. One, California has among the highest paid teachers in the country on average. You can have fewer teachers at higher pay or more teacher at lower pay. Just a simple economic frame.

The second is most teachers' contracts had they talk about teachers have not had a raise in X number of years do not mean that individual teachers have not have raises. It means the whole contract base has not had a raise. It's a step system and with reach year, depending on how the steps are, you get a raise with those steps.

A. St. JOHN: Just looking at it from a different perspective I know that federal funding is not going directly to schools it's more state funding. But do you think it's right that middle class families are seeing their education system for their children being eroded because tax cuts for the wealthy are being extended. Do you see that there is any kind of connection between the priorities in this country and what is happening to our schools?

M. SMOLENS: Well it's always hard sometimes I don't think people quite make the connection because we rejected taxes before even as these services are being diminished. There is that connection, but it's very difficult politically even to those middle class families to convince them of tax increases because the debate always gets much larger. The notion of this would just affect the wealthy usually gets blurred and just has not been successful. You mentioned at the federal level you have a Republican House so the reality is that is not going to change anytime soon.

A. St. JOHN: I know there are some suggestions from an organization called San Diegans for Great Schools. They want to make some significant changes to the way the school is governed. Do you think that might make a difference to the kind of decisions that are made in city schools in the future, Andrew?

A. DONOHUE: It definitely could. What they want to do is add four appointed school board members to the five elected. A lot of the talk about it is bringing more stability to the board. I think a good deal of it too is to try to dilute the power of the teachers' union and try to get a lit bit more diversity of voices on the school board. So yes that could very much impact it. If you all of a sudden had a five/ four majority rather than a three/ two majority you could very much see actions that would be perhaps a little more aggressive against the teachers' union.

M. SMOLENS: I was just about to say something Andrew did. A lot of it is they think the influence of the teachers' union has been too much and that is a big part of the problem. Messing with the board's structure, or changing the board's structure, as some educators said they have seen appointed school boards they seen and elected ones, but this hybrid is a very unique proposal. You would have some people that aren't directly involved with public education on that board.

The final point I would like to make is a lot of this group has backing from some certain business interests and of the establishment in San Diego, and it's just interesting that they are proposing an expansion of government. Where do you see that anywhere but they did that I guess at the San Diego County with a strong mayor. They went for the Ninth District as well.

When you don't have influence or out of power you are looking for ways to maybe change structurally to balance the playing field

NEW SPEAKER: [CHECK AUDIO] It strikes me not withstanding whether it's to diminish the teachers' union power one way or the other, it's profoundly anti democratic. After all, it is a public school district, paid for by the taxpayers and the taxpayers or the voters presumably want to pick its representatives and not having someone appointed.

A. St. JOHN: We will let Kent have the last word there. We have run out of time. I have would like to thank you all very much for being her on the Roundtable today. That's Ken Davy, Editor of the North County times. Michael Smolens, Government editor of the San Diego UT. And Andrew Donohue, Editor of