Feb. 29 2012 09:51 AM

District and its teachers union battle over an evaporating pool of education money

Illustration by Scrojo
Scott barnett is considering the nuclear option.

“I haven't decided that that's what I'm going to do,” he told CityBeat, “but I have to say, I'm seriously looking at that as a consideration.”

Barnett, a member of the San Diego Unified School District's Board of Education, is talking about forcing the district to wave the white flag, admit failure and run itself out of money. Insolvency.

Right now, the school district is looking at a worst-case scenario of being short about nearly $122 million for the fiscal year that starts July 1. But that's merely an estimate, based on how much money Gov. Jerry Brown has said he'll spend on education. The numbers can change during the spring; the state doesn't finalize its budget until June. So, school districts have to plan based on available information, and San Diego Unified is planning for a budget deficit that's roughly equal to 18 percent of its discretionary spending.

It's a huge hole. To get out of it, the district's superintendent is proposing to lay off nearly 1,200—more than 15 percent—of its teachers, counselors, librarians and nurses and sell off $21 million worth of the district's real-estate holdings, in addition to other cuts and budget maneuvers. The result of the layoffs would be extraordinarily high class sizes across all grade levels—as many as 50 students in high-school classes—which would certainly degrade the quality of education. Layoffs, for the most part, are based on a last-hired, first-fired system.

Would that be better or worse, barnett asks, than giving up and allowing the state to send a trustee in to run the show?

San Diego Unified School District Board member Scott barnett thinks it might be time for Armageddon.
Photo by David Rolland

 “I'm at a point in my mind now that we are essentially insolvent today—if not legally, [then] de facto,” barnett said. “We have been using tens of millions of dollars in one-time revenues, reserves and so forth to balance the budget—ba sically our piggy bank. And, next year, the staff's proposing, for the first time, starting the selling of our assets to help balance the budget—one-time revenue.”

Put another way, imagine a family with seven kids booting the youngest child from the house and holding a yard sale in order to feed the rest of the family and pay the mortgage. That's what it's come to for San Diego County's largest school district.

However, “San Diego Unified is no different than any of the 500-plus districts around California,” said Jim Groth, an educator in Chula Vista and a member of the California Teachers Association's Board of Directors. “Everyone has taken [a total of ] over $20 billion worth of cuts over the last four years, and all districts are scrambling, trying to make sense out of what's taking place.”

Roughly $39 million of San Diego Unified's $122-million deficit is the result of a deal the district struck in 2010 with the San Diego Education Association (SDEA), the union that represents teachers. The teachers agreed to cut one week off the school calendar for two years (reducing pay by 2.7 percent each year); in exchange, the district agreed to raise pay a little more than 4 percent for the upcoming school year (2012-13) and another 3 percent in 2013-14 and add that week back to the calendar.

Gov. Brown has proposed a tax increase for the November election that, if successful, would net the district about $40 million; it's one of three proposed tax measures that would increase education funding. But since that election comes two months into the school year and more than four months after the district has to set its budget, the district can't count on that money. If it materializes, it'll be rolled into the following budget year.

Most of the planned layoffs can be avoided if the teachers agree to not only say goodbye to the raises and continue taking the furlough days, but also accept pay cuts and healthcare-cost increases that would be rolled back if the tax measure passes. But the district is powerless to make that happen; the teachers union would have to volunteer to come back to the bargaining table. So far, the union has expressed no such willingness.

So, as most of the players see it, there are two choices: mass layoffs or huge union concessions. barnett sees his nuclear option as another route: Don't lay anyone off and purposefully run the district out of money: “I've had a lot of sleepless nights trying to think of a third way. That's why I'm seriously thinking that insolvency is a third way. But it has a lot of risk.

“In theory,” he says, “we could not do the layoffs, which is what the union wants, but then still come to an agreement with the unions on concessions—on salary cuts and so forth—if they don't want a trustee to take over. In some ways, I'm wondering if the unions will ever seriously negotiate if they don't believe we are going to go under. So, it's truly an Armageddon solution.”

If he decides to vote that way, barnett would need to convince at least two of his four colleagues on the Board of Education to do the same—a tall order because if the unions don't buckle, it could amount to political suicide for the board.

“Obviously, as politicians, your career is over,” he said. “So, if you have interest in a career in the future, you'll always be known as the person who brought San Diego Unified down.”

When CityBeat interviewed board member Richard Barrera, he didn't mention Armageddon as an option. Instead, Barrera expressed faith that the teachers and their union president, Bill Freeman, will eventually come around.

“I think that the majority— probably the overwhelming majority—of teachers wants the district and the union to figure out a solution to this budget crisis so that there's not mass layoffs,” Barrera said. “I think that voice is certainly going to become louder and louder within SDEA going forward. I have, actually, quite a lot of confidence in Bill Freeman.”

That would suggest that there are formidable forces within SDEA that are aligned against the union president. SDEA will hold elections for board members in mid-March. Those elections could change the union's stance.

For his part, Freeman declined to discuss the union's internal politics, instead focusing on struggling teachers. “I know 61 teachers right now that have lost their homes,” he said. “I know 38 teachers that have moved in with each other in order to keep from losing their homes.

“We don't know whether the district has a budgetary problem. The district doesn't know whether they have a budgetary problem— because we don't have a budget,” he said. “We're having to lay teachers off based upon this in-the-dark budgeting. That's what's frustrating to me.”

Freeman, like everyone in this drama, simply wants clearer information before having to make major decisions.

“Whenever the district has come to us with clean numbers and they had a problem, we have never turned our heads to them. And I don't think that we will do that,” he said. “But I don't want to open our pockets and say, ‘OK, you may have a problem. Here, take what you think you may need.' What they think they may need isn't something that would come back to us if they don't need it. So, that's not something I'm willing to do.”

March 15 is a crucial date for school districts statewide. That's when the state requires districts to notify teachers that they might be laid off in June. If a teacher doesn't get a pink slip in March, that teacher is safe for another year. The March 15 deadline is a big reason districts have to come up with a budget before they know how much money the state will give them. But, also, the county requires an interim budget from school districts in March.

Some relief may be on the way for San Diego Unified. At the urging of the district and the teachers union, state Assemblymember Marty Block introduced a bill last Friday that would allow the March 15 deadline to be moved to June 15— for San Diego Unified only. It must clear several committees in both houses of the Legislature and get affirmative votes from two-thirds of all legislators in order to impact the upcoming budget year, and that has to get done in two weeks.

“It's going to be difficult to get it done by March 15 under the best of circumstances,” Block told CityBeat. “We're going to try.”

SDEA's stance on Block's bill has been chaotic. After asking Block to introduce the bill, SDEA announced on Feb. 15 that it would oppose it unless the district first promised not to send any pink slips in March. But if the district were to give that promise and the bill were to fail, the district would lose the ability to balance its budget through layoffs. Eight days later, the union flipped again. “We have backed off,” Free man said, “and we have said that we will not oppose that legislation.”

The March 15 deadline is in place to give teachers time to look for work elsewhere. But because districts lately have had to send out more pink slips than they've ended up needing to, it's created a different kind of anxiety for those receiving them. Last year, hundreds of pink slips were rescinded, although two board members—Barnett and John Lee Evans—voted against rescinding them.

“I think most teachers would say, ‘This process creates more disruption in our lives than if we had a chance to wait it out and not receive a pink slip in the first place,'” Barrera said.

Of course, all this tension is the demon spawn of hard economic times.

“It's safe to say,” Barrera said, “that the relationship between the district and the union was the best that it had certainly been in San Diego Unified in a couple of decades prior to us issuing pink slips last March.”

Before that, he said, the two parties, along with individual schools, were collaborating on reforms that give schools more decision-making power, kind of like charter schools. “And then all that stopped when we issued the pink slips in March,” Barrera said, “and since then, the relationship has been, for the most part, just no communication.”

SDEA has become less talkative with the press, too. CityBeat called and emailed Freeman for two weeks before getting him on the phone. SDEA's media message has largely been made up of confrontational charges of district misinformation and scare tactics. Freeman's been represented in the press as believing the district will find money somewhere, and he's pointed to the board's decision last year to rescind layoffs as proof.

Barnett said that by calling back those teachers, the board, in a way, “enabled” the union's hardline stance, “using money we didn't really have.” He said the board's majority, led by Barrera, has erred on the side of hoping that the economy will improve and the state will send more money down the pike, and he acknowledged that doing so is in the best interest of quality education. But, barnett said, it's still a gamble.

“I love Richard,” he quipped, “but I won't go to Las Vegas with him.” 

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