Last Friday, Matt Bell attached a yellow Post-It note to his day planner, detailing what he says is round one of proposed layoffs that seem to be the only way to solve the San Diego Unified School District's massive 2002-03 budget shortfall. That morning, Bell had received word that 400 classified workers-district employees who fill business and service-sector jobs-were being notified by their managers that they were slated for a layoff pending the Board of Trustees' approval on Jan. 21. Bell, an organizer with the California School Employees Association, predicted that by June, the number of out-of-work classified employees would more than double.
As the 2002-03 school year passes the mid-point, district officials say that they'll have to make it through the remainder of the year without an estimated $75.1 million of an overall $1.1 billion annual budget. Of that $75.1 million, $65.1 million of the deficit can be blamed on a state budget crisis that's resulted in an estimated $4.5 billion in cuts to education programs statewide over the next 18 months.
California's financial woes signal just how heavily state money problems can cripple education. Per Proposition 98, 40 percent of the state's budget is set aside for education spending. San Diego Unified, then, relies on the state for 92 percent of its revenue. The remaining 7 percent comes from the federal government and 1 percent from local government.
The district claims responsibility for $10 million of the budget shortfall. Director of Communications Peri Lynn Turnbull said that while the district has scrutinized cuts on travel, overtime pay and special events, the largest portion of the budget deficit will be offset by cutting jobs-88 percent of the district's money goes to employee salaries and benefits. But even in job cuts there's a rub: the layoff of 1,000 classified employees that Bell expects will occur between March and June won't do much to remedy the lack of money for the current school year. The benefits of slimming down human resources will prove positive for the next school year's budget, however; though, as Bell pointed out, the district will have to run without some needed personnel. The initial round of layoffs includes 70 part-time school bus monitors, part of whose job is to assist special needs kids on and off the bus.
As for teachers and other credentialed staff, they must be given a six-month notice if they are to be laid off. Neither the district nor the teachers union could say how many teachers might lose their jobs, but the statewide estimate stands at around 35,000.
During the past few weeks, district staff have been meeting with the unions not only to let them know what's going on with the budget, but also to get their input on how to cut spending without putting too many jobs at risk. For CSEA's Bell and San Diego Educators Association President Terry Pesta, it's a frustrating position to be in given the district's way of doing business.
“For four years they haven't really listened to us,” Pesta said, “and now they want to meet with us and get our suggestions. There's not much trust between [the unions] and the district.”
For anyone who's followed the tenure of controversial district Superintendent Alan Bersin, the significance of the four years Pesta refers to needs little explanation. In 1998, Bersin launched his Blueprint for Student Success, a sweeping and costly education-reform plan, the implementation of which teachers and parents argue they had no say in. As for spending, a Dec. 26 memo from SDEA and CSEA wags a finger at Bersin. “Over the last four year, SDUSD employees have observed the district's practice of deficit spending and have, in fact, warned district officials of its consequences to no avail.”
Bell says this divide creates an odd situation that only complicates a time when all parties should be working together.
“There's two different problems in San Diego,” he said. “One is the state budget crisis.... We're working with the district in Sacramento to maintain education funding. Mr. Bersin goes to Sacramento; our members go to Sacramento.
“But there's a second problem,” Bell continued, “and that's how the district mismanages funds, mainly in support of the Blueprint. They were in the red before we got into this position. We've been saying all along, ‘You're going to put us in a mess,' and here we are. We're working together in [Sacramento], and we're holding them accountable here locally.”
The Dec. 26 letter lists 21 suggestions to reduce spending, a list that both groups admit was put together quickly given that they found out about the gravity of the deficit only two weeks prior. The letter points out that the unions were irritated by Bersin's suggestion that they send ideas for budget cuts to district staff via e-mail. Both CSEA and SDEA have since demanded-and were granted-facilitated meetings to discuss budget solutions.
Suggested cuts include the usual: a hiring freeze, whittling down of materials, suspension of incentive bonuses and cuts to non-funded summer school and after-school programs, among other things. The list, however, also includes pointed critiques of the Blueprint's inflated administrative costs.
The first on the list of suggested cuts is to get rid of “all ‘outside' district paid consultants”-highly paid education experts, a majority of whom are flown in from New Zealand and New York to train teachers under the auspices of Blueprint methods. During the past four years, Trustee John de Beck, a critic of the Blueprint, estimates outside consultants have cost the district $60 million. Pesta says that by his calculations, the district has spent $2.5 million on consultant so far this school year.
Turnbull, however, said that consultants, and the Blueprint for that matter, aren't what's left the district with a $10 million budget deficit; rather, she said that it's a combination of admitted overspending, students leaving the district to go to charter schools (reducing the money the district gets from the state), as well as a glut of staffing that's unique to San Diego City Schools and has nothing to do with the Blueprint.
“We're one of the few districts that has things like library and media techs,” Turnbull said. “The amount of nurses and counselors, the ratio of secretaries to school sites-we're really rich in those things. Other districts have gotten rid of those things years ago, so we won't be out of line with other districts if we make those types of cuts.
“Of course it's going to be painful,” she added, “any cut is going to be painful. The goal in the reduction is not to ask people how to do more with less, but what truly can we get rid of in terms of programs and functions.”
As for the unions' allegations of Blueprint overspending, Turnbull said money for that program comes from what's known as categorical funds-money designated by the state, federal government, the school board or by private grants to be used for a specific purpose and therefore can't be reallocated. “The Blueprint didn't increase spending,” she said. “Rather, it took resources and funneled them in a very specific way.”
She said that at the Jan. 21 school board meeting, the district plans to demonstrate how Blueprint money has been allocated.
As for consultants, Turnbull said the district's currently trying to determine whether any consultant money has come from the general fund. She was unable to provide that information to CityBeat before press time.
Both Pesta and Bell said Turnbull's point about categorical funds going to pay for consultants is news to them. Bell, in fact, questioned whether categorical funds could even be spent on consultants.
Turnbull chalks up their surprise to the district's record of poor communication.
“We've done a very poor job explaining where [Blueprint] money comes from-there's no doubt,” she said, “Our principals don't even know.”
She added that part of her job-she's been with the district for a year and a half-is to make sure that further miscommunication doesn't get in the way of coming up with budget solutions. “We have a culture that is so ingrained about not communicating that it's been so frustrating from my perspective to try to turn this ship around.”
Turnbull believes that ultimately all sides will see that they're pretty much on the same page as far as recommended cuts. This is necessary given that at the end of the month, the teachers union is set to begin contract negotiations.
“Do I hope that by the time we begin to renegotiate [the teachers' contract] there's going to be a change?” said Turnbull. “I don't think trust will be redeveloped by the time we really start negotiations. I don't believe that's possible in a few months. Will we have been able to demonstrate at least a willingness to collaborate more effectively? Absolutely.”