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San Diego Unified: One Step Closer to Budget Doomsday

November 17, 2011

San Diego Unified based its budget on projections from Sacramento that at the time seemed could be likely.  They were encouraged by the state to use these budget projections when figuring out how many teachers they could bring back to work.  All of this is in trouble now as it seems we may slip back into a recessionary environment (assuming we ever came out of one).

Emily Alpert is back over at Voice of San Diego, she has this good report with links and possibilities about what may happen to the district.

The financial fate of local schools rests on whether California will slash school funding in the middle of the year. A crucial new analysis released today puts the state a step closer to doing just that. School officials say it would send San Diego Unified hurtling toward a financial meltdown.

The school district built its budget on the hopes that California would not make these cuts, rehiring teachers this summer to keep classes small for its youngest students. Now that money could be in jeopardy. Here is a step-by-step guide to what happened today and what it means for your local schools.

What This Means for San Diego Unified: It’s a big deal. Superintendent Bill Kowba has said these cuts could be the first step toward insolvency and a state takeover, a dramatic step that would strip control from the superintendent and the school board. School officials estimate it would deepen cuts by more than $30 million, money the district was banking on when it rehired teachers this summer.

What Decides If Cuts Will Happen: The Department of Finance will issue its own forecast in December. The governor will use the December forecast and the prediction that came out today from the state legislative analyst to decide whether to cut schools by more than $1 billion.

Why Schools Are Worried: California relied on a rosy revenue projection to spare schools from deeper cuts in the summer. The tradeoff was that if those revenues didn’t roll in, schools could suffer cuts in the middle of the year.

San Diego Unified has estimated that such cuts could deepen its deficit, already estimated as high as $80 million for next school year, by $56 million more. It banked on the money to restore more than 300 jobs for teachers, taking a gamble on the state money coming. California prodded school districts to rehire teachers, but not all of them took the same risk as San Diego Unified.

If the Cuts Do Happen: Weathering midyear cuts would be especially daunting for schools because it can’t dismiss teachers in the middle of the year. Schools were told they could slash the school year even more to save money, but they’d still need to get labor unions to agree to do so, since it would cut workers’ pay.

If schools really did go insolvent, it would mean a huge loss of control for the school district: Kowba would be fired and the state would appoint an administrator in his place. The school board would lose all power. The administrator would have sweeping powers to decide how to keep the school district afloat. 

What’s Next for School Districts: They’re gearing up for a political fight over whether to make the cuts. San Diego Unified school board President Richard Barrera said the state could still decide to spare schools by generating new revenue or making other cuts.

“We’ve got to call on everybody who cares about public schools,” Barrera said. “All of these guys that claimed they were committed to protecting public education in this budget, if the governor pulls the trigger, they didn’t.”

A school district lobbyist said even if California makes the cuts, legislators could decide to give schools more options. There are already some signs that lawmakers will try to avoid the school cuts: Sacramento Bee reporter Kevin Yamamura tweeted that State Senator Ellen Corbett is asking to reopen the budget to avoid midyear education cuts.

Meanwhile, San Diego Unified is getting down to the glum business of planning out what other cuts would be needed if the cuts come, said Bernie Rhinerson, a school district spokesman. The school board must come up with its first financial plan by the middle of December.

I’ll be tracking down more details about what this new prediction means for San Diego Unified. For immediate updates and links, please check out my Twitter feed.

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