By Claire Trageser
City News Service
The San Diego Unified School District Board of Education voted today to lay off more than 1,500 district employees, including about 700 teachers.
Board members Kevin Beiser and Scott Barnett voted against the interim budget proposed by Superintendent Bill Kowba, which included the layoffs. Board members Richard Barrera, John Lee Evans and Shelia Jackson voted for it.
"I'm going to be voting for the superintendent's budget, but doing so goes against everything I believe in," Barrera said. "I don't think doing this is right, I don't think doing this is smart."
District staff determined the layoffs would be necessary to resolve an estimated $120 million budget shortfall for the next school year.
In addition to the layoffs, 60 temporary teaching positions would not be continued next year, according to Sandra Huezo, the district's chief human resources officer.
Hundreds of protesters, most wearing red T-shirts that read "Together We Are STRONGER," gathered outside the Eugene Brucker Education Center at 4100 Normal St., where the meeting was held.
They held signs, blew horns and encouraged cars to honk their horns as they passed by. A television was set up outside to broadcast the meeting, so the crowd cheered when public speakers at the meeting made a point with which they agreed.
Before the board's vote, district staff and Kowba outlined their reasons for why the layoffs were necessary.
Because 92 percent of the district's expenses originate with personnel the cuts are required, Kowba said.
Kowba warned the board that failure to vote for the layoffs would keep the district from earning a "positive" certification from the San Diego County Office of Education.
Without this certification, the district would have trouble borrowing money and would risk greater county controls and possibly state intervention.
"I'm trying with this proposal to avoid our district losing control over our own destiny,'' Kowba said.
By contract, the district is required to notify teachers of potential layoffs by March 15.
Because the state's budget has not been finalized and a potential June ballot measure could bring more money to public schools, the school district officials will not know how much money it will have to spend for the 2011-2012 fiscal year until the end of June, Kowba said.
This uncertainty could mean some of the instructors who receive layoff notices in the upcoming days will not lose their jobs.
Actual education layoffs are almost always substantially less than the initial amount of layoff notices issued.
Kowba called this a "totally disconnected and dysfunctional time line."
However, he warned that no action from the school board "leaves us with some incredible possibilities."
"I'm not trying to paint doom and gloom, this is just fiscal reality,'' Kowba said.
If the potential June ballot measure were approved, 342 certificated full-time positions and 18 staff positions would need to be cut, said Sandra Huezo, the district's chief human resources officer.
However, Huezo warned the board that choosing this lesser layoff option would not earn the district a "positive" certification.
The need for this positive certification made the decision to layoff teachers necessary, Barrera said.
"We will surrender our ability to meaningfully participate in the system if we don't take these actions tonight and I can't do that," Barrera said.
However, Barrera said he hoped many of the layoffs would eventually be rescinded.
Barrera and Jackson added an amendment to the budget that directed district staff to find an additional $4 million in administrative cuts.
"Even though the superintendent and staff have gone through everything, there is a notion that even more cuts can be found,'' Barrera said.
Evans said the choice facing the board was to "seriously damage education or reach the point very quickly where we can't pay our bills and give up control over our schools."
"We really need to do whatever we can to salvage our next school year,'' he said.
Barnett, who voted against the budget, said he believed there was a "slightly less horrible decision that is a better decision than what staff recommended."
Barnett proposed shifting $30 million in cuts to maintain the equivalent of 400 full-time employees by eliminating middle management, area superintendents and other staff positions, including landscapers, custodians and bus drivers.
"We have to have a darned good reason to keep every manger, director and supervisor in between," he said.
Because the other board members voted for Barrera and Jackson's amendment to the budget, Barnett took back his suggested cuts.
Beiser said even if the district shut down its entire central office, it would only cut $52 million from the budget.
However, the effort to retain teacher jobs is not over.
"February was the second inning, and this is the fifth inning," Beiser said. "This goes until the end of June.''
More than 50 people, most of them teachers, parents and students, signed up to speak at today's meeting.
Matthew Kalal, a performing arts teacher at Patrick Henry High School, rode up to the microphone on a scooter that supported his broken leg. He said cutting music teachers would "set San Diego Unified back 25 years.''
"Over 25 years, that is how long it has taken for music education in San Diego Unified to recover from the last time teachers were cut," Kalal said.
"San Diego Unified is now nationally recognized for its outstanding quality of music education. If you cut these music teachers, all of that goes away."
Another speaker, a parent of a student in the school district, attempted to summarize the meeting with his public comment.
"I'm sorry you've been forced to become the morticians of the public schools," he told the board.