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San Diego Unified School District may cut $155 million from budget; approves 370 early retirements

Buses line up in the San Diego Unified School District.
(File)

The district projects budget cuts for next year while not knowing how much state and federal funding it will get.

The San Diego Unified School District board has approved an interim budget that projects $155 million in cuts next school year and $41 million the following year.

The board also approved early-retirement incentives for 370 employees, including 130 educators.

Four teachers with a combined 115 years of experience at La Jolla’s Torrey Pines Elementary School are retiring this month, leaving the school with lessons in collaboration and community.

The district said it now has a “qualified” budget certification, meaning the district may not be able to meet its financial obligations for the current school year or the next two years.

San Diego Unified has a total budget of $1.6 billion.

The budget projections and the qualified designation could change in coming months, once the district learns how much money the state plans to give the district next school year, district leaders said.

“All of this right now is just we hope that we will get monies for this and that ... and yet we’re required to do a budget when we have no idea how much money we will get,” trustee Sharon Whitehurst-Payne said during the Dec. 8 board meeting.

The district estimates it may overspend its unrestricted funds this year by about $48.9 million, according to district documents.

District finance officials said budget cuts for next year could include “program shifts,” “greater efficiencies,” a spending freeze and a hiring freeze.

Tamara Hurley, a community resident, said she thinks the district is being too vague.

“The intent of this first interim report is to explain what the district will do to remain solvent in future years,” Hurley said during public comments, which are written and are read aloud by district officials because the public cannot attend meetings in person during the pandemic. “Instead, the public is left with vague references to program shifts, greater efficiencies, hiring, spending freezes and other reductions.”

Base state school funding is allocated on a per-student basis. But throughout the pandemic, the state has not decreased its base funding to schools even though many school districts, like San Diego, are reporting larger-than-usual enrollment declines due to the pandemic.

In September, San Diego Unified announced that its enrollment had fallen below pre-pandemic projections by about 2,500 students. Enrollment has appeared to continue its decline since then.

In September, the district said it enrolled 100,348 students but, as of the beginning of December, the district showed 97,756 students in its schools, according to county data.

San Diego Unified received about $115 million in federal coronavirus aid this school year, which helped fill the deficit the district was anticipating for this year. But the district is not counting on getting another federal stimulus payment, board Vice President Richard Barrera said.

The district also was anticipating roughly $30 million in additional state funding this year to pay for cost-of-living increases, but that did not materialize — another reason the district is anticipating a $155 million deficit next year, Barrera said.

The district offered the early-retirement incentive partly to help prevent layoffs of teachers and staff members amid declining enrollment, district officials said.

The district offered the buyouts in October to employees 55 or older who have worked in the district at least 15 years. Employees who take the buyout will retire effective Dec. 31.

Instead of a direct payout, the district will pay retirees in the form of health care reimbursements. The district will pay $15,000 a year to retirees if they are not in Medicare and $5,000 for retirees who are Medicare-eligible. The reimbursements will last five years.

Health insurance is one of the main factors deterring many employees from retiring before they turn 65, Superintendent Cindy Marten said.

Officials said the retirement plan will be cost-neutral over five years, but they have not said publicly how much the plan will cost or save the district each year.

Hurley said the lack of financial details is concerning, considering the district is approving retirement payouts while projecting the $48.9 million in deficit spending this year and the $155 million total deficit next year.

“To vote for this without more detailed financial information would be fiscally irresponsible,” she said.

Whitehurst-Payne, who previously worked in the district’s human resources department, said she proposed the idea of a retirement incentive because she had heard some staff members say they could not see themselves ever going back to work in person because of the pandemic. When the district returns to in-person school, the district may have to hire substitutes for those teachers, which would create disruptions for students, Whitehurst-Payne suggested.

“By doing the program this way, I think we’re able to help those folks to move on with their lives and to help children to have more stability,” Whitehurst-Payne said.

But some parents said they are concerned that the midyear departure of 130 educators will cause disruptions for students at a time when they are already struggling with distance learning.

Parent Jennifer Fox said her second-grade daughter is getting a new teacher starting Jan. 4 because her school is shuffling staff due to the buyouts. She said she hasn’t been told yet who the teacher is.

“This was very cruel of the district to do in a pandemic year where the children, especially the younger ones, are already suffering enough from the failure of distance learning,” Fox said during public comments.

Marten said the district has a transition plan that aims to minimize movement of staff and disruptions to students.

The district plans to fill vacant positions by turning part-time employees into full-time ones, transferring employees internally, hiring visiting teachers to become classroom teachers and hiring December graduates from teacher education programs, said district spokeswoman Maureen Magee.

She said the district is handling the early-retirement plan internally, so it did not need prior board approval. The district would have needed prior approval if it were to contract with a third-party retirement plan administrator, she said.

Among the 370 employees who have taken buyouts are:

  • 130 educators, including teachers, counselors, nurses and others
  • 86 operations and support services members, which could include bus drivers and maintenance employees
  • 61 classroom aides
  • 58 clerical employees
  • 26 administrators, including two principals and three vice principals
  • Seven non-represented employees
  • Two school police employees

Tony Meeks, one of La Jolla High School’s two vice principals, plans to retire next month, and the school is beginning the search for his replacement.

San Diego Unified’s school police chief, Michael Marquez, is among those who took a buyout. Marquez has been chief since 2017 and has served in San Diego Unified school police since 2001.

Also during the Dec. 8 board meeting, President John Lee Evans appeared to respond to recent complaints from parents and the local ACLU about how the district handles public comments during board meetings. Critics had said that not all comments were being read aloud and that some were being edited.

Evans said the board is planning to post all public comments — in their entirety — on the district’s website.

The board also thanked Evans, who is retiring from the board after 12 years and was attending his last board meeting. ◆