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School board reject furlough plan

The San Diego Unified School District Board of Education on Tuesday rejected a proposal to make most classified employees take a mandatory four-day furlough in order to close a budget gap that still hovers around $48.4 million.

District officials estimated that having administrative staffers, custodians and other such employees work four days less in the 2009-10 school year would save $5.9 million. A similar furlough plan for teachers, which would save an estimated $12 million, is subject to negotiation with unions and was not subject to Teesday’s vote.

“I can’t do this piece by piece,” board member John De Beck said to explain his “no’” vote despite being a vocal proponent of furloughs. He called it an issue of “fairness” to have all employees impacted by fewer work days.

The deficit in the $1.2 billion general fund budget for next academic year was originally estimated to be $146 million.

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However, spending cuts already approved by the board, budget flexibility allowed by the state and stimulus funds, the shortfall was reduced to $48.4 million, according to Superintendent Terry Grier and Chief Financial Officer James Masias. The two presented the status of the district’s finances at a special morning board meeting.

The officials said the deficit figure might drop by several million dollars later this month, depending on a number of factors, including whether teachers unions agree on larger class sizes.

“We’ll continue to see additional savings,” Grier told board members.

The largest single expense category, teachers’ salaries, is pegged at $605.4 million next year. That number will be lowered if the union agrees to having more students in a class and if more teachers accept the district’s buyout offer, according to Grier.

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Early retirement has been accepted by 591 teachers, about 27 percent of those eligible. The district plans to replace each of them with younger, lower- salaried instructors, at a savings next year of about $6 million.

In an effort to get teachers to sign up for early retirement, the board approved a two-week extension of the offer.

In all, 76 of the more than 1,000 employees taking part in the buyout program won’t be replaced, with a savings of $8.9 million in 2009-10, according to district figures. None of the 76 are teaching positions.

Board member John Lee Evans called the retirement program “the whole middle piece between revenues and budget cuts.”

The furloughs were a major option for closing the remaining $48.4 million gap. Among the other choices are reductions in the use of certain block grant funds and continued reorganization of the district’s central office.

Without district-wide furloughs, however, Katherine Nakamura -- the only one to vote in favor of Tuesday’s proposal -- feared the board will have to start eliminated programs that will directly impact students.

“We’re painting ourselves into a corner,” Nakamura said.

Next among the options for reducing spending are closing smaller schools, eliminating local cultural and historical instruction programs and reducing employee health expenditures -- the latter of which would have to be negotiated with unions.

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The district’s financial picture will also be altered by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s latest budget projections that will be announced Thursday, and the results of next week’s special election on state budget propositions.