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School district looks ahead to 2010, familiar landscape

By JAMES R. RIFFEL

City News Service

For the San Diego Unified School District Board of Education, and leaders of schools countywide, 2010 will look a lot like 2009, with budget deficits compelling them to decide whether to save or shelve programs, and keep or lay off employees.

The year 2009 saw a bruising battle waged among board members, the public and representatives of various school programs over how to handle deficits caused by the bad economy and what local officials call poor state fiscal stewardship.

The board had to close a deficit of about $146 million for the current school year and did so by applying federal stimulus funds, raising class sizes and offering employees early retirement.

They often voted 3-2 on difficult topics, with members Richard Barrera, Shelia Jackson and John Lee Evans forming the majority. The group, often accused of being too tightly aligned with labor unions, refused to lay off teachers.

They managed to save arts, cultural and athletic programs, but whether they can do so again for the 2010-11 fiscal year — and still protect teaching jobs — remains questionable.

The school board also instituted — on another 3-2 vote — an agreement with local labor unions on how to allocate jobs for projects under Proposition S, the $2.1 billion bond measure approved by voters in November 2008.

The deal describes the conditions under which workers will be employed by contractors, includes hiring preferences for workers who live within the school district’s boundaries, and sets standards for livable wages and benefits.

Backers of the agreement believe it will save money in the long run by ensuring timely project completion and banning work stoppages. Opponents say it effectively will prevent non-union shops from bidding for Proposition S work.

The district will head into 2010 without a superintendent.

Terry Grier left in September for Houston, where he received a significant pay increase, went to a district twice the size of San Diego’s and returned closer to his roots in the South. He had lost the support of some board members, particularly Jackson, who was the board president for most of the year.

Jackson said recently the board will take time to hire a new superintendent. Members first want to develop a long-term vision for the district, then explain its priorities to stakeholders — a process that could take several months.

William Kowba, who has been a district executive for a few years, was named interim superintendent.

Amid the budget battles, there were bits of good news for the San Diego district. API scores for 2008-09 climbed 18 percent from the previous year, four points above the statewide improvement rate. The district also agreed to lease two floors of the proposed new downtown library for a charter school, a commitment that moved the long-awaited project closer to reality.