SD Unified announces cuts, arts and athletics saved

The San Diego Unified School District Board of Education voted Tuesday to protect athletics, and arts and music programs, from a list of potential budget cuts for the upcoming school year.

A special meeting of the board to go through a series of cuts designed to close a major budget deficit for the 2009-10 academic year was more notable for what was saved.

The board also decided to not close six small schools that were on the chopping block and to maintain cultural education programs, such as Old Town trips and sixth-grade camp.

Athletics, arts and music budgets are “very efficient’’ and worth protecting, board member Richard Barrera said before casting his vote. The programs were saved on a 4-1 vote, with board president Shelia Jackson dissenting in hopes of trimming at least some of the funding.

Two hours of the full-day meeting were devoted to public testimony from those hoping to save athletics, arts and music, even though they weren’t among the items being considered today. However, at mid-afternoon, board member Katherine Nakamura made the motion to protect the programs. “No question, this is the most difficult budget crisis we’ve ever been through,’' Nakamura said.

Board members approved several cuts, the largest being a plan to raise kindergarten through third-grade class sizes from 20 to 24, thereby saving $14.6 million.

The school board is required to pass a balanced budget by the end of this month, and has been trying to reduce funding without laying off teachers. While considering various cuts, they’ve been faced with fluctuating numbers from the staff.

The latest projection in a $1.2 billion general fund budget is for a deficit of $106.7 million, a marked improvement from last week’s estimate of $180.5 million. District staff said the figures changed when they were able to better judge the impact of a district-wide spending freeze, among other reasons.

The meeting was marked by a number of testy exchanges, from board members criticizing the way staff presented the budget figures, and between the board members themselves.

The meeting also showed the first signs of impatience from board members and the public toward employee unions that speakers claimed haven’t agreed to accept their share of the pain.

“We haven’t got enough concessions in the big (budget) areas,’' board member John De Beck said.

Among the proposals that have to be negotiated with unions are health and welfare cuts, a district-wide salary rollback and a four-day teacher furlough.

The concessions being asked for “are not unreasonable,’' said Lani Lutar, the executive director of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association.

Camille Zombro, the president of the San Diego Education Association, responded in her public comments by blistering the district for offering “sideshows’’ of different proposals every day, and accusing Superintendent Terry Grier of “union-busting tactics.’'

Among other spending reductions approved at the meeting:

-lowering funding for special education by $2.6 million, mainly by not filling vacant positions;

-rescinding a planned reduction in ninth-grade class sizes to save $3.9 million;

-and raising the minimum number of riders per bus from eight to 15,

saving $4.2 million.