How San Diego Schools Pushed Themselves to the Precipice of Insolvency

Thursday, October 20, 2011

This summer, San Diego Unified School District trustees were asked to make a difficult decision.

The district had prepared to lay off 1,400 employees, including about 800 teachers — about 10 percent of its entire workforce. Then the state offered a lifeline, issuing newly optimistic economic forecasts and telling districts to rehire teachers.

With the extra money, the district could now afford to bring back more than 300 teachers who had previously been told they'd be laid off. That would help keep cherished class sizes down at some of the district's most challenged schools, and, in board President Richard Barrera's words, prevent the district from "blowing up" programs that had been making significant headway.

But hiring back those teachers would mean spending a tenuous $25 million in already tight budget times. It would mean relying on optimistic projections from the state that far more revenue would come into California's coffers than the year before. If the board chose to spend that money and the state's projections didn't come true, the district's budget deficit for the following year would balloon from about $60 million to almost $115 million. And, once it had made the decision to rehire them, the district wouldn't be able to jettison the teachers it had brought back, forcing it to cut elsewhere in an already ravaged budget if the money didn't come through.

The other option was to play it safe.

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