Eugene Brucker Education Center is headquarters of the San Diego Unified School District. Photo courtesy
Eugene Brucker Education Center is headquarters of the San Diego Unified School District. Photo courtesy

The San Diego Unified School District Board of Education Tuesday evening unanimously approved $124 million in budget cuts for the 2017- 18 school year, which could mean layoffs for hundreds of district employees.

The board also approved a plan that would offer an incentive for teachers to retire at the end of the current school year in an effort to avoid layoffs.

“We must follow the law and at least ensure that we have a balanced budget so that San Diego is on the right path,” Board Member Sharon Whitehurst-Payne said before the vote. “That’s my commitment to you as the taxpayers.”

The board heard from dozens of district employees, parents, students and union officials, for almost two hours before voting on the cuts to the proposed budget of approximately $1 billion.

The estimated crowd of 200 filled the board chamber to capacity, with dozens more in an overflow area.

“The counselors help students graduate and get into college. Once again counseling is facing disproportionate cuts,” Bill Navickas, head counselor at Patrick Henry High School in San Carlos said.

“There are many cuts that could be made to positions here in this building, and we ask that there are no cuts to employees who work directly with students.”

Board documents showed that the district’s central office has been reduced by 355 staff members without affecting services needed to support student, staff and schools for the 2017-18 school year.

“The number of layoffs that we’ve been noticed averages on or about 853. The notification that the district provided has been deficient under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement,” said Leticia Munguia, San Diego field director for the California School Employees Association.

“You need to ensure that your accounting and your fiscal department and your senior staff is responsible for ensuring that the work is being done and that our members are not sacrificed because of bad and poor administration.”

The district is required by law to give notices by March 15 if it expects teacher layoffs next year. The pink slips can be rescinded.

The final budget is expected to be approved in June once the state budget is signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown and the amount of school funding is known.

Kimberly Allard, a science lab teacher at Vista Grande Elementary School in Tierrasanta, urged the board to save prep time teachers.

“It is essential that we offer enriching and engaging programs that attract our students to stay, not repel them to leave by discontinuing programs that they love,” Allard said. “Don’t let our kids be the lab rats of badly designed experiments.”

Next year’s cuts are expected to affect special education, occupational therapy, police, custodial, landscaping, health technicians, cafeteria workers, bus monitors, libraries and physical education in elementary schools.

“After all these cuts, what are you going to spend your money on next year?” Dennis Corbett, a student at Miramar Ranch Elementary in Scripps Ranch asked. “Why are you taking away the basics of our education?”

Corbett asked the board to save physical education classes and the school police.

“Personally, I have had many great experiences in P.E. and we need it to keep us healthy,” he said. “I would also like to argue to keep our school police. We need a safe learning environment.”

Trustee Kevin Beiser was interrupted by hecklers as he attempted to explain to the crowd that the district is facing the cuts because Brown is withholding funds from the district.

“While this package has many things that we don’t agree on as educators, I think that this is a very good budget proposal given our financial situation,” Beiser said. “These challenges are occurring in school districts up and down the state of California.”

Board President Richard Barrera acknowledged that the restless crowd was angry, frustrated, disappointed and emotional. But he reminded them that the district had been through budget shortfalls before.

“We will get through this again and we will continue to provide for our kids everything that we can and our kids will continue to thrive despite all of the challenges,” Barrera said.

— City News Service

Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.