Worst-Case Scenario

Some worst-case scenarios are too terrible to stomach. And such is the case for San Diego Unified School District — faced with overwhelming state budget cuts, a stalwart teachers’ union and a terrifying lack of funds, the district superintendent issued a worst-case draft budget that includes, among others, a 1,200 across-the-board staff layoff.

The draft budget is full of unpleasant realities. If the district sees a (likely) $122-million cut from state funding for the 2012-13 school year, then the following will happen under the new budget: 1,169 staff members laid off, including 781 teachers, dramatically increased class sizes that push the maximum allowed by the state and decreased funding to the arts, school nurses and security. 

This is based, of course, on the worst-case scenario that assumes that Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget ultimatum will fall through — a risky gamble that gives voters the choice of passing a tax raise on high-earning individuals in November or see the state funding ax fall on school funding. It also assumes, more pessimistically, that the teachers’ union and other teaching unions in the area demand their scheduled 7-percent raise in 2012-13 and a generous health care package. 

This is not to say, of course, that teachers do not deserve these funds. But when 90 percent of the district’s general fund budget is consumed by employee compensation and payment, and when the teachers’ union looks unlikely to concede even a small portion of their additional benefits, it is clear that hardnosed negotiating has shifted towards something akin to selfishness. 

District official predictions are even more significant — if the November tax hikes pass and the unions agree to forgo their raises and take cuts to their health care packages, nearly all the planned layoffs can be avoided. Even if the tax hikes aren’t passed, deeper cuts to generous compensation packages can help avoid this catastrophe. After all, allowing nearly 1,200 layoffs — to protect the raises of those teachers who avoid pink slips next year — is a plan that lacks altruism. 

The leader of the teachers’ union, the San Diego Education Association, has dismissed the school district’s worst-case scenario worries with a claim that it is too “cynical,” that the district has been faced with overwhelming budget cuts in the past and has persevered. Gov. Jerry Brown has urged school districts to pass optimistic budgets, based on his projected tax increase and a huge dose of confidence. But wisely, school districts across the state, San Diego Unified included, have opted out and chosen to look at reality.

Now is not a time to be Pollyanna. Budget gimmicks and delaying solutions in the past have only served to move the problem to the next year, and the next year on. The state’s annual revenue has dropped $17 billion since 2007, and it is clear that education, more specifically K-12 education, will see the brunt of it. In the next two years, San Diego Unified will be operating under a $150-billion deficit, two-thirds of which can be attributed to the lack of union negotiations. But enough is enough.

The school district is up against a wall, and no matter what, will have to choose which tough cuts to make for the 2012-13 school year. Just how tough these cuts will be will depend on whether the teachers’ union will finally recognize the direness of the situation and make concessions.