Cutting jobs might not be the toughest challenge for schools chief

March 12, 2017

| San Diego Union Tribune

San Diego city school Superintendent Cindy Marten and the board of trustees have presented a unified, if grim, front in support of sweeping layoffs to close a big budget gap.

That’s a hard thing to do. But things might actually get tougher for Marten — if the financial picture improves.

The San Diego Unified School District has a $124 million hole in its estimated $1.3 billion operations budget.

Marten and a unanimous board have agreed to fill it by eliminating the equivalent of 977 full-time positions, which includes hundreds of teachers.

At least that was their latest number. The figures have been evolving, changing and clarified several times. Whatever the final tally, it appears that in the neighborhood of 1,500 employees, some apparently part-time, could be affected.

“The cuts will be deep, and the cuts will be significant,” Marten told the Union-Tribune editorial board last week.

Because Gov. Jerry Brown’s preliminary budget included less for schools than state budget analysts expected, there’s the potential his revised spending plan could crank that upward. Under one scenario, according to school officials, that could mean perhaps $20 million more for the district.

Marten pledges not to use that money, if it comes, to give some of the pink-slipped employees a reprieve. She said the district has long had a structural problem that often results in a budget shortfall of around $100 million. A real fix is needed, she said, and the problem can’t continually be papered over with short-term measures like one-time land sales.

The 977 or so positions, she said, must go regardless of what Brown does because a budget gap of $50 million already has emerged in the 2018-19 budget — even with these cuts.

But if there’s money on the table, the pressure to buy back some of those jobs will be enormous.

There’s the basic, gut rationale that if there’s money that could keep people employed and lessen the effect of the budget cuts on students, why wouldn’t you do that now and worry about next year then?

Further, all five-members of the Board of Trustees got there with backing of the influential San Diego Education Association. Teacher union leaders won’t stand for some of their people being show the door if there’s money that, in their view, is available.

Marten has almost always seemed to be in sync with her bosses on the board. But if she’s determined to make this structural change, and the trustees want to use that money now, will she be able to stand up to them?

She said holding the line for the longer-term is “going to take the kind of fiscal restraint that’s necessary.”

San Diego Unified has gone down this path before, raining pink slips down on hundreds of employees only to withdraw most and sometimes all of the layoff threats.

Sometimes the state has come through with more money, other times the district administration with support of the board finds enough chewing gum and bailing wire to hold things together for another year.

Unified’s financial acumen over the years is certainly open to question, but the district also is hampered by a lousy process not of its making.

If layoffs are in the forecast, affected employees must be notified by March 15. Yet trustees and superintendents won’t have a good handle on what state money they’ll get until the governor’s budget revision in May at the earliest. Further, they don’t know how many people will take early retirement packages or otherwise leave the district.

If they undershoot on pink slips they’re in big trouble because of the difficulty of laying off people after the notice deadline. To be conservative, they always over estimate and hope state funds and other maneuvers can make most or all of it go away. But that would only make things worse next year.

Marten says not this time — and she has drawn a 1,000-job line in the sand. We’ll see if the trustees cross it later this spring.

Waiting on Papa Doug’s ambassadorship

Word has been circulating for weeks that developer Doug Manchester will be the next ambassador to the Bahamas.

CNN reported that Manchester had been telling people the deal was done. Meanwhile, people who know Manchester say they’ve been contacted by State Department officials doing a background check.

But no official word so far.

The developer, the former owner of the Union-Tribune, hasn’t responded to the U-T’s inquiry about whether he’s becoming a diplomat for the President Donald Trump. Manchester raised money for and made substantial personal contributions to Trump during last year’s campaign.

It’s been a while since the first local report about the possibility that Manchester might become Trump’s man in the Bahamas. The Reader relayed that an online entity called speculated about the appointment in December and noted that Manchester has a house in the Bahamas.

Supplying support

John Cox is the Rancho Santa Fe venture capitalist who’s running for governor and pushing a sweeping political overhaul initiative to create a “Neighborhood Legislature.”

The latter received support from a party not heard from much these days: Arthur Laffer, who was an economic adviser to President Ronald Reagan and famously advocated “supply side” economics.

“I really like the idea,” Laffer is quoted saying in a release from the Neighborhood Legislature campaign. “It makes voters relevant again.”

The Neighborhood Legislature is a concept that Cox has been pushing for a few years: Each of the current 120 legislative districts would be divided into 100 neighborhoods, each with its own elected representative, the release notes.

That’s 12,000 elected people if you’re keeping count. Because the 80 Assembly districts overlap with the 40 Senate district, it seems the number would be less. But let’s not quibble.

Boosters of the idea say it will allow for very low-cost campaigns and most of those elected will stay home. The 100 local reps in each district choose one of their own to go to Sacramento and legislate.