Budget Cuts at One Small School, Part Three
Voice of San Diego
January 19, 2011
by Emily Alpert

When San Diego Unified schools lose teachers, they lose the teachers who
have spent the least amount of time in the school district. That means that
everyone at tiny Juarez Elementary knows which teachers will lose their
jobs if the school doesn't decide to spend money to save them.

Their names are Stephanie French and Nicole Bell.

I'm following Juarez, a small school in Serra Mesa, as it figures out how to slash its
budget. Under the new way of budgeting that San Diego Unified is using this year,
schools have more power to decide what to keep and what to cut as the district
plans for an estimated $120 million deficit.

But that power has been a painful one, especially as schools rush to get their draft
budgets together. And Principal Marceline Marques said Tuesday that Juarez had
only six working days left to make its plans.

Before school started for the day Tuesday, worried school employees sat in the
library, talking over the numbers. This is my third stop at the school. Last week we
got our first peek at how much Juarez has to cut and saw a teacher burst into tears
when trying to make sense of the cuts.

San Diego Unified has pledged to staff schools with the bare minimum of teachers
and let them decide if they want to pay for more. From kindergarten to third grade,
schools would get a teacher for every 29 students instead of 24. The school district
is also low-balling the estimated enrollment numbers, as it does every year, so that if
it's wrong it can send more teachers after school begins, not take them away.

As it makes budget plans, San Diego Unified estimates that Juarez will have 241
students next year, even though right now it has nearly 270 kids. That would afford it
eight teachers. Right now it has 10.

Bell, one of the teachers whose job is at risk, touched her lips anxiously from time to
time during the meeting. Losing her spot at Juarez may or may not mean losing a job
in San Diego Unified too, depending on how many teachers are laid off district-wide.

That has Juarez eyeing its enrollment. To spare all the teachers they have now,
Juarez could go on a recruiting frenzy and bring in more students to help spare
teachers. But if it brought in more than 300 students, it would end up getting less
money because the smallest schools get more money.

Buying at least one extra teacher could keep class sizes in the youngest
grades down to 25 instead of 29...

"'I don't want to lose any teachers. We lose 'em and we get someone new we don't
know,' said Kamisha Umbarger, president of the PTA."

Budget Cuts at One Small School, Part Four
January 20, 2011
by Emily Alpert

Brenna Kielty inhaled and tried to explain why her job should be saved.

She is the English-learner support teacher
, a job that entails everything from
training teachers to gauging whether students are ready to be declared fluent in
English. Her voice wavered as she spoke to the crowd in the school library.

"This has been an extremely uncomfortable couple days for me," Kielty said slowly. "I
thought I'd be able to handle it. I wanted to come in here and say, 'Whatever you
decide.'" But Kielty said she decided to speak up because she does believe her
work matters to children.

What might seem strange is that Kielty didn't need to plead for her job. After days of
discussion about whether her job can be trimmed back or altered, the principal said
she planned to keep that job intact.

Juarez Elementary has become a pressure cooker it tries to figure out what to cut
under San Diego Unified's new, neighborhood level budgeting approach. And at a
small school where everyone knows everyone, no one can help feeling that the cuts
are personal. Even if those cuts are already off the table.

Mary Chicorel, the third grade teacher, talked to Kielty at a Wednesday meeting,
praising her work ethic, professionalism and intelligence.

"This is not about who you are as a person," Chicorel said. "It's about that chunk of
money. Struggle against that feeling that it's personal. Because it's not."

I'm following Juarez, a tiny school in Serra Mesa, as it figures out how to shrink its
budget. Schools now have more power to decide what to keep and what to cut. But
the power has been a mixed blessing, leaving schools to make painful decisions
about people they know.

This is my fourth stop at the school. After school on Wednesday, a committee of
parents and teachers met to figure out how to spend the special money that Juarez
gets for disadvantaged students and English learners. Those choices, in turn, could
shape how it spends all the funds at the school.

Their decision has boiled down to a tradeoff:
Is it worth spending money to
spare at least one of their teachers and clamp down on class sizes?

Or should they devote those dollars to keeping other staff intact, such as the school
clerk or the health technician or the "push in" teachers who work one-on-one with
kids on an hourly basis?

If Juarez does nothing, it stands to lose two of its 10 teachers. The two least senior
teachers are in jeopardy.

"I don't want to lose any teachers. We lose 'em and we get someone new
we don't know," said Kamisha Umbarger, president of the PTA.

[Maura Larkins comment:  This sounds like personal politics.  Does "someone
new we don't know" means "someone we can't count on to do what we
want."?  If schools properly evaluated teachers, they could replace politics
with professionalism.]

Two of her kids go to the school, one just graduated, and one is nearly ready to
start preschool there, a grinning 4-year-old who spent the meeting coloring
alongside Chicorel.

"We go into the office and it's hugs and high fives," Umbarger said of the office staff.
"That breaks down when you start replacing people."

Parents and school employees surveyed at Juarez were split about whether to
spend the money to keep classes small and retain one of those teachers. Roughly
half said they should and half said they shouldn't.

Principal Marceline Marques said one alternative could be hiring classroom
assistants: college students who could help out in class and make bigger classes
seem smaller. But some teachers were skeptical, saying that a not-so-hot classroom
assistant could be as much work as another student in class.

Juarez has grown tenser as decision time looms. Marques and the longstanding
school assistant, Treasure Love, argued today about whether the school could call
specifically for a bilingual school assistant. (Love is not bilingual.) Marques said she
could. Love said she couldn't. Marques has argued that if the office staff is thinned,
there needs to be someone bilingual there all the time...
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