June 6 2012 09:12 AM

The right choice is saving jobs and keeping class sizes low

Bill Freeman
Photo by David Rolland

Two years ago, the members of San Diego Unified School District’s Board of Education bet that, by now, a national economic rebound would have pulled California out from the abyss. They agreed to a deal with the San Diego Education Association (SDEA), the union that represents the district’s teachers:

For the first two years of the new contract, teachers would get no across-the-board raises other than automatic “step and column” pay increases earned through time on the job for newer teachers and academic achievement for those who chose to continue their own education, and the school year would be reduced by five days, cutting teacher pay by 2.7 percent each year. In exchange, those five days would be restored for the third and fourth years, and teachers would get across-the-board raises totaling 7 percent over the final two years of the contract.

Members of the Board of Education acknowledge it was a gamble, and they lost. The pay increases are scheduled to take effect in less than 30 days, but the state’s budget mess has worsened, and the school district is set to head into the fiscal year that starts July 1 having cut nearly $122 million from its spending plan. To reach that number, the district has told 1,534 educators—roughly 20 percent of the district’s teachers—that they will no longer have jobs next month.

There’s intense pressure on the SDEA to cave in and give up the money that was promised to its members, and the union’s leaders are furious that they’re in this position. We don’t blame them; employers should live up to the bargains they make.

But they had to see this coming. In 2010, there was no indication that California’s budget mess would be solved; there was only hope. Now, the union’s only choices are to continue to claim that the district is hiding tens of millions of dollars between the budget mattresses somewhere—and pray that it’s true and district officials give in—or agree to tear up the 2010 contract and say goodbye to those raises.

The union dispatched a team of people to comb through the budget in hopes of finding that hidden money, but we’ll be shocked if they find it. Even board member Scott Barnett, who’s built his political career on the notion that governments could save lots of money if they’d just try a little harder, believes the district is tapped. Barnett told CityBeat in February that he thinks the district can be made a little bit leaner in some places, but it’ll take time to build in those efficiencies. He thought the district should save teachers’ jobs by sending out a mayday call and asking the state to take over the district’s operations.

No one agreed with him, and so the board’s only choice is to make good on the contract, and the only way to do that is toss more than 1,500 teachers overboard.

It’s understandable that the SDEA would view the predicament as unfair. But it’s reality. The union has a clear choice: Spare the jobs of 1,534 teachers—and, very importantly, keep class sizes smaller—or give 7-percent raises to the roughly 5,500 teachers who remain employed.

Really, this is no choice at all. District children lost in the first two years of the current contract when five days were shaved off the school year. They’ll lose again if the union doesn’t concede and class sizes are increased at all levels, including up to 50 kids per class in high schools. Fifty kids! This is not to mention the 1,534 teachers who’ll lose their jobs just so the others can get raises on top of the automatic step-and-column increases (hat tip to Voice of San Diego for the story that pointed that out).

Teachers should be paid much more than they’re currently paid. But to pay them more, there has to be money available, and there just isn’t. We’re sorry to have to say that the teachers union must put the interests of students ahead of the interests of its members. But, sadly, because of the economy—and because Republicans in the state Legislature wouldn’t allow voters to choose to extend certain state tax rates that were set to expire this year—that’s where we are.

We call on the SDEA to forgo those raises, save those teachers’ jobs and keep class sizes as low as possible.

What do you think? Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com.