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Not Much Left But Employee Costs in Schools Budgets

More than nine out of every 10 dollars in the day-to-day budget for San Diego Unified will go to pay employees and cover their benefits this coming school year. That means the school district has fewer things to cut or reduce besides staff as it faces another year of budget cuts.

That number has increased over the past seven years from 83 percent to 90 percent. It’s expected to rise to 91.6 percent in two years. The growing percentage is a reflection of two trends: How hard the school board has tried to pare back on other costs such as supplies, travel and outside contracts before slashing its staff, and the creeping costs of employee benefits, even as spending on salaries is cut.

The same trend is happening across the county and state as budgets are pinched. San Diego Unified is one of several large local school districts where the share of the budget devoted to employees is nearing a worrisome level, according to benchmarks from School Services of California, a financial assistance group. Grossmont, Vista, Sweetwater and Chula Vista Elementary districts face the same issue.

Both educators and school finance experts say it makes sense to cut other costs before cutting staff. San Diego Unified reduced its travel costs, stopped paying for exams that can help students get into college, slimmed school budgets for supplies and cut back on summer school materials. Its central offices cut back on computer equipment and outside contracts and reduced their utilities. And the district dipped deeper into its reserves.

“You can have beautiful schools with all the supplies in the world—but you can’t run a school with a skeleton crew,” said Bruce McGirr, director of the school administrators union in San Diego Unified.

The data are being eyed closely in San Diego Unified, which is seeking a parcel tax to help pay for smaller classes, teacher training for science and math, and other programs. Board President Richard Barrera says that the numbers are just another sign of how badly the school district needs the funds.

Those fighting the tax say the numbers epitomize why the district shouldn’t get more money. They believe the district has gone overboard in sparing its employees and failed to push unions hard enough for cuts. Though the tax is earmarked for specific programs, not hiking salaries, opponents argue it would end up subsidizing promised raises.

“They don’t care about anything else,” said David Page, a parent leader who opposes the parcel tax. “This tax is only going to fund pay raises in the worst economy that California has ever had.”

The growing numbers don’t mean that employees are making more money. Nor do they indicate that local school districts are actually budgeting more on employee salaries.

Though spending on salaries rose between 2003 and 2007, it has fallen during the past two school years. San Diego Unified is also projected to spend less on salaries this year, as are Chula Vista, Poway, Vista, Grossmont and Sweetwater schools, the five largest districts in the county behind San Diego.

But unlike salary costs, school district spending on employee benefits continued to rise. Benefits costs surged 30 percent in San Diego Unified over the past six school years and are expected to increase another 12 percent in the next three years. Poway, Grossmont and Sweetwater will also spend more on benefits this coming year.

That is a common and alarming trend nationwide, said Allison Hausman, spokeswoman for Education Resource Strategies, a Massachusetts nonprofit that helps school districts spend their resources wisely.

“We think the implications of benefit increases are not always as clear to the districts,” Hausman said.

The numbers also reveal how much San Diego Unified and other school districts have cut costs for things other than employees. Though San Diego Unified cut back on staffing costs with bigger classes and furlough days, other spending was hit even harder. Board President Richard Barrera called it “cutting stuff not staff.”

“What we do is educate kids,” Barrera said. “And it’s people who educate kids.”

Other school districts such as Grossmont, Vista and Chula Vista taken the same tack, drastically cutting spending on school supplies while making lesser cuts to spending on employee salaries.

That doesn’t mean educators haven’t felt the pinch. One teacher who pleaded for the San Diego school board to seek the parcel tax, Kimberly Carpender, said her students at Bell Middle School don’t have enough books or lab specimens to dissect. Less money for other costs means less money for teacher training or other outside help. Teachers face more stress in a do-it-yourself district.

And the strain on day-to-day funding has left little money for school repairs that should be routine. Instead, San Diego Unified has relied on leftover, temporary funding that will run out. Schools are expected to become shabbier in coming years before enough bond money is available to fix them.
The bigger problem is that the budget cuts aren’t over, leaving schools less wiggle room for cuts that don’t directly impact employees. San Diego Unified is bracing for $127 million in projected cuts from its $1.17 billion day-to-day budget for the next school year after cutting more than $370 million in the last four years.

Phil Stover, who oversees business operations in San Diego Unified said much of the remaining “stuff” in the budget is essential, such as telephone bills and the licenses to use computer programs. He believes up to 70 percent of those costs for things other than employees can’t be cut.

That means the district will probably have to resort to cutting staff costs somehow. It has already relied heavily on attrition to thin its staff without layoffs. School districts can negotiate with unions to reduce what workers are paid, but many unions have already agreed to furloughs and other cuts, making more unpalatable. The pattern worries Debbie O’Toole, who runs the parent group Voice For Our Kids.

Unless the school district negotiates salary rollbacks or other employee cuts, or gets outside help from the controversial parcel tax, “there’s not going to be any way to open the doors,” O’Toole said.

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