Dozens of teachers in San Diego, California’s Sweetwater Union High School District (SUHSD) received “excess” notices last week about upcoming job cuts and site transfers. As in other school districts around the country, authorities have blamed falling student enrollment for the reductions. Rather than reducing class sizes, the cutting of the number of educators and desperately needed resources will only make a further exodus of students inevitable.
A so-called excessed teacher is removed from a school site at the end of the current school year but is supposed to be granted employment at another school site in the district the following school year. The scope of their work and even what they teach, however, depends on their credentials and the needs of whatever different site they transfer to.
Excess lists were handed over to the district on Friday, January 31. Teachers with the least seniority at a given school site face a potential excess each year based on site allocations and projected enrollment.
SUHSD is the largest secondary school district in California with 34 schools—13 high, 11 middle, three charter, three alternative education, and four adult schools. It has more than 1,500 teachers, 40,000 students, and 22,000 adult learners. The district will be implementing massive cuts for the upcoming school year because of a reported $26 million budget deficit.
Due to site allocations and a projected decline in enrollment for next year, nearly every school site had a handful of teachers excessed this year. Given the number of supposed “surplus” teachers at almost every school site, not all will have a guaranteed position for the next school year. What’s worse, most of the excessed teachers will receive pink slips or layoff notices on March 15 due to their overall lack of seniority in the district.
Despite claims by SUHSD that the pink slips are not inevitable, preparations for major cuts are already underway for the next school year. In January, the district sent budget allocations to each school site. Various services and positions such as curriculum specialists, Band/Orchestra, restorative justice, attendance coordinator, athletic director positions have been zeroed out, which means the funding for their positions is not guaranteed for the following school year. If funding is removed, not only will those vital services and positions be cut, those teachers sent back to the classroom to teach an equivalent number of periods will bump out teachers with less seniority in that department at each school site.
Last week, Sweetwater Education Association (SEA) representatives sent out a notice to teachers making it clear the union would do nothing to oppose layoffs. “There will be RIF's [Reduction in Workforce]. This is a district decision. SEA has absolutely no role in this choice. Because the district refuses to acknowledge that they are going to do this they also have not confirmed how far back the RIF's will have an impact. Not having this information is not SEA's fault. SEA can only confirm the information that they have. SEA has no control over RIF's—they cannot stop them—to believe otherwise is fallacious…”
Nothing more clearly expresses the prostration of the unions before the austerity demands of local and state Democrats, who have spearheaded the attack on public education in California, home to the largest number of billionaires in the US. The national, state and local unions, allied with the Democrats, have colluded with the vast expansion of for-profit charter schools, spearheaded by former Governor Jerry Brown, and the diversion of public resources for the endless tax cuts and subsidies for Silicon Valley, Hollywood corporations and the defense industry.
Last year, the unions betrayed powerful strikes by Los Angeles, Oakland and Sacramento teachers. This had led to growing opposition by teachers, including efforts by Sweetwater educators to form rank-and-file committees, independent of the SEA, to fight the layoffs. Teachers have organized after school picketing and other actions to mobilize parents, students and broader sections of the working class to fight the cuts and threatened layoffs.
SEA officials have responded by telling teachers they have no choice but to accept the layoffs, or at best they should beg the school officials to change their minds. In its email to teachers facing the loss of their livelihoods, the SEA urges them send emails to the board and attend the February 10 board meeting. Fearful that more teachers will begin to take the initiative into their own hands, the union officials asked teachers to “Encourage our colleagues to speak only facts and truth and inspire them to support SEA--who fights for all teachers!”
In addition to draining public funds for the benefit of big business and the charter school industry, there is also evidence that the supposed budget shortfall is the result of outright theft by local school officials who are now demanding the teacher reductions.
An investigation by the San Diego Union Tribune revealed that a recently retired auditor, Frances Martinez, had discovered financial “mismanagement” in April 2018, at least nine months prior to the public announcement of the supposed budget shortfall. Martinez found that Sweetwater’s finance department was illegally conducting wire and phone transfers of millions of dollars from the district’s clearing account, a practice prohibited by state law.
An initial audit by the state Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) revealed evidence indicating a cover-up of the district’s financial problems. In response, the school board has made the dubious claim that the loss of $68 million was due to “faulty software.”
Last year, striking teachers in Los Angeles and Oakland were also told by the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) and Oakland Education Association (OEA) union to make moral appeals to the district and state officials for a moratorium on charter school expansion and increased school funding.
During last year’s seven-day strike, OEA officials explicitly opposed protests by students and parents against budget cuts because they cut a deal behind the backs of teachers that would fund a paltry pay increase through cost cutting and staff layoffs. After the sellout of the Oakland strike, the district laid off some 250 teachers and carried out $22 million in cuts to the district, including the planned closure of 24 public schools in the coming years, threatening even more layoffs.
The connection to Oakland goes further. Sweetwater has paid for outside financial consulting fees by hiring financial analyst Luz Cazares who has been paid $12,000 for consulting on the upcoming cuts for 2020-21. Cazares is currently being paid an annual salary of $360,000 by the Oakland Unified School District and has been hired as a hatchet woman by school districts throughout the US, including Chicago Public Schools, to slash jobs and funding, close schools and funnel even more money to wealthy bondholders, school privatizers and other corporate interests.
Taking the lessons of Oakland, Los Angeles, and the movement of teachers which have swept the US and beyond, a group of Sweetwater teachers have begun calling for the formation of rank-and-file committees to mobilize parents, students and broader sections of workers throughout the county and the state to fight the layoffs. Despite protests from the SEA, these teachers have begun picketing outside of the schools to draw attention to their struggle and appeal beyond their school sites.
The conditions to unify Sweetwater teachers with other educators and other throughout the region, California, the US and internationally is growing. Hundreds of educators have walked out at the neighboring Chula Vista elementary school district in response to a proposal by district officials to remove caps on class sizes, currently set at 31 students per class.
Since 2008, over $8 billion in funding has been slashed from California’s public education and community colleges, and another $2 billion from its higher education institutions. This has been carried out under the leadership of the Democratic Party, which has relied on the California Teachers Association and the National Education Association to prevent unified opposition by teachers, parents and students.
In order to fight back, teachers must begin to organize independently of the trade unions and the Democratic Party. The funding needed for a vast improvement of public education is only possible through a fundamental assault on the private fortunes of the corporate and financial elite, a vast redistribution of wealth and an end to the squandering of public resources on war, the anti-immigrant witch hunt and corporate tax cuts. That is why the growing resistance to austerity by teachers and other sections of working class must be combined with a powerful movement of the working class against the capitalist system.