In the Red

SUHSD struggles to overcome ongoing budget crisis


Luis Suarez

Senior Timothy Tucker speaks to the SUHSD Board of trusties against the proposed plan of cutting the International Baccalaureate (IB) Coordinator position at BVH on Feb. 27. Tucker is just one of several other students, teachers and former alumni who spoke at the budget meeting.

By Carina Muniz, Alexa Vazquez, and Martin Abraham Zepeda

Financial difficulties within the Sweetwater Union High School District (SUHSD) date back to the 2018-2019 school year and have caused distress across schools who bare the emblem of the SUHSD. Bonita Vista High (BVH) has had its fair share of defects caused by the crisis: from seniors being excluded from laptop distribution to delaying the critical renovations of the 600 building classrooms.

As the SUHSD continues to dig itself into a deeper hole as a result of unpaid debt, more repercussions of the crisis will begin to pop up in numbers throughout the campus. BVH will potentially see the likes of the IB coordinator position face pay reduction or possible removal, other coordinator positions or programs disappear from the school and recently hired teachers sent to teach elsewhere in the district or lose their positions entirely.

Backlash from the BVH community was a result of the discussion of these decisions, and the SUHSD board members have responded to the outcries with replies of reassurance, stating that any potential budget cuts have yet to be decided. The vague answers have left the community to speculate what might come next and what final decisions may be decided on.

For now, administration has taken action to comfort both each other and the students, with Principal Roman Del Rosario, Ed.D, requesting staff and students alike to come to him with any questions they might have. Although he may not know what is to come, he promises to answer questions as truthfully as he can. Until the SUHSD board can confirm their next moves to solve the crisis, schools across the SUHSD district including BVH are uncertain as to what the future will have to offer.

SUHSD responds to backlash over potential removal of IB coordinator position

The room was filled to its maximum occupancy of 111 people and the attentive eyes of Bonita Vista High’s (BVH) very own students, staff, alumni, teachers and parents gathered together in the Sweetwater Union High School District’s (SUHSD) board room.

On Jan. 27, 2020 the SUHSD Board of Trustees began their meeting routinely by addressing the agenda. In superintendent Karen Janney’s, Ed.D, superintendent’s message on the state of the budget, she announced that the funding for the International Baccalaureate (IB) coordinator position was not being eliminated from BVH, as well as the Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA) program at Chula Vista High.

“The board meeting tonight was one of the widest-ranging shows of support that I have ever seen for the IB program,” IB coordinator and IB diploma graduate at BVH Jared Phelps said.

Earlier in the year, announcements made on Jan.13, 2020 revealed that the SUHSD planned to completely eliminate funding for resource positions at BVH. The news about complete elimination of funding for resource positions was then misinterpreted into the belief that the IB coordinator position would be completely eliminated since the IB coordinator position is considered as a resource position. This misinterpretation sparked concern among Phelps and the IB community.

“I think something really important for people to know is that this is not the first time that this has happened. Years ago, there was one of these big budget crises’ and there was talk of the IB program being cut,” Phelps said.

The total cost to fund the IB program is 180,000 dollars, and since 2015, funding for the IB program had covered all that was needed for the program to function. However, previous cuts in allocations made in the 2018-2019 school year threatened to eliminate Phelp’s position and the IB program. News that funding was in consideration for complete elimination encouraged Phelps to defend his position and the program.

BVHS IB Coordinator Jared Phelps addresses the SUHSD board about the potential elimination of his position due to the district’s financial crisis. Photo by Kara Barragan.

“When I put the campaign together, I don’t know if I expected that [so many people would] show up. I expected a lot of people to write letters and a lot of people did. I think at my last count it was 77, and those are just ones that went through me when I put the post out,” Phelps said

Without the funding for the IB coordinator position, it would prove to be difficult for Phelps to find the funds to organize required IB tests and labs. Without funding, Phelps would have to teach additional math classes to fulfill his precious paycheck. But, after SUHSD’s claim that the IB coordinator position would not be cut, Phelps’s concerns about the position have been eased. Though, he foresees problems in the future.

“My fear is that [the district] would say, ‘One way to be more efficient is you could just be a teacher all day and [coordinate] after school or on the side,” Phelps said. “I don’t know if that’s what they are thinking. They might try and find a more efficient solution without giving us the ability to respond to whether or not it’s a serviceable solution.”

On Jan. 16, 2020 Phelps sent a letter to SUHSD board members to emphasize the importance of the IB program at BVH and share his concerns about eliminating funding for the IB full-time coordinator position. Throughout the letter, Phelps mentioned that without funding BVH would lose a valuable program that has defined the education of many students.

“An IB Diploma Program literally cannot exist without a trained, knowledgeable coordinator at its head. A school without a coordinator would be in violation of the requirements to be an IB World School,” Phelps wrote. “Eliminating funding for a full-time coordinator will destroy the excellence of the IB Program and its capacity to serve a greater community at [BVH].”

Among the statements made in the letter, Phelps added a list of his responsibilities “as stated in [BVH’s] 2017 IB Self-Study.” Moreover, Phelps added a list of “roles that the IB Coordinator has come to assume and are implied in the job.”

“The letter is really a defense of the coordinator position [and] why we need to have a coordinator at our site. I try to write it in such a way that it would make sense to educational professionals, superintendent, teachers, budget analysts and a Board of Trustees,” Phelps said “But also something understood by students, parents [and] community members, so that everyone is able to read the same letter and get the same sense of what’s happening, and the urgency of our action on that matter.”

Phelps set up a social media campaign ranging across multiple platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, to allow students and teachers to be aware of this new issue. On the “Save IB at BVHS” Facebook page, Phelps encouraged viewers to S.A.V.E: Share his page, Attend the board meeting, Voice your support, and Educate others about the IB program. As a result, Phelps rallied many members of the IB community to come speak on behalf of the meeting.

“Two or three primary reasons [I attended the meeting was] to support the IB program, [support] the students and support Phelps, who is a current IB coordinator,” English IB Literature HL 1 and English 9 Accelerated teacher Raymond Chann said.

Chann has taught English IB Literature HL 1 for a total of one year but has recognized that the IB program has largely influenced the lives of students who are or were formerly involved in the program.

“I think a lot of what I do as an English 9 [Accelerated] teacher is I try to prepare students for the IB program. I think it’d be really sad [to lose the IB coordinator position], [and] I would be devastated, students would be devastated [and] other staff members, too,” Chann said.

Among the many current IB students that contacted Phelps, alumni also showed their support by commenting on Phelps’ social media campaign and sending him letters. Phelps presented these personal letters to the Board of Trustees to highlight the IB program’s positive impact.

“The IB program was one of, if not my absolute favorite, things about attending BVH. So much work went into making it a good program, and I fully believe that the work deserves to be funded so students can continue to get the full aid they need to grow,” BVH alumni Emma Rand commented on the “Save IB at BVHS” Facebook Page.

Rand graduated from BVH in the 2017-2018 school year after successfully earning her IB Diploma. Rand also sent the district members a letter about her experiences in the IB program, as well as her beliefs as to why the program should remain, to help advocate for it.

“High school is a tough time, especially when you’re in a program as rigorous as IB,” Rand wrote in her letter. “As I mentioned above, my friends and I felt comfortable talking to Mr. Phelps about our anxieties and so on, [and] having an adult to vent to when we were worried about where we were going in life, or scared that we didn’t know how we were going to keep up with everything, or whatever other issues arose was really validating and comforting.”

Like others among the BVH community, senior and IB President Timothy Tucker found the situation “unfortunate” and “sad.” In order to help support Phelps and the program, Turner participated in a student outreach and gathered more people involved with the campaign.

“I think it’s unfortunate that they proposed these budget cuts, and they don’t really understand the repercussions of those actions,” Tucker said. “We can play a part in supporting the district and understanding the repercussions by showing our support [for the IB program] and by coming together as a community.”

At the SUHSD board meeting Janney announced that the IB coordinator would not be cut, though, BVH students, teachers, alumni and parents still stood at the podium and shared their experiences within the allotted three minutes. The IB community shared the positive effects of IB and the need for not only an IB coordinator but Phelps specifically.

“Because I’m here every day, [I] have a deep appreciation of the work that Phelps does, and I have an understanding of what it takes to have a superb IB program I’m very much advocating for a solution where Phelps continues to have time built in to do that important work of coordination,” BVH Principal Roman Del Rosario, Ed.D, said.

Junior Faith Talamantez speaks to the SUHSD board about the role the IB coordinator plays in her development as a student. Photo by Kara Barragan.

In his letter, Phelps mentions that eliminating the IB coordinator position would destroy many components of the IB program, as well as “destroy authentic learning and holistic growth opportunities afforded to students.” Similarly, Del Rosario said the IB Coordinator position is an important asset to the BVH community due to the amount of responsibilities and time it takes to run the IB program and ensure its success.

“I think there’s very few people, myself included, that fully understands the whole scope of what Phelps does, and I’m in his list of many duties. I do understand—more than most—the volume of work that he does, and I just feel tragic that we’re in this situation because this program is a legacy [at BVH],” Del Rosario said.

Del Rosario is working towards a solution to subsidize the program in order for more money to be allocated to Phelps. One of the solutions Del Rosario is working on is filling classes to their maximum in order to clear classes and use those allocations for Phelps.

“I think [the IB program is] something that the district really needs to think about [in terms of] this expression: ‘Sometimes it’s penny wise and pound foolish.’ What seems like a good idea in the long run is not really a good idea,” Del Rosario said.

In agreement with Del Rosario’s statement, Chann has shared his opinion on how SUHSD could better handle the budget and how students are taken into consideration.

“They didn’t realize how much responsibility Phelps has for the school, for the students, for everyone. I don’t know if that same sort of logic applies to the other positions but I just feel compelled to believe that they don’t know what exactly the IB coordinator position stands for,” Chhan said.

What once used to be a 1.2 allocation—a full-time paying job—has now diminished to 0.6 in the 2018-2019 school year by the district. The district now only pays half the amount it takes to fund the IB program and its resources as a way to save money for the district’s budget. As a result of this, Phelps must teach two IB math classes in order to make up for the salary that was cut.

The IB program at BVH is one of two IB schools in SUHSD. After the district board meeting, Phelps has directed most of his focus in recruiting and promoting the IB program in classrooms around BVH.

Area 2 Trustee—the board member who oversees the BVH area—Kevin J. Pike was unavailable to comment on the IB. Nonetheless, Phelps wishes for a return to “business as usual” for IB students.

“I need to get my students back to learning math. I need to get all of our students back to getting home with the right time to do their homework and get their assignments in so that they keep working through the [IB] Diploma program,” Phelps said.

Involuntary teacher transfers and staff reductions are part of the district’s solution

Jennifer Dye

The SUHSD’s recent financial difficulties have resulted in the cut of several administrative positions, however, the higher seniority of certain employees allowed them to remain employed within the district. These employees were sent to other teaching positions. Nonetheless, this creates a domino effect that impacts the community of the teachers with less seniority who no longer have a position and a district that has no space for them or funds to pay them with.

Through a number of different calculations such as school attrition, the fluctuation of student attendance, and enrollment, the Human Resources Department determines if any involuntary teacher transfers are necessary within the district. On top of that, the final decision does not occur until much later and is further investigated before approved.

This is a process that occurs year-round and is known as Certificated Staffing Adjustment, but new factors introduced this year are influencing transferred teacher numbers, making the job of selecting teachers for that transition much harder, according to Bonita Vista High (BVH) Principal Roman Del Rosario, Ed.D..

“It’s up to me to look at all the teachers I have on staff and ask myself if I can afford to keep all the teachers here,” Del Rosario said. “It’s a difficult thing to sit down and think about.”

Involuntary teacher transfers most often target newer teachers, or those with little to no seniority within the district, causing unrest amongst the newer teacher population at BVH.

“I think right now these newer teachers are not only unsure about where they’re going to be next year, they’re not even sure if they’re going to have a job. There’s so much uncertainty and it’s really heartbreaking because, being new teachers, there’s so much that they’re still learning. If you throw in that instability, it’s chaos,” English 9 teacher Elizabeth Tran said.

English 9 accelerated teacher Elizabeth Tran guides her students through a reading assignment. Tran spoke about her involuntary transfer from Southwest Middle High School to Bonita Vista High School.

Tran herself was a teacher that arrived at BVH from Southwest Middle School through an involuntary transfer, as she was excess in the previous school where she worked as a substitute teacher. District officials and administration expect those numbers will only increase, and the newer a teacher is, the more they are at risk of receiving a transfer.

“I think that teachers who are lower on the totem pole of seniority are the most at risk, but I also think those administrative positions are risking their jobs as well because they’re making their way back to the classroom,” Tran said.

When assessments are made and no open positions are available, teachers may receive layoffs, otherwise known as reductions in force (RIFs).

“In most cases [teachers are guaranteed their positions when transferred]. Everyone that was excess this past year, they found a spot somewhere,” Superintendent of SUHSD Karen Janney, Ed.D, said. “If they’re in our system they’re entitled to a job somewhere, but if there are potential layoffs then that’s a different story.”

A change that may cause the distribution of RIFs includes the decreasing enrollment rates in the district, which in turn provides the administration with less funding to pay teachers. With 87% of the districts’ budget going towards the paychecks of personnel, budget cuts will instead center around the number of personnel there is to pay.

“For every 100 students we lose, that’s about $1 million lost. So in the past four years, we’ve declined in enrollment about 1859 students. If our enrollment was steady, we probably wouldn’t be in the same position,” Janney explained. 

Carina Muniz On Feb. 12, 2020, superintendent Karen Janney, Ph.D., talks about the budget crisis that has been ongoing since the 2018-2019 school year. Janney later went on to explain how the budget works and how it gets approved.

A factor that could cause even further enrollment drops relates to the item brought to attention during a Board of Trustees meeting, in which the Chula Vista Elementary School District (CVESD) proposed the addition of middle schools to some of their elementary schools. Potential middle school enrollment at CVESD would deprive the district of new enrollments that are currently coming out of the elementary school.

“If this leads to middle schoolers not coming to us, this necessitates more budget cuts, meaning more teachers will receive RIFs or will require the district to find some other solution, such as salary cuts, and those have to be negotiated,” Del Rosario said.

District difficulties began around last school year. However, RIFs notices were not distributed – mostly due to the aid of the early retirement incentive, which was offered to teachers with higher seniority. According to Del Rosario, it was the districts’ effort to control “how much they pay people, and how many people they have to pay.” But without that incentive being offered this year, the positions of teachers across the district may be at risk.

“Last year we had a lot of budget[s] to make up, but we didn’t lose anybody, because we had the early retirement incentive. So instead of having to lay off teachers, those people got to retire. We probably won’t have as many teachers retire this year,” Janney said.

Ultimately, Del Rosario hopes to keep everyone on staff at BVH for as long as possible, and will “fight to keep the Bonita family together,” doing everything in his power to ensure it.

“I really think it’s important that instead of turning against each other, we rely on each other. What I love at BVH is that we’re a family, and I think we’re gonna get through this together while keeping the focus on the students and giving them the school they deserve,” Del Rosario said.

SUHSD outlook on budget policy and future funding

Several students, including senior Richzeska Fandino, junior Cambria McClellan, and junior Rachel Cape attend the January 27 SUHSD Board meeting. Here they applaud one of the many speakers who spoke about their concerns over the district’s budget decisions.

The SUHSD is undoubtedly in a rather precarious position at the moment. Board officials approaching the situation with great delicacy are bound to upset some in the dilemma and have received backlash from various corners of the community. Whether it be teachers all wearing red at board meetings in support of union “brothers, sisters, students or parents” or advocates shouting at district officials against proposed cuts, the district’s budget crisis has sparked much controversy. The new proposal for the 2020-2021 school year will most likely not be available to the public with changes made considering the community outreach that has occured  to the budget until April of this year.

Concerning the budgetary problems, however, district officials claim that statewide educational policy is the source of the issues that they are facing. Specifically, officials point to declining enrollment as the reason that the budgetary crisis continues.

The state of education in California according to a variety of educational resources is below the national average in terms of per-pupil spending and is believed by district officials to be another problem faced by the SUHSD.

“We are advocates for more funding in education,” Director of Grants and Communication Manuel Rubio said. “We’re kind of [at] the bottom in terms of per-pupil funding as a state. As a state, California is the fifth or sixth largest economy in the entire world, and we are probably 41st or 37th in terms of per-pupil funding.”

These problems of course are not unique to the SUHSD. Janney spoke of a piece recently published in The San Diego Union Tribune that outlined the deficit spending that is occurring across San Diego County.

“All but one of the 42 school districts in San Diego County are expecting to spend more than they take in,” according to The San Diego Union Tribune piece.

The United States government, as well as the county of San Diego’s education, tend to lean towards deficit-minded spending, which is the perspective in the county that districts are moving towards as a whole.

Athletic Director Tyler Arciaga’s position is currently on the proposed list of district cuts. Photo by Gloria Ing.

The programs and positions potentially being cut include the subtraction of the position of athletic director from all schools that are part of the SUHSD, as well as the consolidation of alternative learning options. These options include programs such as the learning center at Bonita Vista High (BVH). Janney expressed the priorities and decisions concerning the allocations were being made in hopes of keeping cuts away from the classrooms and the students that make up the SUHSD student body.

“[We try to figure out how] we can be more cost effective and keep any kind of decisions or cuts farthest away from the classroom [and] the students,” Janney said. “We’re just trying to figure out how we can be more effective and efficient with what we have.”

In addition the explanation of  the purposes of the SUHSD, Janney stood from her seat, pointing to the talking points laid out upon the Local Control Accountability Plan poster displayed in offices and classrooms across the district as a reminder for students and faculty members of the district’s goals.

Few solutions were spoken on during the interview, while the subject of crowdsourcing, having community members raise money for programs, did arrive as a possibility, voiced by both Janney and Rubio as a way for the community to help the SUHSD with the funding of the many proposed cuts in the district.

“If the parents and the students in the IB program wanted to raise extra money to help support with additional resources, [they can] absolutely do that,” Janney said. “People do that all the time, they [can] donate money to programs [whenever they want to].”

Jenny Dye

Each upcoming school year the SUHSD Board of Trustees determines a budget process timeline accounting for the California Governor’s proposal and revisions. This process as it continues draws concern from many community members and is oftentimes considered to be overly complicated. The complexity is something that community members and district officials alike express concern for.

“I think that if the general public knew how complicated it is, people would say, ‘Wait a minute, it shouldn’t be that complicated,’’’ Rubio said.“If we can simplify this process and make it more fair, I’m all for that.”

This story was originally published on The Crusader on March 11, 2020.