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Under pressure, SF school board passes budget plan to stave off state takeover

The outside of a school building.
Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

In a 6-1 vote, the San Francisco Board of Education on Tuesday night approved a staff budget proposal that cuts $50 million from schools and $40 million from headquarters staff as part of an effort to close a $125 million deficit and avoid a state takeover.

The school system’s fiscal crisis, driven largely by a sharp drop in enrollment, prompted the state to intervene and sparked a fight over how to close the gap. Commissioner Matt Alexander launched a campaign this month to adopt an alternative to the plan recommended by staff and a state overseer and direct cuts away from classrooms. He reversed course on Tuesday and said he would be willing to vote in favor of the staff budget as time ran out to appease the state, but vowed to keep pushing.

“We had one option … one choice,” Alexander said. “I can support this and at least there is a path forward to say we can potentially make revisions in February.”

Board President Gabriela López was the only “no” vote on the proposal. After the board passed a resolution in May of 2021 affirming its commitment to keeping budget cuts away from school sites, López questioned why the staff proposal didn’t reflect those values. 

“We are basically cornered into accepting a proposal that deeply impacts school sites,” López said. “How is May 11, 2021, not enough time to bring in a budget that prioritizes classrooms?”

Of the $90 million in proposed cuts to the budget, $40 million is set to come from the district’s central office. The other $50 million would be cut from school sites. The bulk of the cuts will eliminate 121 staff positions, including 50 positions from the student and family support division, 33 jobs from curriculum and instruction and 21 jobs from the policy and operations department. The remaining $35 million to close the gap would come from a combination of the district’s rainy day fund and grants. 

Two commissioners, Matt Alexander and Mark Sanchez, had previously proposed an alternative plan that would prioritize cuts to the district’s central office with no cuts to programs that directly serve students in school sites. But on Tuesday night, Alexander withdrew the proposal and voted to approve the staff plan. 

Their plan, which compared SFUSD to Long Beach’s school district, would have kept all cuts away from school sites, instead targeting central office staff and budgets. It was supported by the local teachers’ union the United Educators of San Francisco, which held a rally on Tuesday night to protest cuts to school sites. They argue that focusing cuts on central office staff, whose salaries are generally much higher than school site staff, is the best opportunity for savings. 

But Rachel Norton, who was on the board from 2008 to 2020, disagrees. She told the SF Standard that central staff salaries are simply too small a piece of the budget pie to make a difference. 

“In the aggregate, it’s not a lot of money,” Norton said. “You’re not going to balance the budget on their compensation.”

The staff plan is supported by state fiscal expert Elliot Duchon, who was assigned to monitor the district during its budget balancing process. Had the board voted to approve Alexander and Sanchez’s plan, Duchon said he would have recommended that the state assign a fiscal monitor to the district, potentially a precursor to a state takeover.

Duchon also recommended that in addition to adopting the staff’s budget, the district should also initiate a hiring freeze for all non-essential positions and end any non-essential spending. In the longer term, Duchon said, the district should further analyze its role as both a school district and a county office of education and begin a comparative analysis with other similar districts. 

The vote comes amid a recall election of López, Commissioner Alison Collins and Vice President Faauuga Moliga, who critics say have spent more time on politics than on issues that directly affect students and education. Mayor London Breed supports the recall effort, and announced at a press conference on Monday that she is pushing for a ballot initiative that would give her the power to withhold city funding unless the board refocuses on school issues above political grandstanding. 

As part of the budgeting process, the staff created benchmarks for staffing and resources that will be preserved at every site. For example, an average elementary school would retain critical staff like nurses and social workers even after the proposed budget cuts. That’s at the cost of some teachers, support staff, and classrooms. 

Throughout the process, parents and board members have said they’re frustrated that proposals for cuts haven’t been more granular. But that’s because the state is only asking for an outline of how the district would make cuts if it continues to face a budget shortfall.

It’s also reflective of the reality of the school budgeting process in California. Because school budgets have to be developed before the governor releases his budget in the spring, the process often requires district staff to draft and boards to approve plans without full knowledge of state funding to come. 

While Tuesday’s decision cleared an important hurdle in the state’s view, it’s nowhere near the end of this year’s budgeting process. The district will continue to refine its budget throughout the spring, incorporating new information from the state’s budgeting process, which ultimately dictates school funding. It will finalize its cuts by June. 

Some budget decisions are also made at the site level, and budget staff are encouraging parents and community members to get involved with the various School Site Councils where they can engage in conversations about where funding for classrooms will be spent. Gordon said in a press conference this month that while the district must adhere to its general budgeting plan and stay committed to making widespread cuts, the specific details of those cuts are more flexible. 

The district’s budget woes are rooted in a funding model that’s based on student enrollment, which is down 6.6% since 2019. Meanwhile, the district is profligate compared to its peers: According to a staff analysis, SFUSD spends more per pupil on salaries and benefits than any other large district in the Bay Area

Norton said no school board finds itself with enough money to achieve all of its educational priorities, and with a state takeover on the line, board members didn’t have any choice but to adopt the staff budget. She said it’s board members’ job to ask questions and seek analysis from staff to hone in budget decisions, but not develop their own proposals. 

“It’s the difference between asking questions and believing you know all the answers,” Norton said. 

The San Francisco Unified School District is unique in that it’s the only district in California that is both a school district and its own county office of education. That means it has to spend more on a central office that handles things like infrastructure for special education programs and developing and executing COVID-19 policies. It’s also why staff and state experts said Alexander and Sanchez’s comparison to Long Beach doesn’t add up.

One windfall of money that did come in time for Tuesday’s decision was funding from a state parcel tax approved in 2018. That will infuse the district with $150 million in tax revenue that was tied up in court until a California Supreme Court decision in mid-November. Mayor London Breed has also agreed to forgive the $26 million the district borrowed to pay for staff salary increases in the interim on the condition it approves the staff’s budget balancing plan.

Yvette Edwards, co-founder and board member of San Francisco Parent Coalition, said her group supports the staff’s budgeting plan and wants to see the board, parents and school staff come together to avoid a worst-case scenario state takeover. 

“The idea of any programs being cut is heartbreaking,” Edwards said. “I wish we could avoid that. But the alternative is a state takeover, and that’s going to be way more devastating. It could take a decade to recover from.”

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