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Report: SF schools spent nearly twice as much on central administration as peer districts

SFUSD Superintendent Matt Wayne | Benjamin Fanjoy/The Standard

During recent heated budget battles, school staff have drawn attention to what appeared to be increasingly bloated central management at San Francisco Unified School District. 

An audit by the city’s Budget and Legislative Analyst’s Office (BLA) released on Tuesday independently validated the sentiment.

“We found that SFUSD spends more and has allocated more staff to these functions than the comparison districts,” read the report, requested by Supervisor Hillary Ronen. 

During the 2020-21 school year, central administration functions accounted for 25% of SFUSD’s $978 million operating budget. About a dozen peer districts spent a median of 18% on administration.

The audit compared SFUSD spending with 12 large public school districts in California including Fresno, Long Beach, Sacramento, Oakland, Santa Ana, Garden Grove and San Jose. The report did acknowledge that SFUSD’s salary and benefits costs are likely higher due to the city’s cost of living. 

When broken down by staff, five peer districts had a median of 138 full-time-equivalent workers assigned to central office functions for every 10,000 students. SFUSD came in “well above” the norm with 220 full-time-equivalents for every 10,000 students. 

The biggest culprit may be spending on instructional supervision and administration, accounting for SFUSD’s biggest category of administrative spending. The district spent $104.5 million on those functions—which includes assisting staff in curriculum and professional development—compared with $27.5 million median spending reported by peer districts, according to the audit. 

That spending on instructional supervision amounts to $1,780 spent per SFUSD student compared with a median of $611 per student from peer districts in the 2020-21 fiscal year. 

While the district has overspent in many administrative areas, the audit found that it slightly underspent in other functions like finance, payroll, accounting and purchasing. That underinvestment backfired big time with a payroll crisis that began one year ago and still brings monthly chaos and frustration to staff attempting to ensure they’ve been paid correctly. 

Tension over the top-heavy district’s headquarters also boiled over about a year ago, when major cuts were on the table to grapple with a staggering $125 million budget deficit triggering state oversight. In December 2021, staff proposed cutting $60 million from school campuses and direct services for students and $30 million from SFUSD’s central office. 

After pushback and an infusion of state funds, SFUSD in June ultimately approved a budget with $19 million in cuts for school sites and direct services. But declining enrollment and a structural deficit means campus further cuts in the years ahead, as state-appointed fiscal expert Elliott Duchon repeatedly cautioned.

“That’s something that many educators in SFUSD have known for years, and it’s great to have independent verification with detailed comparative data,” said Commissioner Matt Alexander, a former principal who worked with Ronen to request the report, in a text to The Standard. “This matters because excess central office spending is money that’s not being spent supporting student learning.”

The BLA also found that SFUSD had 75% more schools than the median number in peer districts and 28% less students per school in the 2020-21 school year. 

Superintendent Matt Wayne, who joined SFUSD in July, is expected to provide updates on the central office at a Board of Supervisors committee hearing on Friday. He opted not to replace a portion of the top staff exodus as the last school year ended until a proper analysis could pave the way for restructuring.

“The BLA report is in step with the goals the new Board of Education has set, and we look forward to hearing how the findings will lead to improvement in student outcomes,” Ronen told The Standard in a statement. “We are excited that the new leadership at the district can use this tool along with their own fresh eyes to reorganize the central office to best benefit students, educators and families in the district.”

The Youth, Young Adult and Families hearing begins at 10 a.m. at City Hall on Friday.