Skip to main content

SF school district set ambitious goals for students. But the budget picture looks bleak

Voters signaled to the school board that they want to focus on their children’s education, but budget reserves are running low. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

After last year’s school board recall, the San Francisco Board of Education spent months crafting new goals to boost student learning. 

The real question, though, is “How will they do it?” 

At a board workshop meeting on Tuesday night, San Francisco Unified School District staff outlined new school budget projections that paint a dark financial picture. The district’s deficit will deepen over the next two years from $22.5 million for the current year to $40.6 million in 2024-25, due to declining enrollment and state budget uncertainty

Although the district is expected to have a balanced budget through the 2024-25 school year, a special reserve used to stabilize operations and services will be running low. Looking ahead, staff assumed a $40.6 million deficit on a roughly $1 billion budget, without any reserve funds to tap. 

The school board hopes to raise academic achievement by several measures. | Benjamin Fanjoy/The Standard

This threatens to undercut the district’s high hopes for its students. After several community meetings last fall, the board settled on several five-year goals, including raising the reading proficiency of third-grade students from 52% to 70% and the math proficiency of eighth-grade students from 42% to 65%. 

Another aim is to boost college- and career-readiness for high school students from 58% to 70% in five years. To get there, the district has about $18 million budgeted. 

Education officials will determine in coming months what additional resources are needed and where to cut from to make that happen through the district’s public budgeting process. Tuesday’s meeting, however, did not allow for public comment in a new effort to have half of the monthly meetings structured around student outcomes. 

“We had a strategy that was unclear,” said Commissioner Jenny Lam at the budget workshop meeting on Tuesday. “It’s clear now. We’re going to need to demonstrate as a board and as a superintendent to the community how we are doing things differently. It hasn’t emerged yet.”

Board of Education President Jenny Lam speaks on the first day of school at Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School. | Juliana Yamada/The Standard

State watchdogs remain vigilant. In 2021, the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team determined that the district may not be able to meet its financial obligations for the current or next fiscal year. Under the advice of state-appointed experts, SFUSD stabilized its school budget planning and avoided triggering further involvement that would mean the loss of local control.

California saw declining public school enrollment statewide. Slowing birth rates and an overall decrease in population are factors. But state officials, including education experts Elliott Duchon and Pam Lauzon, have not been able to figure out where a chunk of students went. 

Those experts find SFUSD to be at risk of being unable to pay its bills down the line. They caution the district to use accurate enrollment projections in its planning. Further, schools have struggled with acute staffing shortages amid record teacher burnout, and the state’s experts advised reviewing vacant positions for potential elimination. 

Superintendent Matt Wayne listens to public comments during a town hall at Abraham Lincoln High School. | Chris Victorio for The Standard

To make better enrollment projections, Superintendent Matt Wayne said the district will solicit bids for a firm to analyze student demographics—paying particular attention to which students are leaving San Francisco public schools. 

The first place Wayne is looking is at the central office, a source of tension with school staff. A city report found last month that SFUSD spent “well above the norm” for central office functions than peer districts. However, it underspent in key areas like payroll, as evidenced by the crisis now handled by outside emergency consultants through May

“We can’t do everything,” Wayne said. “We’re working on aligning our budget to our vision, values, goals and guardrails.”