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Politics & Policy

San Francisco parents are increasingly anxious about the possibility of school closures

San Francisco Unified expects enrollment to fall in the years to come, leading parents worried that the cash-strapped district may close schools. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

San Francisco school officials may soon face up to a question that has long been taboo: Will the district close schools to keep the lights on? 

The San Francisco Unified School District is poised to take the first step in that direction. Next Tuesday, administrators will ask the school board to approve a plan to develop criteria around potential school closures and mergers within a year, among other measures. The goal is to stabilize the cash-strapped district’s finances as it grapples with the end of pandemic-era aid. 

The district said it has lost 4,000 students since the 2012-13 school year—with total enrollment now below 49,000—and anticipates losing another 4,600 by 2032 due to declining birth rates and other factors. As funding is based on total enrollment and attendance, this is a grim prospect, as San Francisco Unified already expects to post a $37.6 million shortfall in the current school year.

“We are wrestling with many external factors that are beyond our control, such as declining enrollment, aging facilities, and staffing shortages,” Superintendent Matt Wayne said in a statement. “We have to change the way that we do business, which includes looking at our resources and aligning them with our student outcome goals.”

Matt Wayne, San Francisco Unified School District superintendent, welcomes students back to school on Aug. 16, 2023. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

To that end, Wayne’s priority is to allocate money according to where students are enrolled and establish staffing needs on all its campuses, which have been in crisis mode for the last three years. 

Both this year and last, at least 15% of classrooms were staffed by substitute teachers or teachers on special assignment. Around a quarter of roles in custodial and food services have been unfilled in the past year as well, according to the district

In response, some parents and guardians have concluded that mass school closures are imminent. Last week, a flyer that claims that the school board would be voting to close 25 to 30 schools began circulating. The flyer encouraged parents to attend a community meeting on Wednesday and promised that the full list of schools recommended for closure would be released then.

In reality, nothing on the school board’s agenda suggests that specific school closures are slated for approval next week. The special meeting also does not have a public comment component. 

“Now, they can move forward with these policies [and] determine which schools to close,” said Bivett Brackett, a grandparent in the district who put the flyer together. “When the political people want to close schools, this is the step they have to take.”

The district added that every option would be exhausted before pursuing school closures. 

Brackett told The Standard she got the figure from an interview that the district’s Board of Education President Kevine Boggess gave this year, in which he stated that up to 40 schools may need to close or merge. Boggess later told The Standard that that was his own “back of the napkin math” but that mass closures are a worst-case scenario.

When asked about the list she promised to release at the community meeting, Brackett said it is referenced from the facilities master plan approved this year but she did not specify which schools. 

A classroom awaits students for the first day of school at Aptos Middle School on Aug. 16, 2023. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

At least one merger proposal emerged this year. In June, educators and parents of Edwin and Anita Lee Newcomer School, a highly specialized school with a small population of monolingual Chinese students, learned that the district planned to merge it with the nearby Jean Parker Elementary School at the start of this school year. After an uproar, that plan was placed on hold. 

The United Educators of San Francisco, which represents about 6,500 teachers and staff, wrote to school board members this week that families and educators are beginning to “feel deep anxiety” that a management decision could further destabilize schools—particularly in the city’s southeast, where under-enrollment has been an issue despite having more children.

Union officials also warned that schools targeted for closure without engagement in the southeast will “activate the full organizing force of our union.”

“The attempt to right the wrongs of financial mismanagement cannot be carried out to the detriment of our students and school communities,” union officers wrote in an open letter. “The oft-quoted reduction in overall enrollment—which is true of private and charter schools and of schools across California—is not sufficient data for a discussion of this magnitude. It is a reality to be grappled with but not at the expense of current students and families.”

If school board members give the superintendent the green light, district staff will convene a monthly district advisory committee next month and present a staffing model by December. By June, the board would vote on proposals.

The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday.