Recap: Budget clouds, K to College and tough questions on PEEF

Tonight was another one of those meetings where, judging from the items on the agenda, I blithely assumed I’d be home to watch the end of Glee. No such luck. However, the Board did engage in several important conversations, so I guess getting home to watch the 11′o clock news instead was worth it (I do mind that I missed the State of the Union, though).

Ugh–the State budget
Deputy Superintendent Myong Leigh opened the meeting with a rather belt-tightening peek at Jerry Brown’s budget proposal, unveiled last week, and some predictions about what this budget proposal might mean for us. There are so many political machinations and roller coaster rides yet to come that I hesitate to get too specific, because the only certain thing is that the landscape is going to change. How drastically — on the upside or the downside — is anyone’s guess at this point. But here are the high (low?) points:

  • The Governor is proposing a budget that closes the state’s $26.7 billion budget gap by cutting everywhere except education, borrowing some one-time money and shifting some expenses to local governments, AND — most importantly — extending for an additional five years some temporary taxes that the Legislature authorized two years ago. Unless extended by the voters, these taxes would expire at the end of this year, blowing a bigger hole in the budget.
  • For us here in SFUSD, the Governor’s  budget boils down to Option A or Option B. Under Option A, the taxes are extended and we are looking at cuts somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 to $3 million. Under Option B, the taxes are not extended, and the district is looking at additional cuts — on top of the $113 million we took for this year AND next year, don’t forget — of $20 million.

Up next: Kindergarten to College
SF City Treasurer Jose Cisneros was on hand as a special guest to give the Board an overview of the City’s new Kindergarten to College program. Currently piloted at 18 elementary schools (and scheduled to be available throughout the district by 2012), the program creates a custodial account in  a child’s name when they enroll in Kindergarten and deposits $50 ($100 if the child qualifies for free or reduced price lunch).  Whether or not that child ultimately graduates from an SFUSD school, the money waits, accruing interest, until that child enrolls in college or an accredited postsecondary training program.  At that time, and only that time, the money and any accumulated income can be withdrawn to offset tuition costs. (Important to note: the costs of the program are borne by the city and private donors, not the school district).

Now, I have to admit that at first I sort of shrugged at the idea that $50 at age 5 is going to make any kind of difference 13 years later when the child is facing thousands in college tuition bills.  And it won’t. But the interesting thing about this program is that it is based on a study out of Washington University in St. Louis. According to Mr. Cisneros, the study found that children born into families who save any amount for college are seven times more likely to attend college than children born into families who have no savings of any kind.

The program also offers some built-in incentives to encourage families to add to their child’s college savings account: for this year, and probably the next few years, private donors will match, dollar for dollar, all contributions up to $100 families make to their child’s account (families are limited to $2500 in annual contributions, under the assumption that a family that can contribute $2500 annually should be in a 529 plan instead of the city’s savings plan, which is essentially a passbook savings account with no fees).

Tough questions on the PEEF:
(Every time I write about the PEEF, I feel like I have to give a lengthy backgrounder on all of the issues and jargon around it. It feels like a waste of time, so I would like to know from readers if the backgrounder is helpful, or if you already know what’s in the first three paragraphs. Leave a comment and let me know. Thanks.)

Also up for Board approval tonight was the 2011-12 spending proposal for the Public Education Enrichment Fund (often known as “Prop H” in district shorthand). The PEEF is a voter-approved fund that supports preschool, sports, libraries, arts and music (known as “SLAM” in district slang), as well as other general school spending. Every year, the district puts together a spending plan for the SLAM and general portions of the Fund.  (The “general uses” portion is also known as the “third third.” I know.) That plan is approved by the school board and then ratified by the Board of Supervisors.

In the early years after the fund was first passed in 2005, there were arguments about what to spend it on and who should have a say over how it was spent (the district convened a Community Advisory Committee, known as the “PEEF CAC” — I know! — to help gather community input into how to spend the voters’ largesse). After those arguments were finally sorted out, the economy tanked. That development put intense pressure on the school district’s general fund, AND made the City eligible for one escape valve in the law– the City can reduce funding by 25 percent if it is facing a drop in revenues in any given fiscal year (known as “pulling the trigger.”) 

So in 2010-11, the City pulled the trigger, and the district set about $4.7 million of the remaining “third third” in reserve for the coming budget crisis. For 2011-12, similar expectations exist — the City is expected to pull the trigger and the district is proposing to put about $4.7 million aside in reserve for budget uncertainties (see above).

None of the above is particularly contentious, but there were some tense exchanges during tonight’s presentation of the PEEF budget, around several issues. First, the carryforwards. It was somewhat irritating to me that over $1 million of last year’s third-third budget ended up not being spent, though the explanations for that are reasonable — there were well-founded policy decisions made to hire contractors instead of the full-time grant writer that was budgeted; though the 86 FTEs authorized in 2010-11 were hired, those FTE’s cost less than the accounting in the original spending plan approved by the Board last year, so the unspent salary/benefits funds were swept into the Weighted Student Formula. I don’t have a quarrel with those decisions but it does bother me that such significant variances happened and were not called to the Board’s attention.

Second, and more significantly, Board members were very unhappy with the performance measurements presented to us as evidence of programs’ effectiveness. There were several tense exchanges over this part of the presentation, but in the end it seems clear that the staff has been operating under one set of assumptions about program evaluation and the Board has been operating under another.  Board members are increasingly concerned about the need to show voters in two years that we have been thoughtful and effective in spending the money they gave us for SLAM and the third-third, while staff has been primarily concerned with preparing analyses for the City controller. Both functions are extremely important, but the former is more accessible to the public than the latter. After an hourlong discussion, we boosted the program evaluation budget and asked for some clear reporting that shows how much the PEEF has meant to SF’s public school children since 2005. This reporting should be presented to the Board sometime in March.

Finally, many of us were troubled by the fact that members of the PEEF CAC have not been present at either of the meetings where the Board has discussed the latest spending plan. Now, people have obligations, and lives are busy, but what I fear is that our community representatives are feeling less than engaged or listened to in their work for the district. It’s the job of the staff and the Board to make sure that our community advisors are actually given important input on the issues facing our district, so the failure of the CAC to be present is really an institutional failure. In 2008, the Board changed the role of the CAC to be more about community outreach than input, and I fear that new role isn’t paying off in the way we had hoped.

After the discussion was all over, I felt seriously bad for the staff who had to sit at the table facing the Board’s firing squad — it was a necessary conversation, but nevertheless a tense one.

PAC members ask for more communication around SIG
Tonight’s regular presentation from the Parent Advisory Council was a bit longer than usual, and focused on some anxious questions PAC members are getting from parents at schools that are receiving School Improvement (SIG) grants. There is a lot of confusion about SIG vs. the Superintendent’s Zone, and what it means to be a school community in one or both programs (all of the SIG schools are in the Superintendent’s Zone but not all of the Superintendent’s Zone schools are SIG schools).  At the Feb. 8 Board meeting, staff will present an update on what is happening at the SIG schools and in the Superintendent’s Zone.  There’s a good handout with overview information on what is happening at SIG schools — it’s currently being translated. I’ll post it when I get a copy.

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4 responses to “Recap: Budget clouds, K to College and tough questions on PEEF

  1. Hey Rachel:

    First, nice posting. I do appreciate the ‘backgrounder’ info. Maybe next time you can just link to this article…but this info above was most helpful.

    Thank you again for the good, and very hard work you do.

    Cheers!
    Mark

    PS – missed you at last week’s Argonne Community meeting. You are moving on next year, so I do understand. : – )

  2. I’m a relatively new member of the PEEF CAC, so I can’t speak to this issue from a thoroughly informed perspective. When we CAC members have been told it was important for us to attend a BOE meeting, we’ve attended, in my brief experience.

    I use the word “important” loosely, though, because the BOE’s current definition of the PEEF CAC’s function reduces us essentially to being decorative. As I understand it, the CAC does not make recommendations or analyze programs; we serve as a conduit for information between the public and the district. I’m perfectly willing to be decorative to the best of my ability, but it’s a little baffling to be given such a passive role and then be upbraided for not taking on an active role, since we’ve been officially told (by the BOE, as I understand it) that we have no active role.

  3. Thanks, Rachel,
    As a staff member at a SIG school, it has been frustrating dealing with what is essentially the creation of a new bureaucracy to administer SIG on top of the continuing formation of the fairly new Superintendent Zone bureaucracy. Although the SIG was (in essence) approved at the end of the summer, there are still not clear protocols in place for school sites to submit proposals and/or request funds. I’m working on the technology piece at my school, and we have submitted some form of our technology proposal – and had it approved – at least 3 times to different bodies in the layers of red tape in which this grant is swaddled (from site to Zone to District to State to Feds… aaaahhh!). The one thread of hope I’m clinging to is the fact that this is a 3-year grant, and I hope that by the end of this year there are transparent and accessible protocols and systems in place for school sites to access these funds and for the help and services they are intended to provide to finally get to students and their teachers and families.

  4. Hi Rachel
    I find those three paragraphs about PEEF, SIG, District shorthand, and the other background very helpful, thanks for including it.