Budget Oversight and Priorities

Schools in California have been under tremendous pressure in recent years — the state recently reported that almost 20 percent of school districts in California are in serious or even severe fiscal trouble.

The reasons for this distress are simple: the state has not provided enough money to meet the expectations all of us have for quality schools. Currently, San Francisco Unified is projecting that we will receive $5,204 per student in unrestricted (revenue limit) funding in 2012-13 — if the Governor’s package of tax increases passes in November 2012. If the package does not pass,  schools face a deep mid-year cut that would bring San Francisco’s per student funding down to $4,764 per student.

By contrast, when I began my first campaign for school board in early 2008, SFUSD was receiving $5,776 per student in unrestricted funds — at the time that seemed incredibly lean but I’d sure like to have that extra $570 per student–about $30 million total –now.  Remember, 95 percent of education spending represents people — teachers, counselors, aides, principals, nurses, custodians, cafeteria attendants, etc. Most people wouldn’t begrudge any of these hardworking people a living wage, benefits and a pension to retire on, but each of these things costs more money every year (especially health benefits, as any employer knows).  So, “doing more with less” is the place you start in any given budget year; when funding declines, as it has in recent years, there is often no choice but to do less with less.

Budgeting is about making choices — sometimes tough choices — and holding to priorities when you can’t do everything you want or need to do.  My budget priorities are:

  • Maintaining current sources of funding and developing new funding: the Public Education Enrichment Fund (PEEF), a voter-approved  initative ensuring dedicated funding for early childhood education, sports, libraries arts, and music will expire in 2014.  The fund, which comes from the City’s general fund, has been a lifeline in  recent years and has ensured that San Francisco’s public schools have continued funding so-called “extras” like the arts and athletic programs even in tough times.  It’s essential to our students that PEEF dollars continue to be available and I will work hard to be sure a reauthorization campaign is successful.  I will also continue to work on engaging San Francisco’s private sector around supporting the schools — not just financially, but also through partnerships and programs that will improve expanded learning opportunities for our students and our teachers.
  • Ensuring that cuts, when necessary, fall as far as possible from the classroom: Increasing class sizes and cutting instructional days are a last resort, because these cuts have an immediate impact on the classroom. To minimize the pain, my colleagues and I have encouraged the Superintendent to first cut administration and non-essential programs wherever possible.  I also believe we can do a better job monitoring our initiatives and programs over time, to be sure we are putting money where it is most effective.
  • Equity is important: It’s just a fact that some schools in SFUSD have more than others, and most people would agree that this imbalance is not fair. The reasons behind the inequity we see across the district are complex and they are not straightforward to address — take parent fundraising as an example. Some schools have parents with far more ability to fundraise and give than other schools, so they have been able to create and fund more programs for their students. How should we address this? I don’t support caps on fundraising, as some districts have; nor do I think we should (even if central office had the ability to track it) take parent fundraising into account when deciding each school’s budget. Instead, I think the Weighted Student Formula (WSF), which takes into account student characteristics like poverty and English language proficiency, is a fairer and more objective way to ensure that those who need the most get more.  However, the WSF weights haven’t been updated in years, and I think we need to look at that more closely in order to be sure that the current formula is working as well as it should. Strategic program placement is a huge strategy in attracting students –who bring dollars with them — to under-enrolled schools; the district hasn’t always used that lever very effectively.
  • Transparency: Most people don’t understand the district budget document and don’t have the first idea on how to analyze the budget.   As a Commissioner, I have access to district staff and data, and I try to use that access to better inform constituents through this blog.  But I admit that I can’t go far enough to address the interest and desire for hard facts and analysis, and I deeply believe in the power of communication and information in helping guide policy debates and building community consensus. Should we be more transparent about our budget process, and work harder to inform stakeholders of the trade-offs and choices? Absolutely. I will continue to advocate for more transparency, more communication, and more opportunities to engage in the district’s budgeting process.

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