Another day, another budget scenario . . .

Tonight was the first official meeting of the newly-rearranged Budget committee, chaired by Commissioner Wynns and featuring Commissioner Yee and Commissioner Yours Truly.  (President Maufas also sat in.) On the agenda: two fairly straightforward action items and three informational items on our ever-more-complex local-state-Federal budget scenarios.

First, the action items:

  • Reviewing the district’s implementation plan for the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act – this is a Federal law (info sheet – PDF) that provides protections and resources for homeless students. It comes with a little bit of money — about $120,000 — that primarily is used by SFUSD to purchase Muni Fast Passes for homeless students (and in some cases, their parents). Under the law, the district is required to provide transportation for homeless students, so this plan satisfies that obligation. We use Title I funds to provide homeless students with additional support. What’s very sad is that this year, we have identified 1,623 homeless students enrolled in our district, at every grade level–466 more homeless students than a year ago. Some of the increase is due to more proactive outreach by district staff, but a big chunk of it has to be the scary state of the economy.  We voted unanimously  to send the plan to the full board with a positive recommendation.
  • Reviewing the application by Creative Arts Charter School, a K-8 school, to renew its charter for another five years. After a positive report from Nancy Waymack, Director of Policy and Operations, the committee voted unanimously to forward on the petition with a positive recommendation. Next stop – Curriculum Committee, then the full board.

After these two votes, we heard three presentations on the complex and interrelated politics of the state, Federal and local budget situations, and how each may affect the budget outlook for our school district:

  • State: Ms. Waymack ran through the current scenarios being put forward in the Legislature and by the Governor. News reports indicate that a compromise is just one vote short, so things could change, but it’s fairly certain that we will absorb significant cuts this year and next year. The question is — will these cuts be to categorical (or restricted) funds, or will they be made to unrestricted funds? There are advantages and disadvantages for our district contained in each approach.  The good news (sort of) is that Special Education and Class Size Reduction will be spared. Districts would still be assessed penalties if they go above 20 students in grades K-3, but these penalties would be smaller, allowing districts some class size flexibility.  The really bad news is that the funds guaranteed by  Prop. 98, the voter-approved legislation that set a “floor” for education funding in California, could be drastically reduced. What this means for San Francisco is just not clear yet, but the sense I get from Ms. Waymack and Deputy Superintendent Myong Leigh is that these scenarios are not that far off from what they have been planning for in 2008-09 and 2009-10. Come 2010-11, however, things could get scary.  Stay tuned.
  • Federal: Today, President Obama (I still really enjoy typing “President Obama”!) signed into law the $787 billion economic stimulus plan, which contains significant good news for education.  SFUSD could get as much as $20 million over two years in additional Title I and IDEA funds to support low-income students and students with disabilities — and this influx benefits everyone, since the new funds can in large part replace money currently being spent out of our general fund and freeing it up for other uses.  There are also additional money we may be eligible for after going through a competitive grant process — perhaps our friends in D.C. can help us with that.
  • Local: Here’s where the plot sickens. SFUSD watchers know that last year, $19 million from the city’s Rainy Day Fund helped save the jobs of hundreds of teachers. With the impending budget cuts from the state, and the preliminary layoff notices we’ll be forced to send out in less than a month, we should qualify for another distribution (the law says the schools can, under specific conditions, take up to 25 percent of the fund). The burning question is, 25 percent of how much?  According to the briefing we received tonight, there is currently $98 million left in the fund, but some are arguing that SFUSD should be last in line for a distribution, after the City receives its share for the current year and next year.  In the end, we could receive as much as $26 million or as little as $0, depending on who has the sharpest elbows and when the darn state legislature passes a budget. This issue may well need some advocacy, folks – I’ll keep you posted.  (Update: I also forgot to mention a few things: first and most important, the amount of the Rainy Day Fund distribution we ultimately receive, if any, will also be influenced by the level of cuts we sustain to unrestricted funds. So it would reduce our draw on the fund if the state decides to cut categorical funds more deeply than unrestricted funds. The best case scenario, strangely, is if the state decides to cut unrestricted funds and give us categorical flexibility.  ALSO – any Federal stimulus money we get is likely ONE TIME funding. So we must be careful not to take on spending obligations–like new programs or new staff–that are ongoing if we use this money to pay for them.)
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