The ‘race’ is on: SFUSD will apply for race to the top funds

At tonight’s Special Meeting, the Board formally approved the Superintendent’s request to execute and submit a Memorandum of Understanding with the state that will formally enter us in the running for “Race to the Top” funds.  People are dubious about the reform framework the Federal government has outlined, and even more unhappy with some of the extras (like the open enrollment provision and the so-called “parent trigger”) tacked on by the state legislature, but for now there’s no reason not to apply for the funds. Our legal counsel advised us that we can back out of the competition at any time if we see too many unpleasant strings attached; at the same time it’s pretty clear that the school reform agenda outlined in Race to the Top is coming to every school district and every state sooner or later — sometime next year the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, the new name of NCLB) will be reauthorized and it is expected to have the same policy components.

In other news, the Board was briefed on a draft proposal from the Mayor’s office, which seeks to free up much-needed revenues in the City budget by putting a revenue measure on a future ballot (possibly as early as June).  Currently, as most people know, SFUSD gets $40 million a year from the City’s general fund through the set-aside in Prop. H, also known as the “Public Education Enrichment Fund.” Of that $40 million, $2o million is earmarked for sports, libraries, arts and music (the so-called “SLAM” portion of the fund); the remaining $20 million (called the “third-third”) can be used for any educational purpose.  There is also another third — an additional $20 million — that goes to First Five to be used for early childhood education.

The Mayor’s office is proposing a ballot measure that would raise $40 million through some kind of parcel tax. Half of that money would relieve the City’s obligation for either the SLAM or third-third portion of the fund; the other half would represent new money for the school district’s general fund.  I can’t stress enough that this is just a trial balloon, and there are many, many more questions than answers. For example, what would happen to the other parts of the PEEF when the fund expires in 2014-15? And, could such a measure pass? Parcel taxes have to pass by a two-thirds majority, while reauthorizing Prop. H (which was originally passed as an amendment to the City’s charter) would only require a simple majority.

The Board acknowledged all the questions and uncertainties but agreed that the Superintendent should keep exploring this option, if only because the City so desperately needs revenue, and it would be unneighborly to refuse to consider this latest idea to free up some of the obligations on the City’s general fund.  Commissioner Wynns agreed to bring this topic to the Budget Committee for further discussion later in the month — tentatively January 19.

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