Meeting recap: How to cut $113 million and other assorted minidramas

Tonight’s meeting agenda was pretty packed with items, including a much-awaited update from the Superintendent on the $113 million budget shortfall announced last week, and a sometimes-contentious discussion on the spending plan for the Public Education Enrichment Fund (PEEF).   In addition, UESF members were out in force, wearing their blue shirts and doing their best to remind us that cuts to the classroom have a devastating impact on students and staff (not that we didn’t already know this fact, but it never hurts to repeat it). I don’t think UESF members really blame us for the crisis — they know it originated in Sacramento — but tonight they sent the message that we need to be as fair and as transparent as possible in our budgeting from here on out. “Sharing the pain” is a nice idea, but there are any number of ways to do that, and it’s easy to come to blows over the decision-making. If we can keep our partnership with the unions intact over the coming months, it will be better for our students in the long run.

Superintendent Garcia and Deputy Superintendent Myong Leigh gave us a dense presentation on how we arrived here. Up until a few weeks ago, we thought it was bad enough that we were facing a shortfall of $83 million for the two years ending in June 2012.  What changed? Essentially two factors — a $250 per student cut we had thought would be restored in 2010-11 was made permanent in the Governor’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year, and in the same budget the state revealed that it was giving less stimulus money — the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, coming from the Federal government — to K-12 districts than previously thought. The end result was a $30 million increase in our projected budget shortfall.

So, how does the Superintendent propose we close the gap? Here are the cuts he will likely propose when he forwards a preliminary budget proposal to the Board on Feb. 23:

  • Cuts in centrally-budgeted functions funded by Tier III categorical programs (programs the state has given us permission to “flex” — i.e., de-fund in favor of redirecting that money into the unrestricted general fund), the PEEF “third-third”  (allowed to fund any general use by the school district), and the unrestricted general fund (generally central-office administrative functions). This is the part of the budget people always rail about — the “Central Office” spending that is taking money away from the classroom. While we need much more detail about the activities the Superintendent is proposing to cut here, it would be foolish to think this is one huge pot of slush money and waste. These cuts are necessary, but they’re going to hurt: I guarantee it.  Total saved: $45.5 million
  • Labor contract savings is the euphemistic way of saying that the Superintendent is going to ask UESF and our other unions for concessions like furlough days (two per employee), temporary wage freezes, a temporary class size increase to 25 students in grades K-3, as well as other concessions. These have to be negotiated, and our union partners will not agree to them easily, or at all if they suspect the pain is landing mostly on them — hence the need for absolute transparency so that we maintain a trusting relationship. Total saved: $44.3 million
  • Apply 50 percent of 2008-09 Prop A revenue to the 2010-11 and 2011-12 budgets. This is kind of a “gimmick” made possible by the way City tax revenue is collected. Essentially, we collect six months earlier than we are called upon to spend it, a situation that eventually evens out at the end of the 20-year life of the tax. The Superintendent is proposing to spend the last half-year of Prop A revenue now, which has no practical effect other than to mean that programs funded by Prop. A will lose funding six months earlier than they would have otherwise, unless the voters extend the tax.  Total raised: $15.0 million
  • Drastic cuts in summer school programming were proposed and approved at tonight’s meeting.  This cut will really hurt high school students who depend on these programs to recover credits or catch up on graduation requirements. Total saved: $4.6 million
  • Cuts in busing have been discussed for months as part of the student assignment redesign effort, but the Superintendent is proposing to cut even more than we had previously thought. Total saved: $2.5 million
  • Unspent money from 2008-09 will be applied to this year’s general fund expenses, carrying forward savings for the 2010-11 and 2011-12 “deficit years.” Total raised: $1.5 million

Taking rounding into account, these figures add up — surprise! — to $113.4 million. They represent real pain to families, to students, to our staff, and our entire program, but if everything lines up we could be looking at a way through the treacherous budget shoals of the next two years. The actions we take and the information coming out of the district in the coming weeks will determine whether all the pieces fall into place, and for my part I will be urging the admininstration to be as open and forthcoming as possible with answers and data to support their proposed cuts.

The emotional and upsetting budget presentation dispensed with, the Board moved on to what should have been a happier topic: how to spend the PEEF funds.  The budget committee had taken up this issue on Jan. 18, and forwarded the staff’s proposed spending plan on to the full Board with a positive recommendation — and an amendment warning the City that we might need to amend the plan if our budget picture worsens (we are required by law to send the City’s Board of Supervisors a PEEF spending plan each year by Feb. 1).  The problem was a disagreement over how to fund the Board’s new Restorative Justice policy, passed last October.  At the Jan. 18 budget committee meeting, we were presented with a spending plan that funded a scaled-back implementation of the Restorative Justice framework at $233,000. The committee accepted that recommendation, over the protests of Commissioner Fewer, who co-authored the Restorative Justice resolution. Commissioner Fewer’s point at the committee meeting was that the Board had always intended to fund Restorative Justice with PEEF’s Violence Prevention funds–part of the “third-third”, which in 2009-10 was budgeted at $911,000. Even accounting for the budget shortfall, Ms. Fewer’s point was that $233,000 was much lower than the Board had originally intended. Budget committee members, however, disagreed, pointing to an amendment to the Board’s resolution that stipulated that our new Restorative Justice policy should not add to the district’s budget deficit. Hence, the spending plan was forwarded to the full board with a positive recommendation.

Tonight, however, the spending plan we were presented with showed a $665,000  funding level for Restorative Justice — more than doubling the original funding level the budget committee had recommended. Members of the committee — Commissioners Yee and myself, and the chair Commissioner Wynns — were somewhat disconcerted by this increase, and wanted to know how the objections of one Board member had suddenly made themselves into a revised staff proposal. After a long argument, that at times got angry, Board members accepted the explanation that the $233,000 had never been a realistic figure for the scaled-back implementation of the program the staff is proposing.  In a sidebar conversation I had with Trish Bascom, the Associate Superintendent in charge of implementing the program, Ms. Bascom told me that even $665,000 will not quite cover a consultant, professional development and substitutes to implement the program at 10 middle schools. I continue to think that given the unprecedented nature of the crisis we’re facing, we should let schools decide whether to use the funds to save positions or implement the program, but I was outvoted, and the Board sent the revised spending plan on to the Board of Supervisors. In the end, Commissioner Mendoza summed up our discussion on a positive note: “Thank goodness for Prop H!” And she was right — it’s much better to argue how to spend money than argue about how to cut it.

Which leads me to my (short) sermon for the evening. As part of the PEEF spending discussion, there was some back and forth about choices the Board has made of late — e.g., moving the Montessori program to Jackson Street, or saving the JROTC program last year. I think that is a very, very dangerous game to play. Though I was on the “pro” side of both of those decisions, there are other decisions I’ve opposed that the Board adopted anyway (a $3 million professional development program, anyone?).  If that kind of tit-for-tat budgeting rhetoric takes hold, we’re sunk for the next year. I really hope we can all hold our emotions in check, and live to fight another day if decisions go against us.

Other decisions made by the Board tonight:

  • The Board adopted a new set of Chinese language textbooks (vote: 7-0);
  • The Board rejected a charter proposals by K-12 Flex Public Schools (vote: 7-0);
  • The Board issued commendations to members of the PEEF Community Advisory Committee for their incredible volunteer service;
  • The Board adopted a resolution signing on to the March 4 Day of Action and urging school communities to attend rallies on that date to protest inadequate funding for education in California (vote: 7-0);
  • A resolution in support of Ethnic Studies in SFUSD was introduced and forwarded to the Curriculum and Budget committees.

5 responses to “Meeting recap: How to cut $113 million and other assorted minidramas

  1. I don’t really have much more information than the size of the cut, though I can certainly ask that question. In the past when the Board has discussed transportation cuts, we’ve started with high schools and worked down from there, getting to the routes that are most utilized and serve the youngest children last. With the changes being discussed for student assignment, my guess is that Elementary school routes will be scrutinized and at least some of them will be cut. But beyond that I can’t say at the moment.

  2. Would you mind saying more about cuts to busing? Is this pretty much a “done deal” as far as buses to elementary schools? Thank you!

  3. Caroline Grannan

    If the anti-violence programs were what I saw happening at Aptos when my daughter was there (she graduated from Aptos in 2008), they were BS, a waste of time and money. They were just a jobs program for opportunistic consultants.

    If they are more substantive and effective than that, and not being farmed out to phony consultants running bogus programs just to snag the available money, I will open my mind.

  4. Thanks Rachel, great overview. As I too believe, during the most difficult times, emotions may get a bit raw, but, keeping the long term goal and overall objectives in mind is utmost and primary. I keep sending you support to do your very best!

    Cheers RN,

  5. I agree that decisions about (relatively) small budget expenditures is divisive and a waste of time. Especially under the current tight time frame and mind-boggling cuts, I believe all SFUSD stakeholders need to work together and assume each others’ best intentions.

    That said, when I look toward next year and all of its cuts, and think about how those cuts will be much harder and more serious at schools in high-need communities, these little expenditures sting. They also lead me to wonder to what extent SFUSD is willing to look at all expenditures through an equity lens.

    So while I don’t think hours of meeting time, stomach ulcers, etc. should be devoted to a couple hundred thousand here or there, I do think we all need to be honest about the cosmetic and emotional weight of these decisions.