Tonight the Board met as a Committee of the Whole to discuss the Superintendent’s proposed Budget Deficit Action Plan. The Superintendent is requesting that the Board approve his proposed strategy for closing the district’s looming $113 million budget deficit for the coming two years (2010-11 and 2011-12). I’ve written earlier about his proposals, and tonight was the opportunity for the Board to discuss those proposals in further detail with the staff.
We also had an opportunity to hear from the Parent Advisory Council and PPS about the budget forums they hosted with community members earlier this month. There were three forums plus a workshop at the Site Council Summit in February, attended by a total of about 100 people. Their comments were faithfully recorded in detail and summarized in a report the groups delivered tonight. I very much appreciate the work, and there were some good suggestions and questions in the report, but overall after hearing it I felt we still have a long way to go before people get to a place where they feel they really understand the issues we’re facing.
There were a number of members of the public who came to speak: members of Coleman Advocates stressed the importance of continuing to focus on closing the achievement gap; parents and community members from Dianne Feinstein and Monroe voiced concerns about the impact proposed cuts will have on their programs; members of the San Francisco Organizing Project presented an alternative budget with 20% cuts across the board to most central office functions; and arts advocates spoke against the proposal to “flex” the Art and Music Block Grant — a $1.4 million reduction over two years (we are fortunate to be able to maintain a protected $4.8 million stream of arts funding through the Public Education Enrichment Fund, so this proposal would not reduce arts funding completely).
New ideas discussed by the Board tonight included revisiting proposed cuts to transportation — which at the moment would primarily affect students who are being bused to Galileo, Mission and O’Connell high schools. This idea came out of the budget committee back in December 2008, when the committee opted not to consider the more painful options of cutting service to elementary schools or changing bell times. However, 15 months later we are in a whole new ball game, so Commissioners indicated they might be willing to consider these tougher cuts if it kept cuts away from the classroom. We also asked whether schools could be given more flexibility with their budgets than they have now, so that one school could opt to raise class sizes and keep a Learning Support Professional (LSP, generally a counselor or nurse) while another school might opt to consolidate its LSP position to keep class sizes low. This would, of course, assume that we are eventually able to negotiate a class size increase in order for schools to even have the option of raising their class sizes higher than the budgeted 26 (right now K classrooms have been enrolled to 22 but schools have been budgeted for K-3 class sizes of about 26).
Anyway, aside from the inevitable “don’t cut this essential program!” arguments, the chief issue before the Board is whether or not to endorse the Superintendent’s somewhat aggressive stance on moving forward with proposed cuts, even though we don’t have to adopt a budget until the end of June. Mr. Garcia’s chief argument is that there’s very little point in waiting, since we know we will have to make severe cuts, and prolonging the agony simply keeps schools and staff members twisting in the wind, wondering about what their site budgets will be and whether they will have a job next year. In addition, he appears increasingly concerned about the district’s bond rating, which will be reviewed by the rating agencies next month. If, he argues, the rating agencies don’t see a plan to deal with the looming deficit, they will downgrade our rating and make it more expensive for us to sell bonds (which makes our many ongoing facilities projects cost more). In addition, the district on occasion sells short term debt to strengthen our cash flow between payments from the state. A downgraded bond rating would make that harder to do.
The argument on the other side is that the proposals haven’t been fully vetted by the Board and the community, and that more time is needed for everyone to digest and gain full understanding of what is being proposed.
The backdrop to all of this are intense labor negotiations happening behind closed doors with members of United Educators of San Francisco and members of the administration. The Superintendent’s plan asks for more than $44 million from our labor partners, and this is not an easy request for them to swallow.
The plan comes back to the full board for second reading and a final vote on March 23.