Recap: A sad but resolute board passes budget action plan

In the end, it was unanimous, but heading into tonight’s meeting I felt real anxiety about how the debate and final vote on the Superintendent’s Budget Deficit Action Plan would play out. For one thing, members of United Educators of San Francisco, San Francisco Organizing Project (SFOP) and various parent groups spent the past week peppering Board members with increasingly desperate pleas to slow down the plan and address budget alternatives in detail. For another, at last week’s Committee of the Whole meeting on the plan, several Board members seemed inclined to vote against the plan outright, while others appeared undecided.  Muddying the waters was an alternate budget proposal from SFOP’s Children’s Allocation Team (CAT), which they said would cut $113 million over two years through across-the-board cuts to centralized budget functions, sparing class sizes and other labor concessions.

I was concerned enough to go to the Superintendent late last week and ask him whether he would consider putting off a vote on the plan for two weeks. I wasn’t worried so much about the need for the Board to sign off on a prospective budget framework, and I also agreed it was important for us to approve such a framework sooner rather than later, in order to help school sites start planning for next year and offer our employees more clarity about whether they will have a job next year. But the level of uncertainty I saw in Board members and among members of the public made me worry that perhaps we were moving too fast, and that we hadn’t truly considered all the alternatives.

Over the weekend, I had a decision to make and a lot of due diligence to conduct.  I knew Carlos would not bring the plan forward tonight unless he felt confident he had four yes votes,  but the cuts he was asking us to endorse are so drastic and so unthinkable that I wanted a wider margin. A 4-3 vote is a divided board; 6-1 or even 5-2 is more decisive, but 7-0 is a unified and resolute statement.   I couldn’t just sit down with other board members to discuss the vote — remember the Brown Act? — so instead, I studied. I read through our current budget and studied all of the information in the deficit action plan and previous presentations to the budget committee.

Here’s what I decided: What the Superintendent has proposed is sound, if not exactly appetizing. It’s flexible, because we can swap, say, furlough days for class size or a staggered wage freeze (I hate that the current proposal to freeze step and column — i.e., union contract wage schedules — hits less senior teachers way harder than their more senior colleagues) in our ongoing negotiations. Based on their comments and their votes,  it’s clear my colleagues on the Board came to the same decision. No one was happy about what we endorsed tonight but everyone – all seven of us and a few with tears in their eyes — voted to say this is where we (pretty much) need to go.

It’s important to remember that this is not a budget — it is a framework for future decision-making.  A lot of my email has dealt with the alternate CAT budget proposal. On the surface it sounds great, and district staff took pains to praise the work and the thought that went into this all-volunteer effort to find alternatives to layoffs and class size increases.  There are some good ideas in this budget, and many of them  you’ll actually find in the Superintendent’s budget proposal. Essentially, though, the CAT proposal is a 20 percent (with some exceptions) across-the-board-cut. (I would post a link to the proposal but I haven’t seen it online anywhere — if someone has a link to it please post it because all I have is a paper copy).   This is why Coleman Advocates — a group that is extremely knowledgeable and on-the-ground when it comes to issues of educational equity — did not endorse this approach. It is not equitable to cut our schools 20 percent across the board. The Superintendent’s approach is less ham-handed, and even then we are seeing less equitable results for hard-to-staff schools like El Dorado (where almost 60 percent of the staff received layoff notices). Also very important: Commissioners Fewer, Maufas and Kim amended the plan to ask for an equity report on proposed cuts — such an equity report would be given to the Board before we actually vote on a budget and would detail how our most needy schools would be affected by any proposed layoffs/cuts.

And let’s talk about El Dorado, a school that pretty much brings me to tears whenever I think about  it.  There are not many schools in this district that face the challenges El Dorado does every day — and even fewer that do so with the heart and “all-in” attitude I see in the El Dorado staff whenever I visit. Tonight seven or eight teachers from the school came to talk to us (including my thoughtful commenter Jennifer Moless) and even the principal, Tai Schoemann.  It is not fair that so many teachers from El Dorado will not be in our district next year. It is not fair that so many students at El Dorado need so much more than we are able to give them. It is not fair that this school finds itself, year after year, in such an uncertain and precarious situation. El Dorado’s students and its staff deserve better, and the plan we approved tonight does not give it to them. I have to acknowledge this, and yet I have to squarely say that the reason so many teachers from El Dorado got layoff notices is the fact that state law requires us to lay teachers off strictly by seniority. El Dorado has, for whatever reason, a concentration of teachers that were hired most recently by our district, and so — following the last-in, first-out rule of state law — a concentration of teachers who received pink slips.

Several board members tonight asked for the district to pursue legislative solutions to this seniority/layoff/equity/concentration problem (I am using terms in slashes because how you frame this issue really matters).  While I do think that as a district we need to be able to protect our most struggling schools from the uncertainties of pink slips, I don’t think the first step should be for us to go to the legislature. I think we need to work with our unions to figure out how we do this in a way that doesn’t completely undermine the last and most important tenet of the labor movement. Seniority, the current demon in education, is huge from a labor perspective — and people who want to strike it down need to understand what they are asking of their partners in labor.

Let’s also talk about the trust factor, which was the core of my comments tonight. While I think we have incredible, dedicated and very hardworking staff supporting the work of the Central Office, I think the Board, Superintendent and cabinet staff sometimes forget how little the public actually trusts the school district. Every community engagement project we’ve ever undertaken has shown the same thing: whether we deserve the lack of trust or not, parents, community members and school site staff trust the Board and the Central Office staff about as far as they can throw them. What’s worse, we do a dismal job of actually getting information out to the public, so that they can actually start to see that trusting the district is not such a foolish bet.  Now that I’m on the inside, I know that we are mostly limited by money and staff time — we actually do a fabulous job for the amount of people and funding we have dedicated to the job of informing the public.  Still, we could do better and we have to do better: we are asking a lot of the people of San Francisco and of the people who work for us, but we’re not doing a good enough job demonstrating the size of the problem and how we’ve come to our proposed solutions.  One of my favorite PTA presidents recently suggested to me that we should ask for a team of information designers to have their way with our budget: anyone with that kind of experience interested in a challenging pro bono assignment? I used to do that kind of work long ago, but the SFUSD budget is beyond my abilities.

There wasn’t anything else on the Board’s agenda that was particularly controversial, but I do have to mention the very spirited and determined group from George Washington Carver Elementary, who came to express their outrage about their school landing on the state’s persistently low-performing list, and their worry that the district might be planning to close their school.

The first thing I absolutely have to say is that no one is planning to close Carver. Here’s a quote from an email I sent to Carver community members tonight, reiterating that fact:

It’s true that the school landed on the state’s “persistently low-performing” list, which subjects us to consequences that none of us are happy with — eventually we will have to choose one of the four options (transformation, closure, conversion to a charter, or reconstitution) but we are still figuring out how much time we have and how much wiggle room we have with those options.  Closure and conversion to a charter are almost certainly off the table; the staff is looking at the transformation/reconstitution options to figure out how much wiggle room we have there, if any. Once they have a better grasp on what the new state law requires of us, they’ll bring the Board and the community some options. You have my personal guarantee that the Carver community will be part of any decision-making process.

The second thing I have to say is that one of the first chapter books I ever read was about George Washington Carver, and if you don’t know who he was, you have a treat in store, because this man should be a hero to anyone who values education.

We also unanimously passed the Superintendent’s proposal to include a biliteracy seal on diplomas of children graduating from San Francisco Unified who have earned true biliteracy in English and a second language.


19 responses to “Recap: A sad but resolute board passes budget action plan

  1. Thanks, Rachel. I am so mad about this. I tried to write something about it, but just rant. The union has really lost my support.

  2. FYI, ooeygooey, it does appear that it is an organized effort by UESF to ask their members not to vote on a budget that cuts teachers:

    Still, the effects of this action that I described would be the same.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts — I am reassured. The person that really suffered over this was our Principal. She is trying so hard to come to a budget that works with the least amount of pain (or at least spread evenly) and when the staff won’t even discuss it, she’s left with all the hard decisions — and all the blame. A sad situation all around.

  4. Hi ooeygooey – I actually don’t think UESF is behind this particular act of civil disobedience – I think the executive team would have told me if they were urging building committees to adopt this tactic. There are factions within UESF, however, so perhaps there is a faction that is encouraging building reps to refuse to approve a budget. I am not hearing that this is happening in any widespread way.
    In practical terms, I don’t think there is much that would happen if the school were to submit an unbalanced budget — probably the principal would be asked by his or her supervisor to come up with a budget that does balance, or in extreme cases the supervisor might balance the budget for the principal. The end result would be that the community would not have a say in what to cut and what to keep — much like what happens if the district itself were to decide to submit an unbalanced budget as an act of civil disobedience. State monitors would come in and balance our budget for us, without community input.
    As far as a walkout, that is the “nuclear option” as far as the district leadership and the unions are concerned. No one wants that and no one wins should one come to pass. Oakland is doing one-day strikes and perhaps we will see that here, but there is still time to avoid such a scenario if both parties are serious about finding a solution.

  5. Hi Rachel — The staff members that serve on our school’s SSC refused to vote on any of the budget proposals presented by our principal last night (there were seven in all), and instead insisted that we submit an UNbalanced budget. The other SSC members asked them to abstain from the vote instead of derailing it, which they did. But I am left wondering if this is a tactic that other schools are seeing? The 3 staff on our SSC are classroom teachers, not support staff, and are wonderful and amazingly thoughtful — not the people that I would expect to come up with this kind of idea on their own. I’m left with the feeling that the teacher’s union is directing members to do this kind of “civil-disobediance” with approving budgets for next year, and am frankly terrified of what will happen in classrooms if this tactic succeeds in other schools. Come hell or high water, I want my kids in the classroom — kids don’t stop growing or developing while we sort out budget issues — and this tactic (refusal to participate in the process) makes me fear that teachers are planning some kind of walkout. Am I overreacting here? What are your thoughts?

    Thanks for the blog!

  6. I agree Frank’s idea for a 3-year “hardship” stint to act as protection against being bumped during layoffs

    Jennifer, thanks also for posting that link. There’s a lot of presumption that there’s a lot of fat in the district central office, which just isn’t the case when you look at the numbers.

    Special Ed Parent:
    “With all this unfairness, I think the Board needs to seriously focus the teacher cuts at the schools that have grant or PTA money that will enable them to hire teachers on their own. ”

    I’d agree to this to a point, but you have to consider that if you target solely schools with strong PTAs for cuts, it’s going to be harder to motivate parents to continue fundraising for the PTA: why fundraise or write grant proposals if the district goes and punishes the school for their work? So the revenue stream from that PTA may decrease radically.

  7. Great suggestion, Frank. Also, given that teacher surveys often show that work environment/climate is something that is of high value to them, it would seem that class size might be a way to provide ‘compensation’ or incentive to keep/attract teachers to some schools. Hard to staff schools could have a guarantee for lower class sizes, for example.

  8. It seems to me that the problems with “seniority” are that it causes a lot of teacher churn at hard-to-staff schools. Teachers get seniority, then get out of those schools. So those hard-to-staff schools are predominantly less senior. But when the budget cuts come, those less senior teachers are the ones cut, and the senior teachers come back, only to leave again at the first opportunity.

    Poverty and violence obviously are part of what makes some schools hard to staff, but the teacher seniority system contributes to teacher churn. And in the end, the Board of Education has limited control over poverty and violence, but could have a more direct impact on how the current seniority system contributes to making schools hard to staff.

    I realize that these labor discussions are complicated, but would it be possible to somehow value the fact that some teachers have been at a hard-to-staff school for “a while”? Relying just on SFUSD seniority seems to make it harder to have stability at some schools. Perhaps have a list of schools where, say, 3 years of tenure would qualify a teacher for a “skip” when it comes to cutting positions. I’d start the list by looking at the schools with a 1 or 2 API.

  9. Let’s look at the trust factor. You have a mighty opportunity on this blog to gain my trust, in you at least, if not for the entire BOE. And I want so badly to believe that you, or someone, could take the heat and have the courage to make decisions that reflect the goals put forth in Discourse Two and in the BSC. I am still looking for that someone because …

    In just this one entry you have failed.

    In this entry I see a) naivete: the “framework” resolution will provide clarity for employees and/or help school sites start planning. Really? The superintendent’s framework has flexibility and some commissioners are calling for an equity report. Very optimistic. Not.
    b) misinformation: citing a lower figure of impacted staff at El Dorado; overlooking the fact that in 2008 Bledsoe vs. Biggs USD Public Sector Case Notes Stewart Weinberg states that “School Districts are entitled to “skip” a jr. teacher who is being retained for a specified reason which do not match the qualifications of the sr. teacher.” c) unconvincing and unsubstantiated claims, excuses, and loose ends: “The superintendent’s proposal is sound.” And paraphrased, No one is happy but this is pretty much where we need to go. And, “I read through our current budget and studied all the information in the deficit action plan and previous presentations to the budget committee.” And, “Its not fair…”

    If you want trust start now by writing in this blog how you are going to hold the Superintendent accountable to the BSC and Discourse Two. Tell us exactly what makes you believe the Superintendent’s proposal is sound? What you read over the weekend that convinced you of this?

  10. What was sad to me last night was to watch a unanimous vote go down. All the talk of this not being THE budget aside, please don’t tell us what you think we might want to hear – the direction has been set. Swapping furloughs for class size increases is not what SF educators want to settle for. The equity report should have been put forward as a substitute resolution in PLACE of passing the budget plan. The fact that it was tacked on to a plan which will devastate so many school communities only sounds like equity lip-service as far as the teachers at my site are concerned.

    It was intensely disheartening to hear Board members talk about “seniority” as if it were a barrier to equity. This is the rhetoric of Arne Duncan and doesn’t belong in the SF schools. Seniority is not the problem – chronic underfunding, understaffing and resource starvation create “hard-to-staff” schools. Poverty creates “hard-to-staff” schools. Violence creates “hard-to-staff” schools. Let’s tackle those issues and not point a finger at seniority. As a veteran southeast side teacher, I am insulted by what looks like an attempt to pit newer teachers against veterans. No paras, no teachers, no counselors should be laid off and the Board chose NOT to come over to our side last night.

  11. Tali Horowitz

    It is not true that lay offs are done by strict seniority. The District has skip clauses for Special Ed and BCLAD. These are hard to fill skip clauses. Why is the District not using skip clauses for hard to staff schools such as El Dorado? There is legal precendent for this in the reading of the Ed Code – see Blesdoe vs. Biggs.
    While El Dorado does have many teachers newer to the District, many of these teachers are highly experienced and have chosen to work at our school precisely because we are dedicated to educational equity. The staff at El Dorado has deliberately created an adult culture commited to change with the understanding that adult culture directly impacts student culture. Both teachers and parents who have been at El Dorado for more than 4 years, as well as former students and community members, have remarked on the positive changes in the school. Parents regularly comment on the level of care and commitment they feel from our staff. This is neither accidental nor by chance, or even easy. It is thoughtful and has been done by staff who really want to be here and challenge the historical predictive power of demographics.

  12. Just to be clear – I believe the CAT proposal does NOT cut centrally-funded services that provide on-site personnel (like janitors and counselors). And to be clear, they do not offer a formal budget proposal, rather an alternative framework for how to meet the budget gap that minimizes cuts to school sites. Regarding class size – in my school we are looking at not only increasing class size, but drastically cutting para support, so teachers will get a double whammy -more kids and less support. Given our demographics (>70% free and reduced lunch) this makes a huge difference for the teaching environment. That’s why I support the CAT framework to minimize class-size increases across all grades, not just K-5.

  13. In rereading my post, I realize it sounds as if I’m addressing something posted on this one thread. I’ll back up and say that I think the BOE and Superintendent made the right difficult choice.

    My previous post is largely in response to the numerous emails I’m getting from the K-5 parent world that seems not to have a full K-12 perspective.

  14. I think there is somewhat of a false idea of what is in the Central Office budget – a great deal of necessary school site services get funded centrally.

    Jill Tucker provided an eye opening summary that everyone should read:

    For example, middle schools fund from their WSF two counselors. A third counselor – to make sure schools have one for each grade, is funded from the Central Office. Those counselors follow the same class of kids from 6 through 8th. Each grade is about 335 kids which means that many kids per counselor.

    At Aptos, that position is being lost and we are forced to look at some creative ways to try to keep one counselor per grade. That would mean over 500 kids per counselor! Creative ways to fund are to keep all three and cut them back to part time.

    I say this as a parent who will have both kids in middle school and, while I appreciate the feelings parents have about trying to keep class sizes to 20, the financial reality has to be balanced to meet the needs of kids in ALL grades.

    My son’s 7th grade class has 36 kids in it – so moving K-3 up to 22 or 25 to balance out needs seems reasonable.

    And if any K-3 were to stay smaller than that – keep at 20 – it would certainly seem to make the most sense to target schools that would benefit most to hard to staff schools/schools that have student populations that are historically more challenged.

    Of course, I say this with the ‘given’ that we have to make horrible choices on how to divvy up a ridiculously small pie and the bigger longer term issue is getting more pie for education.

  15. Special Ed Parent

    Bernal Dad — It makes intuitive sense that a school with good fundraising should face more cuts than one that shouldn’t. This is particularly true for the ones in the over $75,000 category (either in PTA funds or private grants) which have the real possibility of reversing class size increases. Right now, for example, Miraloma has only 25 kids in a class in fourth and fifth grade, while many other schools have 33 kids in those classes as a result of last year’s budget cuts. You will hear volumes from the parents of those schools that it is not “fair” to penalize them for success. But, as you see in Rachel’s post, there’s a lot of unfairness going on here. We’ve got teachers being penalized for turning around a school. With all this unfairness, I think the Board needs to seriously focus the teacher cuts at the schools that have grant or PTA money that will enable them to hire teachers on their own. Sorry, but it is time to spread the pain.

  16. Kudos to you and the other members of the board for approving the framework, rather than ducking the issue.

    Anecdotal information seems to suggest where the pain of the cuts is hitting is not hitting evenly, though. I’ve heard Monroe is facing laying off 13 staff because they’re losing their STAR status. I’m not a Monroe parent, but it seems particularly galling
    that staff there are being essentially punished for having improved the school.

    It’d be better for the pain to be primarily borne on the backs of those schools with sufficient social capital in their parents and community to better weather this storm, rather than schools where the social capital is weaker and what strength the school has is in the staff alone.

    As for managing expectations, I don’t know what to do if I was in your shoes. Because of the irresponsibility in Sacramento and delayed budgets, most years we’ve had a sorta-kinda crisis that at the last minute, because the . And we’ve been able to whether those well because of the resourcefullness of staff, and the support from the Rainy Day Fund. (Thanks, Tom Ammiano!)

    But this time it is different. Plus your task of communication is going to get harder because central office staff know they’re more vulnerable to getting laid off than staff at the schools. So it’s going to be harder to hold on to staff.

  17. I appreciate your analysis, but I think you’ve got the CAT alternative wrong. I got it just last week, and on my review it is NOT asking for a 20% across the board cut for schools, but rather a 20% cut to Central Admin as a starting point (with some departments getting more or less depending on where their money comes from and how much they provide in-school support). The upshot is that it greatly reduces the impact on school sites. I know the admin folks are hard working, but if we put equity and achievement at the forefront, then Central Admin needs to get cut first. Kids aren’t harmed because an HR action is delayed by two weeks, or if a particular study isn’t completed, or a curriculum isn’t updated. Their work is important, but not as critical as the teachers and staff on the ground in the schools. It is your job to make that kind of a hard call – and as a parent with a kid in K, I know where I’d fall. And frankly, I’m scared to death of all the semi-retired principles in Admin being farmed out to school sites. So I’d like to see as few teacher/principle layoff notices sent out. My last thought – no furloughs for sites, but more furloughs for central admin. By making furloughs across the board, you (and the Superintendant) are essentially saying those services are equal, and they are NOT!

  18. Rachel Lederman

    The CAT budget proposal, a work in progress, is posted on SF Community School’s web site:

    Click to access cat+allocation+cuts.pdf

  19. Jennifer Moless

    Actually, SFUSD has the ability right now – without negotiation or union contract – to institute a skip clause that would lessen the impact of layoffs on hard-to-staff schools. This has been demonstrated repeatedly; here is a discussion of Blesdoe vs. Biggs USD:

    Click to access Labor-and-Employment-Law-Review_Vol-23_No-4_july-2009.pdf

    Yet SFUSD chooses not to institute such a skip clause, and its Public Relations office tells the media that it cannot look at impact, and that even if it could, teachers at hard-to-staff schools transfer to different (Westside) schools as soon as we have the tenure to do so:

    …a misleading position indeed, particularly in the case of El Dorado, where you have voted to lay off four teachers who are permanent employees at the site.

    Since SFUSD is choosing not to institute such a skip clause – a perfectly legal skip clause – this is not a case of an unavoidable situation. It is the case of there being more talk Beyond the Talk.

    Also, please do not use numbers to lessen the impact of your decisions: you have voted to lay off eleven of fifteen classroom teachers at El Dorado – 67%. The lower figure is derived by counting all certificated staff on site – people who are indeed important to our community, but not those with as much direct impact on the children in my neighborhood.