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.