Digging through the SFUSD budget: a cautionary tale

Back in March, a blogger made the eye-opening claim that just 45 percent of SFUSD spending was going to teaching, compared to 62 percent of spending statewide . Of course, upon reading this, I and other commissioners asked for an explanation from district staff — could it be true?

Deputy Superintendent Myong Leigh got back to me a few days later with an explanation for why the figures used in the analysis were a)incorrect and b)so far off statewide averages. I meant to post this clarification then, but got caught up in other things and never really followed up. Then, today, I received this flyer for an upcoming event that uses similarly flawed comparisons. Clearly, it’s time to clarify this issue.

One of the most confusing things we encounter when digging through SFUSD’s budget is the fact that our district is unique in the state because it is BOTH a K-12 (“Unified”) school district AND a County Office of Education (COE). Generally, COEs develop specialized programs for certain groups of students (the best examples are special education or instruction for students in the court system) and employ their own Superintendents and elected Boards. They are funded separately by the state and receive funds from districts located in the county for the students they serve.  In SFUSD, our “county” expenditures include special education and our court and county schools — all told, $118 million (or 18 percent) of the district’s total expenditures of $650 million in 2008-09.

As a result, when analyzing SFUSD spending, you have to look in two places — the SFUSD budget reports and the County reports. One place to start is the state’s Ed-Data Website. It appears that the blogger used the “Compare District Finances” report to compare SF Unified to similarly-sized districts like Elk Grove and San Bernardino Unified. However, this report only uses SFUSD’s K-12 figures — NOT any data from our “County” report. This is a key distinction because SFUSD’s special education instruction spending —  about $79 million in 2008-09 — is left out of the comparison, as is almost $4 million in other instructional spending in our county office. However, some of this spending is included in the figures for the other districts, because many districts account for some of their special education instructional spending as part of their district spending.  District staff actually prepared a spreadsheet with adjustments to the Ed-Data comparison, in order to show the true amount of instructional spending by combining our County office and our K-12 figures.  With the adjustments, staff estimates that the percentage of SFUSD spending on instruction is 56 percent of total expenditures.

That still sounds bad when compared with the 62 percent statewide figure, but you have to remember that it is pretty meaningless to compare SFUSD or any other large urban K-12 district in California to statewide averages, because there are actually so few of us. The majority of California’s 1,000 school districts are tiny elementary districts with maybe a thousand students. I’m sure a small elementary district does spend far less than we do on administration and far more on teaching calculated on a per student or a percentage basis — in fact, I’d hope so, since they probably don’t have much in the way of categorical or Title 1 funding to administer and track and they probably just enroll their handful of special education students in county programs. In some small districts, the Superintendent even does double-duty as a principal!  As one SFUSD senior administrator puts it:

[P]art [of] what central office expenses pay for is efforts to *increase* revenue to all our schools from state, federal, local and private sources.  Central office people are critical to efforts to raise new revenues, including developing proposals, working with the City and other entities, and coordinating implementation. 

Imagine no Prop H, no rainy day fund, no bond authorizations, no parcel tax for teachers, expiration of TIIBG [consent decree funding], etc. 

Of course, countless people have provided leadership and contributed to all these efforts, but the “downtown” staff are also essential to seeing each source of revenue materialize and making sure it’s spent responsibly so we can keep faith with stakeholders for the next effort. 

It’s healthy for a community to be skeptical of its institutions, and for citizens to take it upon themselves to investigate whether they are truly being well-served by those institutions.  But I can’t help feeling sad at the willingness, in many quarters, to believe that waste and misplaced priorities are the root cause of our current problems. Today the Governor will release his May revise, which by his own account contains “terrible cuts.” Oh, you mean, as opposed to the thousands of dollars per student we’ve lost in the past three years? Focusing on waste and priorities doesn’t really get at the real culprit: several years of devastating budget cuts coming on top of decades of under-funding of California’s schools.

I’m as guilty of this kind of suspicious thinking as anyone – a few months ago we received a letter from the Census Bureau alerting us that we’d be receiving our census form soon and please make sure to fill it out.  My husband and I were incredulous that the Census actually spent money to send a letter letting us know they’d be sending us a letter.  Until we learned that this kind of double-notification actually increases the form’s return rate, which eliminates the need for an expensive visit from a census-taker. In other words, it’s a smart (if counter-intuitive) money-saving strategy. But our first instinct was to assume the Census Bureau stupidly wasted taxpayer’s money, instead of wondering if there was a good reason for the double notification.

Anyway, I just hope that people who are doing advocacy around budget issues will recognize that our budget is a very complex thing, and that it’s important to take the time to be sure they know what they are talking about.  Asking questions is a great way to gain a better understanding – Deputy Superintendent Myong Leigh will be holding budget office hours next week to give community members this opportunity:

Wednesday, May 19, 2010
2:00pm – 6:00pm
555 Franklin Street

Schedule a 20 minute appointment to discuss your budget questions with SFUSD Deputy Superintendent for Policy and Operations Myong Leigh.

Sign up with Lesly Morazan-Perez at morazan-perezl@sfusd.edu.

In your email, please indicate:

1)      Preferred times (list at least 3)
2)      Interpretation needs
3)      Number of people (5 maximum for office hours)

You will receive a confirmation with the time and location prior to your scheduled meeting.

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