Recap: school food, the budget, Teach for America and public comment

Board members have a superstition about saying things like “looks like a short meeting tonight,” or “the agenda looks pretty straightforward,” but tonight one  of us must have forgotten and brought on the Long Meeting Jinx. There really isn’t any other reason why tonight’s meeting lasted 4-1/2 hours — especially since there was really only one weighty item for discussion and no more than the usual amount of public comment.

The meeting started with several ceremonial items — a RAVE award (given at every meeting) for a Kindergarten teacher (Mr. Robert) at Flynn; a commendation for the San Francisco and Marin Food Bank (more about them later); and a resolution naming the art room at Dianne Feinstein ES after the late Dan Ryan, a retired administrator and tireless advocate for arts education. New members of the Student Advisory Council were introduced, and then the Parent Advisory Council gave its regular report, updating the Board on its community conversations about Restorative Justice.

Next: public comment. A number of people from Civic Center Secondary school were there to speak on a plan to limit the amount of classroom space at the newly-renovated school, which will be ready to occupy later in the summer.  The dispute settles on whether the academic program needs 14 or 16 classrooms — teachers say they need more space; administrators say every teacher will have a classroom and that more space is needed for Pupil Services, which is being considered as a co-tenant for the building. Everyone agrees that having Civic Center and Pupil Services in the same building will be a good thing, but teachers are concerned that students will not have enough academic space. Parents and community members associated with Martin Luther King MS came to speak to the board about the deteriorating climate at the school; another parent came to discuss the quality of district substitute teachers, which in her experience is low.

Deputy Superintendent Myong Leigh then gave the Board an update on the district’s budget, which is pretty much never good. Though the numbers I presented in my last post have not changed much, a few other factors have: first, the Governor issued his May Revise report on May 14, and reported that the state’s budget deficit has grown from $9 billion in January to almost $16 billion. There are a couple of reasons for this, but the chief one is that tax revenues have not grown as much as predicted. Then, the Legislative Analyst weighed in on May 18 that the deficit could be considerably higher than the May Revise, declining to issue a specific number — many speculate $17 billion or more.

The district is looking at a $83 million shortfall at the end of 2013-14 IF no cuts are made in each of the next two years and IF the state manages to pass a tax initiative (more about that in a minute). If no tax initiative passes, the Governor is promising a $5.5 billion cut to education that many are calling “nuclear winter.” (The LAO has proposed an alternative plan that is–in some ways–less drastic; the Governor and Legislature have yet to weigh in on whether they would be willing to enact it). If the “nuclear winter” scenario comes to pass, SFUSD is looking at a $23 million cut in the middle of the 2012-13 school year — there would be few alternatives at that point and 2013-14 would look grim indeed.

That’s why the Governor is going all out to promote his tax plan, which would extend the quarter-percent sales tax increase and raise income taxes on individuals earning more than $250,000 (joint filers earning more than $500,000). While that plan does provide relief to the state budget, the education community has been divided on whether to support the initiative, because it provides no new funding to schools (despite being called the “Schools and Local Public Safety Protection Act”). Instead, the initiative would place school funding on firmer footing by paying down budget deferrals (a dangerous gimmick the state has relied upon to “fund” education in recent years) but keep education revenues flat.

An alternative to the Governor’s plan is the “Our Children Our Future” initiative authored and funded by civil rights attorney Molly Munger (it’s also being called the “Munger initiative”). The California State PTA has signed on to this initiative, and there is a lot to like about it if you want to fund schools, because it raises $5 billion in 2012-13 and $10 billion every year after that until the end of 2024. Most of that money goes to schools, except the first four full years, where $3 billion would be diverted to the state’s general fund.

At this weekend’s Delegate Assembly for the California School Boards Association, I and 128 other delegates (out of 201 present) voted to support both initiatives, and I will be bringing a similar recommendation to the school board in the coming weeks. School districts need help now, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s essential that one of the initiatives pass–at this point I’m not too worried about which one. (Just yesterday the state announced that 188 out of 1,000 school districts, representing 2.6 million of the state’s 6.2 million public school students, are either insolvent or close to it.) If both initiatives pass, the courts will sort it out, and most likely the initiative that gets the most votes will take effect. CSBA has prepared a great chart comparing the two initiatives.

On to the main item of the evening: a long-awaited presentation on the results of a study, funded by the San Francisco and Marin Food Bank, on the strengths, weaknesses and future opportunities for the district’s student nutrition program.   The study, though critical of many aspects of the district’s current food program, tries to point the way to long- and short-term improvements for the program, which in most years has required a contribution of several million dollars from the district’s general fund just to maintain current levels of quality.

Yeah, OK, if your child is at an elementary school and receiving a reheated meal covered in plastic, you’re not thrilled with either the appeal or the overall freshness of the meal. Most of the district’s hot entrees are prepared in the Midwest, frozen, and then transported by truck to San Francisco, where they are reheated at the school site (with rethermalization ovens, not microwaves) to be served to students. Reheated rotini pasta bake isn’t the most appetizing thing. However, the pasta is whole wheat and the meal is served with fresh fruit — a decade ago, SFUSD kids would have gotten a soggy cheeseburger on a white Wonder bun and fruit cocktail in heavy syrup. It’s progress, however far we still need to go.  I should also mention that my 6th grader thinks the school meals in middle school are a huge improvement over what she was served in elementary school. She likes the Asian-themed entrees, which are served in a Chinese-takeout container.

The consultants who researched the SFUSD meal program for the study strongly urged that the biggest single thing the district should do right now is add area supervisors to increase quality and make sure the district is getting reimbursed for every meal served to free- or reduced-price lunch students, in order to maximize participation and revenues for the program.  Other immediate and lower-cost improvements they recommended included setting a district-wide policy for recess-before-lunch in the elementary schools (a change that has been shown in many districts to encourage kids to eat more and return to class calmer and more attentive after the lunch period); as well as instituting breakfast in the classroom at all elementary schools, starting with the Superintendent’s Zone.  (Your mother probably told you how important it is to eat a good breakfast; breakfast in the classroom ensures that all kids, even those whose parents barely get them to school at all, start the day with breakfast.)  Instituting a choice of entrees in elementary school would likely improve participation as well, the consultants said.

Over the longer-term, the consultants said our district should start cooking more meals locally, because that would ensure fresher ingredients and more control over quality and presentation. However, the consultants recommended taking smaller steps toward this major goal — tackling the lower-hanging fruit first and then going for the big money needed to bring back school kitchens district-wide.

The Food Bank funded the study because it sees its mission as supporting any effort to end hunger, and school meal programs are the biggest opportunity (after food stamps) to feed hungry kids. And despite the dedicated and tireless efforts of the district’s Student Nutrition Services, there are still kids in SFUSD who would rather go hungry than eat the school meal. The district–and state and Federal authorities–have an obligation to do whatever they can to continue to encourage every hungry student to take a school-funded meal, because proper nourishment is crucial to students’ physical and intellectual development.

The study is several big books of exhibits, analysis and appendices, and as far as I know is not yet available electronically either from the Food Bank or the school district. But for those who really want to “dig in” to this subject further, I will post a link as soon as I have one.

Oops, I also mentioned Teach for America in the headline of this post. There was a lengthy discussion of a $51,000 payment to TFA for coaching and support of existing teachers, and recruiting 10 more. Those 10 are only being recruited for high-need, hard to fill areas where existing teachers are not receiving layoff notices. Some Board members have issues with the “teach two years then go to graduate school” model that TFA promotes, but this is the final year of  the district’s contract with the organization. Since the 10 teachers to be recruited in this final year will not displace any laid off or consolidated teacher, Board members approved the contract, 6-1 (Wynns voting no).

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6 responses to “Recap: school food, the budget, Teach for America and public comment

  1. I wanted to respond to something a teacher said during Public Comment.
    He spoke about the “shocking statistic” that Special Education Students outperform African American Students, and called that “an unfortunate, alarming reality”.

    While I appreciate that his heart is in the right place, I would like to express that statements such as his about students receiving special education services perpetuate the attitude that it is acceptable to not expect students receiving special education services to learn, in other words, everyone expects that they cannot learn. Less than 15% of students receiving special education services are actually cognitively delayed, so there is no rational reason to expect them all to fail to score proficient or above on STAR tests. We need to have high expectations for all SFUSD students, students in special education programs are quite capable of learning, if they are given the supports and accommodations they need to help them learn. It is hurtful to parents of students receiving special education services to hear our children used as some sort of measure of what the LOWEST should be.

    I know that teacher meant well, and the fact that only about 1 in 5 African American Students in this district score proficient or above on standardized tests is completely horrible and shocking, but I had to respond to what I heard him say. It is sad enough to hear people who are not in the education field to say things like that, but when a teacher says those things, it really concerns me.

  2. @E.Rat, I’ve asked Commissioner Fewer to put this item on a future Curriculum committee agenda so we could look at the trade-offs. I tend to agree that it is not cost-neutral but I want to see an analysis of that issue both in terms of programmatic changes at schools and additional staffing.

  3. @JR – My school has also implemented it for some grade levels, but can’t do so for all grades without lunches starting even earlier (10:30 is first lunch presently) or more hours for cafeteria workers and noon-time aides. I don’t dispute that it’s good policy. It isn’t cost-neutral, though.

  4. Dear E Rat, I believe that Rachel said “recess-before-lunch in the elementary schools,” which we already have in our elementary school, and it is working great. BTW, our school start at 7:50 AM.

  5. Great post Rachel. The upcoming Tax Initiatives we will vote on in November, while both somewhat helpful, to me are just another ‘patch’ along the way. “We” are in this entire situation, so deep, it is my great hope the greater number of Californians come to realize if our children are in school less and less, we are setting ourselves up for decades of failure, for so many reasons. Thank you…for your hard work each and every day.

  6. I think the suggestions the Food Bank makes are great, but they’re going to require serious planning for sustainable implementation. Lunch before recess means some early-start kids will probably be eating lunch at 10:00AM – unless hours for cafeteria workers are extended and schools receive more funding for noon-time monitors (so more children can play at the same time). Similarly, morning in the classroom breakfast sounds nutritious and fun, but vermin are a real issue at many city schools. The daily cleanup would also call for more support: custodial support, additional compost cans, etc.

    These are all issues that can be solved with a cash infusion, and it wouldn’t necessarily be a huge one. The investment return would probably be great, too – increased public health, better student attendance/performance, etc. The state is making a lot of short-sighted savings at a big future cost.