Critics slam SF school board members’ competing budget plan to fill massive deficit


San Francisco principals have just two weeks to approve a comprehensive plan to close a $ 125 million budget deficit next year and $ 146 million the year after – or are facing to increased state oversight and a step towards a possible takeover.

But over time, two school board members have ditched professional budget advice, calculated their own numbers, and pushed ahead with their own plan that takes all cuts away from classrooms.

Board members Matt Alexander and Mark Sanchez are only proposing cuts to support services, operations and administration, based on a comparison of staffing levels and spending in other major districts of California.

This is a concept supported by the district teachers’ union but questioned by tax experts.

“Generally speaking, I think if we look at good board management, you wouldn’t have an individual board member creating a budget for a district,” said Michael Fine, CEO of the State Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, which works with the State School. districts on financial stability. “Individual board members, unless they have extensive experience in budgeting at the district level, frankly don’t know what they’re doing. “

The proposal reflects a larger model of San Francisco school board members pursuing lofty ideals – renaming schools, masking a controversial mural, and changing Lowell High’s admissions process – while ignoring expert advice and their own. own staff and sometimes not following the law.

As a result, the board has suffered legal losses, a growing budget deficit, and a revised superintendent’s contract that requires all seven members to “refrain from managerial duties”.

“This is so obviously bad analysis that you have to wonder what they are trying to do here,” said Meredith Willa Dodson, executive director of the San Francisco Parent Coalition. “This is quite comparable to that of many members of this school board – ignoring the recommendations of expert staff, pushing us deeper into the financial crisis, acting of their own accord often resulting in lawsuits. “

State education officials appointed a tax expert in early November to advise the district after it failed to close the ongoing budget deficit, requiring the district to submit a budget plan by December 15 .

Superintendent Vincent Matthews proposed a plan that would cut school site budgets next year by $ 50 million, a 13% drop from this year, with a loss of about 360 out of 3,431 positions at the sites. school – a reduction that recognizes the continuing decline in enrollment. The reductions would also include $ 40 million from indirect and central operations and administration.

Both plans provide $ 35 million in new state grants and current year savings to fully cover the $ 125 million shortfall, which could include some of the tax money on the packages of proposition G, which has been challenged in vain in the courts.

Alexander and Sanchez came up with their own plan after looking at data from other large districts in the state, showing that San Francisco Unified is spending a smaller percentage of the budget directly on schools and more on indirect support and operations / administration.

“We have built a significantly oversized central office, and this is about resizing in the face of a massive deficit,” Alexander said, adding that the district had 24 high-level leadership positions, an increase of nine over the past year. last decade. It is not clear whether all of these positions are new positions or reflect a consolidation or reorganization of job titles.

The pair focused on Long Beach, which they say has a much smaller administration and spends a larger chunk of the budget directly in classrooms, using online charts to compare staffing levels, but without confirming the information with those in charge on site.

Based on this analysis, they recommend that the district cut $ 90 million from non-school based services.

Of this, $ 40 million would come from the $ 107 million indirect school services budget, which includes funding for special education support, before and after school programs, college preparation. and career, teacher training, school health programs and other supports as well as teacher leave / substitutes.

The plan would account for declining enrollment by ensuring class sizes are balanced, which would likely mean fewer teaching positions, but the amount of money for school sites would stay the same and could be used for advisers or other costs.

The proposal would also cut $ 15 million from the $ 238 million operating budget (conservatives, tech, buses, school meals, etc.) and $ 35 million from the $ 144 million administration budget (payroll, human resources, legal, etc.).

“We’re spending more than we can afford, and in order to balance our budget we’re going to have to downsize,” Alexander told The Chronicle. “The question is, are we going to take these staff out of classrooms and schools, or are we going to take out central offices? “

Still, it’s not advisable to consider one district to create a budget formula or not to do a full analysis of multiple districts, Fine said.

“I would really warn them not to do this,” he said.

A closer look at the two districts, for example, shows that San Francisco spends the same amount as Long Beach – about $ 1.1 billion in total – even though the city of Los Angeles County is educating nearly 20,000 more students. .

So while Long Beach spends a larger percentage of its budget directly on students and classrooms, San Francisco is actually spending $ 1,200 more per child – $ 9,900 versus $ 8,700.

There are also big differences in how each district spends the money.

Long Beach only has two people in its legal office compared to 23 in San Francisco, which significantly increases the head office staff. Still, that means the District of Southern California is paying an outside lawyer to sort out the legal issues rather than hiring their own. The board member analysis does not compare the total cost of legal services.

Additionally, San Francisco is both a school district and a county office of education, the only example of this in California.

Another major difference is the number of schools: Long Beach has about 68,000 students and 85 schools, while San Francisco has 50,000 students and 124 schools. To be comparable to Long Beach, with an average of 850 students per school, San Francisco would need to close about 60 schools.

Alexander said he is not suggesting that San Francisco precisely follow Long Beach’s model, but rather come closer to the percentages of the budget spent in schools.

Alexander didn’t provide any details on what specifically the district should cut.

Jenny Lam, a board member, who chairs the budget committee, had yet to see the proposal, but noted that a comparison with other districts “needs to be deepened to ensure that we are comparing apples with apples “. It is essential, she added, to ensure that spending is sustainable.

Alexander said he expects the plan to be presented at the December 7 school board meeting, before a final vote on a budget balancing plan a week later.

Fine, of the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team, said the state expert appointed to oversee the plan adopted by the district will likely only look at the bottom line and not pass judgment on where the council decides to cut. But the district will then have to deal with the consequences of cuts to central services, which include payroll and other essential services that support what goes on in classrooms, he said.

“If they can’t pay people on time, it’s another State Department that will fall on them,” he said. “You need to fully understand the implications. “

Jill Tucker is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @jilltucker


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