School Budget Cuts Sting Students, Workers

by Emily Alpert on June 29, 2005

On Tuesday night, facing a dire $22.5 million budget gap due to reduced state funding, San Francisco’s Board of Education wrestled with how best to distribute painful but necessary budget cuts. In a representative remark, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman stated, “This evening does not offer any of us comfort or convenience.” Over 150 students, teachers, parents and staff packed the lengthy meeting, advocating for a diverse array of programs and people harmed by funds slashed in the 2005-2006 school budget.

Members of Local SEIU 790 represented one contingent at last night’s meeting, arguing against three work furloughs proposed in the budget, expected to save the Board around $1,000,000. Furloughs are days on which no service employees of the schools are permitted to work, and are consequently not paid. Citing layoffs, stagnant wages and growing health premiums, union president Karen Bishop pleaded, “Consider not balancing the budget on the backs of our members.” Three days, she argued, was simply too much.

A youth-led organization named Youth Making a Change (YMAC) rallied around an unusual cause: toilet-seat covers. The group argued that school bathrooms were unsanitary and offensively dirty, and demanded an $81,000 budget allocation for paper toilet seat covers. “It’s the least we’re asking,” said Marci Rivas, a YMAC member entering her senior year at the International Studies Academy. Rivas described urine, feces and blood on toilet seats. “It’s a health hazard in bathrooms . apparently our health isn’t a priority to the school district,” she remarked.

Student athletes and coaches protested the 20% cut to school athletic programs. “We simply can’t fund athletics for $200 a year,” complained one coach. Luis Barker, a senior at Galileo High School, expressed concern that aging equipment might endanger students’ safety. “It’s a health hazard now to play sports,” lamented Barker, who participates in football, baseball and wrestling. “You can get injuries from worn-out knee pads – and we always run out of girdles, which prevent your hips from being shattered.” Others argued that sports programs help keep students out of gangs, and motivate them to stay in school.

In a similar vein, School of the Arts students and parents argued for retention of bus service for the school’s dance program, which transports student dancers to the San Francisco Dance Center to practice. Sophomore Christina Aguirre says that, absent the bus, dancers would be “squished in one studio under the gym. It’d be a really big loss not to have the downtown studios . there’d really be no dance department.” Other vocal contingents included supporters of Child Development, a preschool program, and the Student Advisory Council, which represents students’ views to the Board.

Many attendees were suspicious of those programs and departments to which increased funds were allocated amid the financial squeeze. Several drew attention to higher pay for ROTC instructors – an $8,000 average raise, which put their salaries above the $70,000 cap on teachers’ wages. Some board members argued that the salaries were acceptable because ROTC instructors work more days than teachers; others were dubious of the claim. Board member Sarah Lipson expressed concern with personnel increases to the Supervisor’s office, the Chief Development Office, Chief Academic Office and the Legal Office, while student delegate Alan Wong questioned the usefulness of the Office of Public Information, which he charged with intimidating members of the Student Advisory Council.

Cathy Sullivan, a kindergarten teacher at Grattan Elementary School, was irritated by Arlene Ackerman’s $26,474-a-year pay raise, set by Ackerman earlier this year. “There’s been no raise in salary for teachers for four years,” she complains, “no cost-of-living adjustments. It makes it hard to live in an expensive city like San Francisco. In the meantime, she gets to set her own living allowance?”

After four hours, despite myriad objections and attempted amendments, the Board voted 8-to-2 to adopt the budget. Still, few were pleased with the final product.

“There are many promises to the community that will be broken with this budget,” concluded board member Dan Kelly, who lay the blame with state government. “But until Governor Schwarzenegger keeps his promises, we can’t keep ours.”

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