School Beat: An Impasse in Union-District Negotiations

by Lisa Schiff on April 15, 2010

The current protracted economic crisis may feel old and far too familiar, but it never seems to stop bringing bad news, especially for public education. With a looming projected budget gap of at least $113 million over the next two years, the Board of Education (BOE) of the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) voted back in late February to deliver about 900 pink slips to teachers in order to meet the legally required deadline for notification of potential layoffs. While it is typical that not all those receiving that first notification will be laid off, the number is higher than it’s been in a long time. Because of the magnitude of the number of positions potentially affected and the impact on students and schools, the teachers’ union (United Editors of San Francisco, or UESF) and the SFUSD began negotiations recently to see what kinds of accommodations and strategies could bring that unbelievably high number down.

One of the most discussed options mentioned over the past few months is the use of furloughs, meaning the elimination of school days, which would reduce costs by reducing staff paychecks, but which would also reduce learning time for students. This option, along with others in an action plan put forth by Superintendent Carols Garcia and staff, was discussed at a series of budget community meetings organized by the Parent Advisory Council (PAC) to the BOE and Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and attended by SFUSD staff who provided information about the situation and answered questions.

In these sessions, community sentiment about furloughs was explored, surfacing the tension between wanting and needing to keep our teachers and the desire to maintain the most educational time, especially for students already struggling academically. Families were also concerned about what would happen to students during those additional days without school, wondering how they would be supervised and cared for.

Clearly furloughs are not something that anyone wants. As those of us in California’s publication higher education system know, no matter how they are implemented, furloughs by definition bring hardships to employees and the students those employees ultimately serve. Furloughs can also have long-term consequences beyond the direct costs they bring in loss of school time. While we need to prioritize minimizing the direct impact of the budget crisis on our students, it would be unwise not to consider the potential impact on staff as well. Retaining teachers especially in tough financial times has to be part of the equation.

We already know that bringing in and keeping teachers in our district is a challenge — hence the past parcel tax measure that went towards increasing teacher pay among other things. Furloughs, even when widely accepted as necessary and among the least damaging options, are demoralizing and create tremendous uncertainty among staff. Any efforts that can mitigate that demoralization and uncertainty will go a long way to ensure that more teachers stay in the district during this tough time, ultimately reducing HR costs, increasing stability at our schools, and better serving our students.

Of course, the need to implement furloughs means a priori that finding ways of making that pill easier to swallow will be challenging at best. The current impasse announced by each party this week (see statements by the SFUSD and UESF) reflects just how difficult that task is. Hopes now hang on the effectiveness of a mediator to be appointed by the Public Employment Relations Board as requested by the district.

While the SFUSD has pointed out the Union is asking for palliatives that are new to the contract (for instance, newly extended bereavement leave for some classes of employees and payment for mail delivery runs that the district says are legal prohibited), the mediator might be most effective by getting quick, convincing answers to some of the questions UESF has posed that have come up before.

For instance, the Reserve Fund has always caused a lot of confusion. The district is required to keep an amount equal to 2% of the budget in its reserves, otherwise it risks being taken over the State, which means all decision making regarding our children is in the hands of a state appointed individual. Obviously that is not something we want to risk, but at the same time, keeping that Reserve Fund as low as possible, since it is essentially always unusable money.

Last year’s adopted budget was just shy of $600 million, which means the Reserve Fund should have been about $12 million. No figure regarding the Reserve Fund allocation is in the otherwise extremely useful financial information produced by SFUSD staff. According to UESF, the Reserve Fund is almost at $48 million, an amount which seems far in excess of what is required, but no source is provided for this figure. This is definitely an area that calls for clarification.

Another point raised by UESF concerns the use of external consultants. The Union offers a figure of $52 million being spent this way, and again, this is an area that many others have asked questions about, particularly in the face of some very high profile, highly questioned, contracts with some consultants. The answer is not necessarily that straightforward though, since we would need to see who and want counts as a consultant expense. For instance, are Proposition H funded art teachers categorized as consultants? If so, that would explain a portion of that expense. If not, then there is more probing that needs to be done.

These questions regarding the Reserve Fund and Consultant fees are questions that come up regularly and could be added to the SFUSD budget page on Frequently Asked Questions. District staff have started down the right road with breaking out information about Central Office expenditures, but another layer of analysis indicating how those expenditures benefit school sites directly or indirectly would be helpful. If anything good can be seen to come out of this very tough time for schools, it may be new levels of transparency and communication about these most important fundamentals of our district.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA and is a board member at the national level of Parents for Public Schools.

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