School Beat: Back to the Budget

by Lisa Schiff on September 24, 2009

The state of public school finances has been dismal for a long time, but this year is possibly the worst. A statement in the 2009-2010 budget for the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) clearly lays out what we’re facing in education:

“Based on the Governor’s proposals for K-12 funding and assumptions that CDE recommends for use by school districts, SFUSD will need to make more than $60 million in budget cuts through FY 2011-2012 in order to retain minimum reserves. Unless budgetary conditions improve, the District will be forced to make significant cost reductions – especially beginning in FY 2010-11 – such as reducing the length of the school year, reducing programs funded by the Public Education Enrichment Fund and state categorical programs, increasing class size, and reducing or eliminating summer school and transportation services.” (SFUSD 2009-2010 Budget, p. 10).

As public schools are already getting by on very thin margins (see EdSource for summaries in both English and Spanish), the above sobering words gesture to choices that can have nothing but long-term negative results. Because of these types of unacceptable tradeoffs and because resources are so slim, it is more crucial than ever to apply strict scrutiny to budget choices at every level, from school site and district-wide budgets, to state and national allocations and to the policy issues that indirectly, but significantly, affect those budgets. This means knowing what money is available, why other funding is not, why some programs, positions and initiatives are supported and as opposed to others and what the legal and political constraints are that must be overhauled in order to change the outlook for public education funding.

But this is no easy matter. Setting aside the policies and legal issues for the moment, “just” the task of unraveling and keeping track of the ever-changing public education fiscal tangle is a time-consuming, often mystifying challenge. School finance was already a notorious labyrinth of rules and regulations, but now added to the mix are temporary changes in state rules about how money can be spent (for instance, relaxation of rules regarding the use of restricted funds previously allocated for very specific uses), possible new monies from the federal government with additional sets of bureaucratic formulas to interpret and contort to (the competitive “Race to the Top” funds are in this category), and an unstable budget given the never-ending turmoil of the budgeting process in Sacramento.

The most recent financial crisis facing schools was somewhat staved off by a portion of San Francisco’s Rainy Day Fund going to prevent layoffs of hundreds of teachers. This was a wise move on the City’s part, as it not only helped schools, but kept people working in San Francisco, which has a multiplier effect. But we are entering a new school year now, one in which the overall economic crisis in the country and the state has continued and any relief is too far off to be felt yet on the street or in the classroom.

In the face of an economic decline so severe that it has pervaded all sectors, public and private, transparency in school income and expenditures is more crucial then ever. Not only do we need to know where money is coming from and how much is there, but parent and community voices need to be included in the effort to prioritize and evaluate expenditures. Parents and school advocates have invaluable perspectives to offer about what programs and strategies are working and make sense to support and what could or should be let go.

The starting point must be the 2009-2010 SFUSD budget (“Budget”), which is provides summary data and graphs regarding funding sources and allocations, as well as unit specific expenditures, from all of the administrative staff at the “Central Office” to each school site, to programs like special education that are located at the county level. The first part of the document provides an overview of all of the sources of revenue the district receives, followed by descriptions of the major categories of spending. These are broken down into charts and tables reflected district wide income and expenses, followed by the budgets for each school and unit.

Exhibits 3 and 5, the pie charts expressing revenue and expenditures respectively, are a quick way to get an overall sense of the relative magnitudes of the categories of revenue and spending that are frequently talked about. For instance, Exhibit 3 demonstrates that the State Fiscal Stabilization money SFUSD received $11,000,000, which amounted to only about 3% f the total budget. More stimulus money is expected, although tracking down the specifics remains difficult.

According to an estimation tool made available through the California Department of Education ARRA page as well as from documentation from the SFUSD, our district should be receiving $13,040,844 in General Purpose funds and $11,475,741 in Categorical for a total of $24,516,585. SF County will get $729,397 General Purpose, $522,972 in Categorical Funding, for a total of $1,252,369.45). Additional stimulus money will be coming in for Title 1 (support for educationally disadvantaged students), IDEA (special education programs) and McKinney-Vento programs (support for homeless children and youth).

Tracking how stimulus money is being used at our district has also been somewhat challenging. SFSUD has a page on the ARRA stimulus funding, which includes access to a document summarizing current projections of and uses for ARRA funds. That summary indicates that much of the stimulus money is backfilling cuts (which was one of ARRA’s goals) or being used to partially counter already insufficient federal funding (as in the case of IDEA) or address increase costs.

Not only do we need to keep track of where money is — or could be — coming from, we need to closely examine how we’re spending it, asking if every expenditure is really the best use of that money. This will be happening with members of school site councils (SSC’s), the governing bodies at the school level and at the district and BOE level. At the school site level we have the opportunity and obligation to make sure that money targeted towards specific groups of students is being spent on those students, and that as much information from parents and teachers about what is effective and what is not is being considered. At the district governance level, over the last couple of months we’ve seen school board members begin to question outlays of funds to contractors receiving multi-million dollar grants for teacher development (see “Education Examiner” Caroline Grannan’s write-up of the contract for the National Urban Alliance contract) to contracts for student programs that may not be all they seem to be.

This level of review should always be there, but it’s especially essential now. We will be relying on school board members to do their best in this regard, but we as public education supporters will need to review the fine details ourselves as well, looking at BOE agendas and bringing up questions and uncertainties wherever appropriate. And, if hard choices need to be made, we will expect that all choices will be thoroughly evaluated in terms of the revenue impact, the educational impact and the community impact.

The longer-term task of changing these relatively desperate circumstances still looms before us. Revising Proposition 13 has got to happen as well as the prior task of changing the 2/3 majority required to pass budget measures and taxes in the legislature. Check back for future School Beats on these topics.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend Everett Middle School 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.

Andrew Szeto

Andrew Szeto is a writer based in San Francisco.

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