School Beat: Election Updates and Fiscal Improprieties

by Lisa Schiff on November 18, 2010

Ranked-choice voting generated election surprises on both sides of the Bay, including in the race for the three spots on San Francisco’s Board of Education (BOE). The post-election day School Beat presented incumbents Hydra Mendoza and Kim-Shree Maufas maintaining their seats, with the uncontested spot going to long-time children’s advocate Margaret Brodkin. Early last week though, San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) parent Emily Murase overtook Brodkin for that third place and so will join with Mendoza and Maufas in inauguration ceremonies this January.

Murase will face the steep learning curve of any new BOE member who must wrestle to get a detailed conceptual hold on a breadth and depth of budget and policy issues that are typically outside the view of even the most engaged of community activists. But this year, there will be some new challenges for all of the BOE members, experienced and novice alike, as new twists on financial concerns reveal themselves.

This past Saturday Superintendent Carlos Garcia issued a press release revealing the firing and investigation of several top-level SFUSD officials charged with embezzlement. Details of the matter were originally exposed by the Bay Citizen, in which Associate Superintendent Trish Bascom, who had been head of Student Support Services, was identified as a key individual in the alleged financial misconduct along with four co-workers.

According to Superintendent Garcia’s press release, new procedures have since been put in place that would cover the current type of impropriety, where money was transferred to staff members via community agencies. On the one hand (and only if wearing the most rose-colored glasses), this can be seen as the system operating well. The unlawful activity was detected and those responsible are being held accountable, or at least that process has started. Further, an evaluation of the holes that allowed the malfeasance was conducted and changes were made.

On the other hand, this incident is a tremendous blow to the level of confidence we the public can have in top level administrators who are entrusted with looking after the welfare of our children’s education and the resources the public provides for that education. Assuming the accusations are proven true, though the amount of money stolen seems to be far less than the millions of the Rojas era, the alarm bells should still be ringing. The fact that individuals in trusted senior-level positions could get away with such activities for as long as they did necessarily leads one to wonder what else is going on that hasn’t yet been detected.

Given the current need for schools to regularly go hat-in-hand to their communities and municipalities for coverage of basic needs, this latest bit of graft could not have come at a worse time for our district. The state is still in a financial crisis and the nation is not in much better shape. Governor Schwarzenegger has called for a special session in December to address the deficit in an attempt to place a final handprint on the state’s budget situation. No doubt he will make one last attempt to funnel money from our schools to cover the financial gap. If he succeeds, we will be even more reliant on the generosity of San Francisco’s residents for our schools’ essential needs.

But any requests for new financial support from the City will no doubt be met with questions about the district’s ability to ensure that that money is used properly. And there are potentially longer-term consequences as well. At some point in the next year or so, discussions will begin about renewing the Public Education Enrichment Fund (PEEF, or Prop H), which is money from the City for pre-school, sports, libraries, art, music and more. Those of us who have seen how PEEF has provided librarians, music and art teachers and sports programming will want to be active in drumming up support for that reauthorization, but how will we be able to reassure our friends and neighbors that that money is actually going into the schools as opposed to into someone’s shell consulting account?

There is a larger problem that needs to be addressed as well, but unfortunately it is outside the scope of our local officials on the BOE or in the City. The kind of corruption just uncovered is only made easier by the universally acknowledged insanity that characterizes California’s public education finance system. Numerous studies have come out over the years decrying this byzantine system. The latest two have come from the well-respected Public Policy Institute of California, which provide not only a review of those critiques, but some solutions to streamline and simplify the funding system.

The goals of those solutions, articulated clearly in the first study, are to achieve greater efficiency, transparency and equity across the state’s school districts and resonate with our own district’s goals. The second report highlights and models specific strategies that could be considered for gradually increasing school spending and ensuring horizontal equity across districts.

From top to bottom the management of our schools’ finances needs to be taken in hand. Our BOE members may only have limited influence on the state’s funding structures, but there is certainly more than enough to do right here at home.

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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