School Beat: Pink Slips, Budgets and Retirements

by Lisa Schiff on March 15, 2012

It’s been quite a hectic few days for public schools in San Francisco – and California in general. Pink slips to teachers have been sent per the legislated schedule. The two highest polling tax measures have joined forces into a new compromise measure. Lawmakers in Sacramento are reaffirming support for Transition Kindergarten. San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Carlos Garcia announced that he will be retiring by the end of this school year. And, by Saturday, families will have received letters letting them know which schools their children have been assigned to for next year.

Starting with the horrific first, in what has become a familiar if macabre ritual, as reported by Board of Education member Rachel Norton, about 500 of our district’s educational staff members – teachers, administrators, and paraprofessionals – will be receiving preliminary layoff notices in today’s mail.

California’s Education Code requires notices be sent by March 15th, even if it is possible that those notices will be rescinded later. In past years, San Francisco’s Rainy Day fund has been used to prevent large percentages of these layoffs, though since that fund is now much smaller, the ability to bridge that financial gap is lessened.

While the intent to give educational staff fair warning makes sense on one level, the notices are without a doubt incredibly demoralizing to those educators receiving them. And, that sentiment is shared by the students and families losing teachers, schools that become destabilized by losing staff members and the entire public education community that sees more and more taken away each year.

The state budget, or lack thereof, is the driving force behind this terrible state of affairs, but it is the policy makers behind that budget who are the actual source of the problem. The two-thirds requirement to pass tax increases has created a long-standing revenue stalemate, which only exacerbates the other structural problems contributing to our state’s revenue woes.

Given this, the lack of political will to truly challenge this minority stranglehold, and the fact that K-14 education is the largest outlay of the state’s outlays, governors in California routinely go after public school funding and Brown is no exception. As with budgets presented by his predecessors, Brown’s “leaked” budget offers some frightening views of the financial realities our schools would face, and this year those scenarios come in two flavors – one with the passage of a tax initiative, and an even scarier version if such an initiative fails.

In the face of this financial insanity and with the pink slips rubbing like salt in wounds, the statewide parent group Educate Our State has declared March 15th a day of action, calling on school communities and supports to organize “This Budget Blows” events across California. Arming folks with a strong, yet digestible analysis of the proposed budget, organizers are asking folks to stage events and write letters to media outlets.

Raising awareness of public education budget vulnerability is always important, but especially so at times when the budget is so in flux and each dollar literally makes a difference. San Francisco families who were counting on participating in the new and much touted statewide Transitional Kindergarten program can relate to this as they’ve seen this option come and go locally, and state financial support being removed in Brown’s budget. Now that funding is getting new attention from state lawmakers, who are trying to ensure it survives the budget battle.

All of these struggles reflect the incessant scrambling required to stay financially solvent when there simply is not enough funding to meet our needs. Our fiscal support of our schools continues to decline even as our supposed aspirations for our children – and the cost of turning those aspirations into reality – grow.

The inadequate revenues for education and key social services were the impetus behind the various tax initiatives contending for voter support, with Brown’s measure and the Millionaires Tax vying for the top spot. But just yesterday, these two parties announced that they would be exploring a joining of forces. Details about the specifics and the feasibility of the move will be important to watch. Compromising on aspects like a sales tax will be hard to take for some supporters of the Millionaires Tax, even if it strategically makes sense.

The tax initiative news overshadowed a seemingly out of the blue local announcement of Superintendent Carlos Garcia’s retirement in July. While not a complete shock – 5 years seems to be the average length of stay for superintendents here and elsewhere – with so much up in the air, a change in leadership at the top will only add to the uncertainty. The special Superintendent’s Zone for struggling schools, the quality middle school initiative, the huge cutbacks in transportation, curriculum changes and the new student assignment system are just some of the pieces in play.

While the assignment system seems to get more than its fair share of attention, we are only beginning to get a view of how the new approach is working, with a report just released last week by the district. The assignment letters that should be arriving in mailboxes on Saturday will be more data points to add into that understanding. More importantly, they will bring home the impact of all the struggles around our schools in the most direct way possible, one that will hopefully spur more of us to action.

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.

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