School Beat: What’s up in 2008 for San Francisco’s Schools

by Lisa Schiff on January 3, 2008

The arrival of the New Year marks the approximate half-way point in the school year, which so far has passed by relatively quietly. But the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), like all districts around the country, faces difficult challenges requiring difficult decisions, so that relative calm will surely be coming to an end soon. Familiar issues will drive those decisions, though 2008 will bring some unique aspects.

The budget keeps its historic place at the top of the list of things to watch out for. School finance is always a complicated headache given that California spends so little per pupil and what it does spend must travel through a sticky bureaucratic maze of legislated requirements and associated paperwork (ironically resulting in less money going directly to classrooms). The new twist this year is the fallout from the housing market blow-out. Poor lending practices have begun to manifest themselves in record numbers of foreclosures, which reduces revenue for the state, which in turn means less money for all state-funded programs like public education.

The size of the state’s shortfall is as yet unknown of course. Organizations have been told to prepare for a 10% budget reduction. That’s a huge chunk of change and anyone who has been to the SFUSD’s annual budget workshops or has participated in a school site council (the governing body that determines how a school’s budget will be used), will be wincing already at the thought of such big cuts.

Where that 10% will come from is hard to guess and will no doubt be one of the biggest challenges the Board of Education (BOE), the Superintendent and senior staff will have to puzzle out this year. They will no doubt attempt to keep those cuts as far from students as possible, but with money already tight, that distance may be quite close. Balancing the books and keeping successful programs intact should necessarily trigger a thorough and thoughtful review of expenditures across the entire district in an attempt to see where savings can be found with the least amount of trauma and pain.

The budget is an ever present worry, but though it looms large it can’t out-shadow the many other pressing issues before district leaders. After finances, the new student assignment plan and the broader strategic plan for the district are significant pieces of work that will hopefully provide direction for both decisions and solutions. The strategic plan has been in development for quite some time and should be informed by some serious pieces of work that have come before, namely the report from the Community Advisory Committee on Student Enrollment Recruitment and Retention and the staff report to the Board of Education on student enrollment, recruitment, and retention.

Like the strategic plan, discussions regarding a new approach to student assignment have long been underway. Any student assignment plan touches but does not solve on its own the goals of increasing enrollment, providing quality schools in all parts of the City and ensuring equitable access to all such schools and programs. Because assignment policies are so central and so public, they become the focal point of much debate about the overall organization of the district.

The BOE and district staff have met extensively on this topic, including in their deliberations representatives from the Civil Rights Project, formerly at Harvard and now at UCLA. No firm indicators of an assignment direction have been spotted yet, but given the complexity of the problem and the constellation of conflicting needs and desires, we can be certain that no matter what, some people will be dissatisfied. Regardless, any plan that is developed should be evaluated on how well it meets the needs of most families in the SFSUD.

The most immediate matter regarding student assignment is this year’s application process, which will be unaffected by any new assignment policies. The enrollment deadline is January 11th. See the Educational Placement Center’s (EPC) website for details about applications and schools. Also Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco (PPS-SF) will be holding one more enrollment event before the deadline. On Wednesday January 9th from 5:30 to 7:30pm at the Bayview Libraray at 5075 Third Street at Revere, EPC representatives and parents of currently enrolled students will be on hand to answer questions. See the PPS-SF website for more details.

Another matter still under discussion is the distribution of the “third-third” of the Public Education Enrichment Fund (known as “Prop H”). A host of proposals have been submitted to the Community Advisory Committee, which needs to make recommendations to the BOE who then pass them on to the Board of Supervisors. Given the potential huge budget cut from the state, the Prop H funding stream from the City is ever more important. Two meetings, both open to the public, are scheduled to finish the review of the submitted projects:

• Sunday, January 6 from 10 AM to 5 PM in the boardroom at 555 Franklin St.

• Monday, January 7 from 5 PM to 8:30 PM in the boardroom of 555 Franklin St.

2008 wouldn’t be complete without some high profile campaigns. This fall two current BOE members, Eric Mar and Mark Sanchez, will be on the ballot for seats on the Board of Supervisors for Districts 1 and 9 respectively. Their efforts to move from the School District to City Hall open up possibilities for the BOE to have some new faces. A total of four BOE positions will be up for election in the fall, as terms for Norman Yee and long-time BOE member Jill Wynns will also be at an end, though they may choose to run for re-election.

San Francisco is lucky to have an incredible number of informed and active parents and public education supporters. Hopefully more than a few of them will take up the challenge to run for these positions. Candidate’s guides are available on the SF Gov website to anyone thinking of jumping in.

Finally, no look towards the upcoming year could be complete without some speculation regarding the fate of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), our nation’s infamous education legislation. Towards the end of 2007, and no doubt fueled by the Presidential campaigns, debates over NCLB’s reauthorization became somewhat heated and messy, causing Congress to postpone the vote until the new session. Candidates have been expressing a variety of opinions, not adhering to any strict party line. As an example, while Democrat Senator Kennedy is one of NCLB’s primary champions, Democratic Presidential candidate John Edwards has been openly quite critical of the bill.

An optimist might say that this is just the setting required to promote a healthy debate over not just NCLB, but our nation’s position on public education in general. However, the more cynical among us might just see this as yet another instance of kids providing political mileage and then getting tossed aside once the advantage has been won. In either case, there is too much at stake to be particularly hopeful or pessimistic. We will all need to filter out the campaign rhetoric and listen carefully to what is being proposed in Congress, as the implications will be long-lasting for all of us.

2008 is poised to usher in many changes for the SFUSD, from how students are assigned to schools to the rules and regulations those schools must implement to the leaders who will guide us through that process. Hopefully we’ll be able to use these changes to the best advantage for all of our children.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary 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.

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