Faced with the choice of cutting $125 million or a state takeover, San Francisco school district officials have come up with a plan to balance the budget, one that would hit classrooms hard and eliminate funding for long-standing student programs.
The city’s school board has just over a month to approve a state-mandated plan outlining a spending proposal that keeps district finances in the black next year. The district now faces spending cuts of more than 10%.
The state has appointed a fiscal expert, Elliott Duchon, to oversee the process, given the district has failed to address the ongoing shortfall.
“Our collective job is to stop the bleeding, get you on the healing path, get you turned around and back where you need to be,” Michael Fine, CEO of the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, told the school board after the state stepped in a month ago. Fine’s team works with the state’s school districts on financial stability.
Superintendent Vincent Matthews and his staff are expected to present a basic plan to the board Tuesday, one that would reduce school site budgets next year by $50 million, a 13% decline from this year, and a loss of an estimated 360 positions out of 3,431 at school sites. Board members will likely have their own ideas about how to make cuts.
The district serves about 49,000 students and has 7,685 employees.
Officials noted that solving the $125 million deficit next year would not be enough; it would rise to a projected $146.1 million in 2023 if no action is taken based on current spending. That means the district faces at least $21 million more to cut and possibly a lot more after this painful round of tightening.
The budget crisis will likely leave schools reeling next year, adjusting to continued fallout from the pandemic and the cuts to staff and programs, which could exacerbate declining enrollment in the coming years. While districts across the state are struggling with declining enrollment and many face cuts, San Francisco’s deficit is not new, with the board largely avoiding the problem until now.
The cut to schools is likely to be the most controversial issue, with the district’s teachers union recently holding a rally urging the district to “cut pumpkins not schools.”
“We need fully staffed wellness teams with social workers, counselors, student advisers, nurses, and other necessary wellness professionals at each site,” said Cassondra Curiel, president of the United Educators of San Francisco, adding students are still recovering from the pandemic. “Cutting school site positions and slashing school budgets in one of the wealthiest cities in the world is not the answer.”
Fine said the school board has a lot of options, and “everything has to be on the table.”
“We always say we want to make the cuts far away from the classroom,” Fine said, adding even if they cut all central office spending, which would include critical functions like payroll, it wouldn’t be enough to cover the gap.
The plan provides each school with funding to cover a standardized level of staffing, while reducing funding for some support positions, including counseling, literacy coaches and nurses, among others.
It also includes a $40 million cut to central services as well as an unexplained $35 million revenue boost in new state grants or savings from this year to reach the $125 million magic number.
Parent Elizabeth Kelly, a self-described budget junkie, said the proposal was disappointing, leaving out a lot of critical details to help families really understand what this all means.
“It’s so opaque that you don’t actually know what’s happening at any actual school site,” she said, adding the $35 million in one-time funding means the district will still be plugging holes from overspending rather than fixing problems in the long term.
“We’re still not solving the problem,” she said. “I just expected so much more, and I expected so much better.”
Officials said the $50 million cut to school sites would in part reflect an enrollment decline of nearly 5,000 students over the past five years.
District officials will also recommend cutting 55 central office positions related to programs with declining interest or that should be funded with ongoing flexible funding, if desired, at each school site.
That includes eliminating $10 million in central office staffing for peer resources, the Junior Reserve Officer Training program, community schools and middle school class size reduction, among others.
Administration and operations services would see a $20 million hit on top of a $16 million cut last year.
“With hundreds of different revenue streams and hundreds more required expenses, getting to what can be cut in the budget is complex,” said district Deputy Superintendent Gentle Blythe, adding the process will include board and community feedback. “Everything we do exists because there is a need for it, but we cannot afford to continue to do all that we are doing.”
The plan to be presented Tuesday is “a start,” Fine said, adding the school board will have to work through this and approve a plan by Dec. 15, after continuing to deficit spend this year.
“They need to ultimately work through this, and in the course of doing it, they’re going to have to set some priorities,” Fine said. “I think they’ve gotten the message they chose to ignore a year ago.”