School district faces deep budget cuts and deep uncertainty

Parcel tax announced by Mayor London Breed could provide some help with teacher salaries

At the mercy of fluctuating federal and state resources, San Francisco Unified School District is contending with deep uncertainty over its finances with just weeks to go until a budget must be submitted.

The district’s deficit could now reach as high as $148 million by fiscal year 2021-2022 if proposed state budget cuts hold. SFUSD’s recommended 2020-2021 school year budget is before the Board of Education but it remains unclear to commissioners and members of the public alike just what will be lost.

July 1 is the deadline for SFUSD to submit its budget to the California Department of Education.

“If we don’t understand it and the public doesn’t understand it, that’s a recipe for disaster,” said Commissioner Alison Collins. “At the very minimum, we need to be transparent about it.”

Proposed cuts specified by SFUSD Chief Financial Officer Meghan Wallace so far include $3.1 million from sports, libraries, art, and music programming, $4 million from transportation, and $10 million from school sites. These reductions come after $26 million was already cut from the central office during the 2019-2020 school year.

In addition, instituting furloughed school days, of which four are identified, would save $3.5 million each day.

Savings from furloughs would be part of the $20 million to $45 million that could come from the district’s workers.

Union representatives expressed frustration over negotiation talks earlier on Tuesday that lacked a concrete proposal.

“When I saw the budget, it really disappointed me,” said Elaine Merriweather, executive vice president of the United Educators of San Francisco. “We can’t continue to do the same thing over and over again and get results. We’re in a deficit, we’re in a pandemic, we’re at a historic point in our history. The students are depending on you, Board, to review this budget very carefully.”

Educators were already hit with a layoff warning in February as SFUSD faced a $31.8 million deficit for the 2019-2020 school year. California is facing a $54 billion shortfall and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget would bring steep cuts to education at a time when school districts are determining how to bring students back safely in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Meeting national and state guidelines to supply personal protective equipment, bring on additional staff, and reduce classroom size could cost the district at least $27 million, according to a national estimate. But adding more buses alone to accommodate social distancing would cost SFUSD an estimated additional $25 million, nearly doubling the $32 million typically spent on transportation annually.

“I, too, don’t quite understand how we can open up our schools physically,” said Board of Education President Mark Sanchez. “If we’re talking about potential furloughs, what does that look like? We need to fill this picture out.”

Until city and state budgets are finalized, it’s unclear just what resources SFUSD will be working with for the fall semester.

But a local fix could provide some help in the longer term.

With funds from a 2018 tax measure intended to fund teacher salaries tied up in the courts, Mayor London Breed on Tuesday announced a replacement measure that could help the San Francisco Unified School District through a tough financial spot as it approves its budget.

The parcel tax announced Tuesday would bring in an estimated $50 million annually to finance teacher pay hikes SFUSD first instituted in 2018. Voters passed Proposition G in June 2018 by 60.78 percent to boost educator pay over two decades, but litigation has tied up the revenue from that measure.

Breed’s measure would replace Prop. G, which was also expected to bring in about $50 million annually, with a $288 parcel tax should it receive two-thirds of the vote.

“We are currently collecting a tax to support our educators that we can’t spend because of a lawsuit, so it’s time we step up and remove that risk by taking this parcel tax back to the ballot,” Breed said. “This is an essential step to help our schools avoid devastating budget cuts and make sure all of our students get the quality education that they deserve.”

“Creating a stable funding source to maintain salaries for our hard-working teachers and staff is critical, especially as they, like so many others, are facing economic anxiety,” said SFUSD Superintendent Vincent Matthews. “This measure will also be critical in allowing the district to weather the budgetary crisis that has deepened as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The Board of Education, which agreed to hold additional discussions, will vote on the district budget recommendations at its June 23 meeting before submitting multi-year projections to the state.

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