With spending cuts on the horizon, school board members are taking a closer look at how San Francisco compares to other cities in California when it comes to funding levels, classroom spending and senior staff.
The San Francisco Unified School District is facing a projected $112 million deficit by the 2022-2023 school year and a potential decline in enrollment for the fall, which affects state funding. Some of that will be alleviated by $39.7 million from the state and $95.9 million from the federal government for pandemic relief and recovery, but those funds will be spread out through 2024 and may have some restrictions on how they are spent, district staff said Tuesday.
“We need to be very clear about what we’re spending our money on so we can make smart decisions,” said Board member Matt Alexander. “What we don’t want to do is across-the-board cuts, which is what we’ve done in the past.”
Part of the problem, according to Alexander and Board member Mark Sanchez, is The City’s tax structure. SFUSD and City College of San Francisco, which also faces a structural deficit, received just 30 percent of property tax revenue from San Francisco in the 2018-2019 school year.
That puts The City last when compared to California’s 10 wealthiest counties, behind San Bernardino County’s 42 percent for public schools and community colleges. San Diego and San Mateo counties are tied for first at 63 percent, while Santa Clara County allocates 61 percent, according to data recently compiled by SFUSD staff.
San Francisco is also last among California’s largest districts when it comes to classroom spending, which accounted for 54 percent of its 2019-2020 budget. That’s below Los Angeles at 58 percent and Long Beach and Elk Grove school districts at 65 percent, according to Alexander and Sanchez.
SFUSD spent 20 percent of its budget on instruction-related services, double the amount of Elk Grove schools that year.
A resolution brought forward at Tuesday’s meeting by Alexander and Sanchez would establish a minimum school funding level and call for the use of a community school model with other services, in line with the district’s strategic plan known as Vision 2025.
It calls for the district to prioritize classroom spending as SFUSD works to address a structural deficit. A previous version of the resolution proposed in February called for the upcoming budget to dedicate at least 57 percent to instruction, increasing to 67 percent by the 2023-2024 school year.
The resolution also calls for the district to seek help from state auditors at the Fiscal Crisis Management Assistance Team to analyze spending patterns and compare them to other districts.
SFUSD has engaged with the agency in the past but will do so more this year, staff said Tuesday.
“I think there’s a lot of need for us to be cautious in our budget but I feel like this is a moment to go all in to make sure we’re living up to our commitments as people go through this difficult time,” Board member Kevine Boggess said.
SFUSD’s organizational structure, which includes 22 senior staff roles, may play a role in the gap in classroom spending. Elk Grove has just eight senior roles while Los Angeles, which has nearly 600,000 students, has 17 senior staff, according to the resolution.
“I’m not suggesting that we get rid of those individuals,” Alexander said. “The question is how do we allocate those — that’s a lot of people at the top level, which in some ways may impede communication.”
If the resolution is adopted, SFUSD would analyze its organizational chart and compare it to other districts. It would also make a transparent chart accessible for the public.
Alexander said this comprehensive analysis and potential reorganization of central office staff fits in with a recently-adopted budget process. The method, called zero-based budgeting, starts allocations at zero and adds based on need rather than previous funding levels.
Staff also noted that California, which is estimated to rank 41st in the nation for per-pupil spending, has a funding formula that doesn’t adequately differentiate based on cost of living.
“Staff need to be paid wages that correspond to the cost of living in their jurisdiction,” said Myong Leigh, SFUSD’s deputy superintendent of policy and operations. “That is really a fatal flaw in how California funds its schools.”
SFUSD will first present its budget for approval in June before submitting it to the California Department of Education.
The resolution to prioritize classroom spending is expected to be voted on in May.