Dr. Vincent Matthews, superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, sent a letter to district staff warning of possible layoffs and budget cuts. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

SFUSD educators hit with layoff warning

Superintendent says district faces budget shortfall, depleted reserves

San Francisco Unified School District employees were warned of layoffs and “drastic cuts” totaling $26 million Wednesday afternoon.

In an email sent to district staff and obtained by the San Francisco Examiner, Superintendent Vincent Matthews alerted educators of a budget shortfall. The warning that staff might lose jobs is the first since the aftermath of the 2008 recession.

“We’ve reached the point where we’ve depleted our reserves and, therefore, need to make more drastic cuts,” Matthews wrote. “We are facing the reality that there will need to be some employee layoffs this year.”

Costs have surpassed funding over the past few years, according to Matthews. School sites, which account for two-thirds of the budget, will be reduced by $10 million while central office services, which make up the other third of the budget, will see a $16 million reduction.

The district, which had an operating budget of $880 million in 2019, expects up to a $31.8 million budget shortfall for the current school year. By 2020-2021, that shortfall is expected to double, said SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick.

“Many of the factors driving our budget shortfall are impacting districts throughout California, like the chronic underfunding of special education services,” Dudnick said in an email. “Our district is committed to meeting the needs of students, no matter what. With this ongoing deficit, we need to implement structural solutions while also preparing for the worst-case scenario, which likely includes some employee layoffs.”

The United Educators of San Francisco, which represents district staff, has heard concerns from educators wondering what will happen to them. Wednesday’s warning came mostly as a surprise, even to union president Susan Solomon.

“To go from ‘It’s a possibility’ to getting a letter about it, an email about it, is a qualitative difference in messaging,” Solomon said. “There’s so much uncertainty about it.”

The last major layoff notices were issued in 2012 to 210 teachers, half of which were rescinded after blowback during contract negotiations. As UESF begins another round of bargaining, Solomon said it’s hard to reconcile the union’s effort to boost support staff in schools with the reality of losing those types of positions.

School Board member Gabriela López hopes the district can reduce the number of actual cuts by leaving some vacant positions unfilled. But actual layoffs may hit education support staff like literacy coaches, who she said are still important but won’t impact classes.

“A lot of it is vacant positions that we currently have,” López said. “I just want our teachers to know that our efforts are behind making them safe.”

The district hopes to eventually get funding from Proposition G, a tax that voters passed in 2018 to boost teacher pay using a parcel tax. It was expected to generate $50 million annually, but a court challenge could tie it up for another couple years.

López and Board of Education colleagues are working to place a $200 million city budget set-aside for SFUSD on the November ballot to ease future battles over funding. California voters will also vote on Proposition 13 in March, which would provide $15 billion in bond money to repair and modernize the state’s schools.

Proponents are also working to put a measure on the November ballot, Schools and Communities First, that would amend state property tax laws and could bring in an additional $12 billion in operating funds annually for schools statewide.

However, funding from either Prop. G or a set-aside could take years to arrive, requiring the budget shortfall to be addressed soon. UESF is looking at local funding sources to fill the shortfall in the meantime, Solomon said.

“What we don’t want to do is fight over pieces of the pie with other workers,” Solomon said. “We want to make sure the pie is big enough to make sure everybody gets something. Different interests in the city have to be met and we believe it can be done.”

In the email, Matthews said the district would present preliminary budgets with school site leaders.

“I’m sorry to share this disheartening news,” Matthews added. “Though funding has increased in the past decade, it’s still woefully insufficient, especially in light of the cost of living, the growing needs of our students, and the quality 21st-century education we seek to make possible for each and every child. Let’s support one another during this difficult time and work together to generate more resources for public education.”

imojadad@sfexaminer.com

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