San Francisco school board debates budget cuts as intervention deadline looms

‘You have got to show next week that you meet your financial obligations’

Long-simmering tensions over the cash-strapped San Francisco Unified School District’s budget have come to a head just one week before a critical state-imposed deadline.

The district has until Dec. 15 to submit a balancing plan that cuts $125 million from its budget or face possible state intervention. About $50 million of those cuts would come from school sites and $40 million from central operations costs under a staff proposal that reflects stark enrollment declines that are expected to continue across the state.

But at a special board meeting Tuesday, an alternative proposal emerged. School board member Matt Alexander formally introduced a plan, first circulated last month, that would shift the entire $50 million budget-cut burden, currently targeted at schools, to central operations.

“Our goal was to illustrate how to meet the challenges of a structural deficit in a way that’s true to our priorities,” Alexander said. “Collectively, we’ve allowed this bureaucracy to grow.”

But time, and therefore options, are extremely limited. Elliot Duchon, a fiscal expert appointed by the state, recommended approving the staff plan “as is.” Alexander’s plan would require more time to properly analyze and ensure the cuts are sustainable, he said.

“We believe it’s satisfactory to the state,” Duchon said of the staff plan. “We will recommend that what it’s based on is genuine and will work. You have got to show next week that you meet your financial obligations. I do not believe that the budget proposed as an alternative in itself yet can do that.”

Alexander’s proposed plan took aim at administrative overhead and compared it with Long Beach Unified School District, which has more students but fewer administrators and better educational outcomes. The district staff countered SFUSD is both a city and a county school district, which increases its needs and responsibilities. Moreover, it has 102 school sites to LBUSD’s 85, according to SFUSD staff.

Educators and school staff frequently have criticized the top-heavy funding for central staff while not having enough resources for schools themselves. The school board passed a resolution in May directing staff to prioritize classroom spending and to streamline central office staff.

“We’re still in a pandemic,” said Chris Clauss, an SFUSD special education teacher, during public comment. “We cannot keep going down this path of underfunding already underfunded schools. Balancing the budget on the backs of our school communities is not the answer.”

However, the message from Duchon, the state’s financial expert, was clear: pass the vetted staff plan or he would recommend further state scrutiny. That would involve a fiscal advisor who has the ability to stop or rescind board decisions related to the budget, which would be followed by a state takeover.

Duchon and another state-appointed expert, Pam Luzon, outlined recommendations to implement by Dec. 15 and beyond that included aligning staffing with enrollment and a freeze on hiring nonessential staff and expenditures.

Superintendent Vincent Matthews offered a middle ground, as sought by school board members Mark Sanchez and Alison Collins, as well as student delegate Joanna Lam. After the board passes the staff balancing plan, it would seek outside help to fully review central office services and positions to determine what they bring to students.

“This is a case where the state has brought in a fiscal expert and the advice is to approve the plan that’s put forward by staff,” Matthews said. “What we don’t want is the state coming in with a heavier hand. I wanna be transparent; that’s where we’re headed.”

Duchon added that state fiscal experts would be willing to assist in taking a closer look at administrative costs beyond next week’s deadline, a compromise that seemed generally well received by the board, including Alexander.

School board members Jenny Lam and Faauuga Moliga stressed the priority of clearing this first test to balance its budget sustainably.

“The time and stopwatch is running out for this district,” Lam said. “Yes, our public education is decades-long underfunded. At the same time, we’ve got a job to do and if we don’t, we’re going to lose our ability to govern locally. “

imojadad@sfexaminer.com

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