After an impossibly challenging 18 months for students and teachers in our public schools, the potential state takeover of the San Francisco Unified School District means that things are about to get much worse. It’s been less than three months since all schools reopened for in-person learning, and the scars have not yet scabbed after a sequence of divisive fights about school renamings, Lowell admissions and a certain school board member’s tweets. With an upcoming recall election for three members of the Board of Education, it’s hard to imagine a more precarious moment to make deep budget cuts to San Francisco public schools.
And yet, our kids can’t wait for the leaders they deserve.
Our parent organization represents a diverse array of SFUSD families and beyond, from every walk of life in San Francisco. While we generally do not support recall elections, and we were uninvolved with this one, it is now an election that voters cannot ignore. It is happening, on Feb. 15. This particular recall election represents egregious behavior, a true dereliction of duty and harm to our students and public schools.
We’ve concluded that commissioners Alison Collins and Gabriela López should no longer serve on the Board of Education. Their decisions and actions reached a crescendo in Collins’ attempt to strip SFUSD and students of millions of dollars to enrich herself via an $87 million lawsuit against the district and her colleagues, an action that President López supported. This lawsuit was tossed out of court by a federal judge who determined the suit was meritless. Furthermore, as president and former vice president of the school board, Collins and López oversaw our district as it went into financial crisis, potentially resulting in a state takeover, harming our students.
We need a Board of Education equipped to step up quickly to respond to the fiscal crisis. Serving as a BOE commissioner is a privilege and sacred duty to serve our city’s public school children and their families; members are part of a public institution that wields enormous power over the lives of roughly 50,000 students. These individuals govern our district, have fiduciary responsibility over nearly $1 billion in annual spending and the success or failure of SFUSD is ultimately in their hands. The leadership of BOE’s commissioners is critical to the functioning and quality of our public schools.
Looming budget deficit or not — we simply cannot continue to spend money per usual at SFUSD; the status quo is not serving children well in our district.
San Francisco’s public schools indisputably receive too little funding relative to the cost of operating in such a high-cost city. California’s education spending is notoriously paltry as a result of Proposition 13. And yet, even among our California peers, SFUSD is an outlier. We spend the most per pupil out of the 25 largest districts across California, and yet we have some of the worst outcomes — particularly for our Black, Latinx, Pacific Islander and English Learner students.
Student learning outcomes are currently divorced from budget goals. SFUSD recently ranked 267 out of 287 in a recent report by the California Reading Coalition, and yet it spends a significant amount of money on a reading curriculum and assessment tool that, according to some experts, has questionable outcomes. The curriculum was recently deemed by some literacy researchers “as accurate as flipping a coin whenever a new student enters the classroom.” If budget decisions were more closely tied to learning outcomes, would this literacy crisis have been flagged sooner?
Now, SFUSD faces a budget deficit of more than $125 million by the 2022-23 school year. This is the equivalent of 17% of its unrestricted budget. No matter how you slice and dice it, budget cuts will be felt deeply by students, educators and the broader SFUSD community.
Parents have watched the San Francisco School Board dither away hours, weeks and months without focusing on the urgent needs of students. With the state now at our table, we need commissioners to talk less and act more, facing hard decisions and enacting solutions. Parents are watching. We are watching for this board to approach every agenda item asking, “What decision will benefit our students the most?” Unfortunately in this era of budget crisis, the question may shift to, “What decision will harm our students the least?”
We agree with the calls to invest more money into our public schools, and we have made some of those calls ourselves. Money will help — but only if we can also make sound fiduciary decisions and spend dollars on solutions that center the needs of our students. As we all wait for a fiscal savior, we need our board to do less pontificating about creating an equitable and truly excellent school system, and start delivering meaningful results for our children.
Meredith W. Dodson, Yvette Edwards and Cyn Wang are San Francisco public school parents who serve on the board of the advocacy nonprofit San Francisco Parent Action, the political sister organization to San Francisco Parent Coalition.