SF Unified School District bracing for $13 million gouge

It looks like another tough season of budget cuts and hard choices next year for the San Francisco Unified School District.

“It’s pretty dismal, actually, the outlook,” said Sandra Lee Fewer, chair of the school board’s Budget and Business Services Committee, which got a preview of this year’s budget-planning process at a meeting last week.

It’s a story that has become depressingly familiar in the years since the economic downturn hit California.

“It’s been difficult, to say the least,” said Deputy Superintendent Myong Leigh, recalling the rounds of spending cuts over the past several years. “Based on all these signs, it’s going to be difficult again.”

Leigh said the district, which is planning a two-year budget, is anticipating a midyear cut of $13 million, its share of up to $2 billion in statewide spending cuts that will likely be triggered by revenue shortfalls this month.

While SFUSD planned for the cuts in its budget this year, the lost $13 million could carry over into next year as well, because Sacramento may continue to defer increases in education spending mandated under Proposition 98.

State officials are allowing school districts to make up for cuts by shortening their school year up to seven days. But Leigh said SFUSD officials would be reluctant to do so, especially after cutting four days already.

“The thought of cutting more days is really horrendous,” he said. “You’re talking about a school year that was 180 days a couple years ago; now it’s 176 days. If that’s their main prescription for how to get through the next round of cuts, that is cutting into bone. That’s core instruction, not extras.”

Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project, a Sacramento think tank, said school districts across the state will face many unknowns as they begin tackling their 2012-12 budgets. For one thing, the trigger cuts will be based on projections rather than actual revenue.

“Where the economy is going is still very fluid,” Ross said. “Hopefully we’re improving. … There’s still a lot of uncertainty as to how large the deficit will be.”

School officials — who must draft a budget, subject it to community input and approve it by June 30 — are hoping the picture will become clearer soon.

“There’s a lot of reading of the tea leaves that is going to happen over the next six weeks,” Leigh said.

Decision timeline

Important dates for the 2012-13 school budget

Dec. 15: The California Department of Finance will announce its revenue projections, determining the severity of midyear cuts
Jan. 10: Deadline for Gov. Jerry Brown to propose his budget
March 15: Date by which SFUSD must notify employees of potential layoffs
June 30: Deadline for the school board to vote on a 2012-13 budget

acrawford@sfexaminer.com

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