Sharp cuts to SFUSD budget worry special education advocates

‘It’s a hard pill to swallow. We’re already in crisis mode’

Painful.

That’s the word frequently used to describe the path San Francisco Unified School District must take to cure its huge budget deficit and avoid a state takeover.

And the pain will be especially intense for kids with special needs under a blueprint released by district staff this week.

Though the cuts will likely be felt across the board, special education became an area of focused concern at Tuesday’s special school board meeting. The department faces $3.6 million in cuts to staffing under the preliminary plan.

“I am flabbergasted and terrified by the idea of cuts to special education,” said Chris Clauss, a special education teacher at George Washington High School, during public comment. “My colleagues are already overwhelmed as it is. The needs of my students are higher in this post-distance learning and continuing pandemic learning situation.”

The district must cut $125 million, about 10% of its budget, to balance its books for the next academic year. District staff laid out out a preliminary plan this week, one that would cut $50 million from schools, $10 million from direct services like school site budgets, $10 million in indirect services, $15 million in operations and $5 million from the administration.

Beyond cuts, the budget-balancing plan included new income: $35 million in new funding sources like unspecified state grants and savings from the previous and current years. SFUSD must submit a plan to the state by Dec. 15 after receiving a letter of warning in September about its $116 million structural deficit amid declining enrollment.

Other special education teachers called in attesting to being overworked and overburdened in their caseloads in ways not felt previously in their careers. The district is facing several staff vacancies, though an exact number of current vacancies was not provided by press time.

Students with individualized learning plans, known as IEPs, have missed specialized care under distance learning and adjusting back to the classroom has been tough, said special education advocate and SFUSD parent Alida Fisher.

“It’s a hard pill to swallow for families with IEPs,” Fisher told the Examiner. “We’re already in crisis mode. We’ve got people working two and three jobs and burning themselves out. I’ve never experienced a school year like this before, never.”

Elliot Duchon, a former superintendent appointed as fiscal expert by the state, commended district staff and the board but warned that the budget had to be realistic and fulfill its obligations like union contracts. Schools are legally required to provide special education services to those proven in need.

“The budget that you enact has to be doable,” Duchon said. “I’m going to pick on special education. You cannot cut into existing IEPs. There may be services you can look at. There’s a lot of ingredients in the soup.”

Statewide, special education costs have risen 28% to $13 billion between 2007 and 2017. Local districts went from covering 49% of the cost to 61% during the same period, according to a 2019 report from the state Legislative Analyst’s Office.

SFUSD was not able to provide details on its share by press time. Special education holds a budget of about $200 million for the current academic year compared to $191.7 million the previous year and $159.1 million in 2019-20, according to the district’s public dashboard.

Board members Mark Sanchez and Kevine Boggess echoed concern about providing what’s mandated for special education. District staff emphasized that the balancing plan proposed this week is a starting point. Vacancies continue to be filled and there is still room to save, said Chief Financial Officer Meghan Wallace.

“Special education services are essential, they are costly,” said Myong Leigh, deputy superintendent of policy and operations. “We don’t take that lightly at all. The costs are increasing and the program has, for decades, been really underfunded.”

Leigh added that there’s traction at the state level to increase special education funding. But Gov. Gavin Newsom doesn’t propose his new budget until January and SFUSD must be well on the path to a balanced budget by then.

In the meantime, special education staff soldier on. Charles Sylvester, a special education teacher of 20 years, emphasized at the meeting they didn’t want to see a state takeover but sought specifics.

“The caseloads and the amount of work are paramount this year compared to no other,” Sylvester said.

imojadad@sfexaminer.com

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