Editorial: Diverting funds burns S.F. voters

Proposition H, a 2004 ballot measure that provides tens of millions of dollars in escalating city funding for San Francisco public schools over the next decade, was promoted to voters as being almost exclusively for arts, music, sports, library and preschool programs.

While a clause in the ballot summary referred vaguely to “general education purposes,” the message by proponents was clear: Prop. H money would be directed toward programs that directly helped children in San Francisco public schools.

Voters responded to the initiative with strong support, in an acknowledgement by the electorate that the usual primary funding source for public schools — state government — was not sufficient to provide the kind of educational support needed for The City’s children.

Prop. H’s passage was a clear message about publicly defined civic priorities and an open-hearted gesture that symbolized San Francisco values.

Now the school board has decided to divert $2.28 million of Prop. H taxpayer money that was intended for counselors and other high school support staff for next year to instead pay for a retroactive salary increase for teachers, whose union recently reached an agreement with the school district for an 8.5 percent pay hike.

The school board is also considering using another $1.9 million of unspent Prop. H funds on teacher salaries, in addition to the $2.28 million approved Thursday night. That additional $1.9 million was earmarked for elementary school counselors, nurses, social workers and learning support consultants.

City teachers had not received a raise in four years, and it is a fact that society woefully underpays the people who perform the most noble work of all. But the use of funds that were clearly sold as being for classroom programs and student aid to instead settle a labor dispute is a clear violation of the spirit, though not the letter, of the law.

When voters went to the polls in March 2004 to approve increasing public school funding for the sake of the children, it seemed as straighforward as it could be: More money for things like libraries, music lessons, arts programs and free preschools.

It’s unlikely voters envisioned a roomful of lawyers combing the fine print in the ballot measure to see what novel ways their tax dollars could be used without provoking a lawsuit.

The latest diversion of Prop. H funding leaves a bad taste, and makes it more likely that future funding measures will be greeted with increased cynicism as voters wonder about the motives behind them. That’s a damaging message to send — and a rueful lesson to learn.

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