Editorial: Strike averted, but at what cost?

Following an all-night negotiation session, San Francisco public school administrators and the union representing teachers announced Tuesday morning that they had reached a tentative agreement on a new contract, putting an end to the possibility of a strike by United Educators of San Francisco members.

Representatives of both the union and the school district appeared relieved. No doubt many parents throughout The City felt the same way: A strike in the final weeks of the school year could have thrown family schedules and children’s focus into turmoil, just as critical year-end tests and state and federal evaluations were coming up.
Only a day before the agreement, union leaders were still threatening to shut down all district schools and the district was preparing to replace teachers.

But what now? What does this new contract mean for teachers and the district?

That’s hard to say, as both the union and school officials are keeping a lid on most details of the contract pending an approval vote by union members. The district previously had offered a 7.5 percent raise to the teachers union, which said it would not accept less than 10 percent.

The facts that are known raise some very serious questions about how the district intends to pay for this contract and the impact it may have on other aspects of the public school system. Officials say they will have to find an additional $6 million to pay for teacher salary increases in the next school year, and more than $13 million for 2007-08.

Perhaps the biggest question marks arise from the assumptions the district apparently has made about where much of the funding will come from.

Some school board members seem to be counting on San Francisco voters to approve a new parcel tax on property, likely to appear on the ballot in 2007, as a way to raise some funds for ongoing school expenses. That measure may be viewed more skeptically than officials seem to think, particularly once voters hear that the district plans to use money from another ballot measure — Proposition H, which voters approved in 2004 — as another way to pay for the new contract. That proposition directs money from the city budget to the school district. San Francisco public schools were scheduled to receive about $12 million in these taxpayer funds this year, and $20 million in 2007-08.

Perhaps the language of Prop. H doesn’t prevent the district from using its funds this way, but the ballot measure was sold to city voters as a way to support enrichment programs such as music and athletics, not as a way to pay for employee salaries. Treating Prop. H as an unrestricted giveaway of taxpayer money may not sit well with the electorate.

The district is banking on money from the state, too. It is taking part in a lawsuit to get back its share of money that districts across the state believe they are owed.

All of this adds up to a contract that, so far, appears to depend on a series of gambles. If the district cannot secure enough revenue to cover the costs, it may cut staff or programs. San Francisco property owners, voters and parents of public school students need to keep their eyes open and prepare for some tough decisions, and school officials are likely to be on pins and needles as they anticipate their own choices in the future.

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