It’s time to build and open new schools in SF

San Francisco is currently experiencing something we haven’t seen in a long time: Surging public school enrollment. And with more students comes an urgent need for more classrooms.

For decades, families left The City in droves, many pushed out by rising rents and home prices, while others opted to put their children in private schools. As a result, declining public school enrollment in San Francisco has been the norm: Between 1994 and 2006, enrollment in SFUSD dropped by roughly 7,000 students, from over 62,000 in 1994 to a low of close to 55,000 in 2006.  

But with housing development and improving schools, things are changing. Since 2007, San Francisco public school enrollment has increased annually, growing by over 2,000 students, now at roughly 57,000 students. Based on existing housing alone, we estimate that there will be an additional 3,000 to 6,000 new K-12 students by 2023. That is the equivalent of about 7 to 15 regular-sized elementary schools.  

But that’s only part of the story. There are more than 70,000 new housing units currently in the pipeline, including huge developments in Candlestick Point, Hunters Point Shipyard, Treasure Island, Park Merced and Mission Bay, which
will grow San Francisco’s population by an estimated 174,000 people by 2030.

This population growth will likely take SFUSD’s enrollment to its highest levels ever, possibly even exceeding 70,000 students within 12 years. Many of these housing developments won’t be finished for years, but schools aren’t built overnight either; it can take about five years to build and open a new school.

The decision about whether to build new schools will have a huge impact on the character of San Francisco’s neighborhoods, and on The City as a whole. Schools can help determine whether growing neighborhoods will be family friendly for years to come. Great neighborhood schools give families the confidence not just to start families in San Francisco, but also to stay here.

So where should we start? Perhaps the most necessary and urgent place where we should build and open a new school is Mission Bay and SoMa. Mission Bay is booming, with nearly 15,000 residents, and over 3,000 new housing units slotted to be built before 2024; a significant number of these units are affordable and will include families with children.  

But despite all that, there isn’t currently a single school in Mission Bay, and only one public school in SoMa. And there’s already an empty parcel in the heart of Mission Bay, given to the school district years ago, waiting for a school to be built.  

Mission Bay is just one example. There are also early plans being discussed to build a new school in Hunters Point, where thousands of new housing units are in the pipeline.

A growing student population also means looking at our entire portfolio of facilities and land. We have to renovate, modernize and expand current sites to meet 21st century demands, and look to potentially reclaim or rebuild on sites that are being used for other purposes. Building new schools can help ease the pressure on all schools, especially those with many more applicants than spots, to help ensure more access for neighborhood families across The City.

School construction will not compete with teacher salaries or basic school needs, which remain severely underfunded. Instead, the funding to build new schools and modernize others comes from School Facilities General Obligation Bonds, a separate funding stream specifically for facilities. SFUSD is currently preparing a bond for November 2016, and it is critical that this bond includes funding for new schools, and is passed by voters.

San Franciscans have long been rightfully concerned about whether this city can be family friendly, especially in the face of exploding housing costs. Investing in high quality, state of the art schools in every neighborhood is one way for us to help do that, and a critical step forward in the fight for a city where children and families are truly prioritized and valued.

Matt Haney is president of the SFUSD Board of Education.

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