Teachers and supporters rally to protest potential education cuts outside the San Francisco Unified School District office before a meeting of the Board of Education on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Opinion: We need greater transparency for San Francisco schools

The current school district budgeting process does not work

By Stevon Cook

We’ve been dealing with devastating news delivered to our schools: there is a $26 million budget shortfall.

A deficit immediately creates anxiety for our educators, families and students. The questions we’re all asking: how does San Francisco, the nation’s wealthiest city, find itself in this position? How is it that San Francisco can have such a high concentration of millionaires, yet we’re having conversations about budget cuts when our students need so much more to meet the demands of today’s world? These are worthwhile discussions that I want to have with the public.

Here’s the bottom line: we have to balance the budget and we have a budgeting process that doesn’t work.

Throughout my tenure on the school board, I have been the first to claim responsibility when our district does not meet expectations. Our deficit is due to the rising cost of critical services and lack of fiscal controls to accurately track our spending at Central Office.

San Francisco Unified needs to restore the public’s trust.

That’s why I’m calling on my colleagues, educators and elected leaders to join me in the following recommendations:

Corrective Action: I am asking the superintendent to pursue corrective action to ensure we have a team that can accurately track our expenditures. At the close of the last fiscal year, the district had increased expenses at the rate of $10M, but didn’t realize it until several months after closing its books. We have to walk our talk when it comes to accountability at Central Office.

Independent Budget Analyst: Currently, the Board of Education relies on district staff to inform us on the resources available to fund our most pressing priorities. The Board needs an independent budget expert that reports directly to the Board. That includes training for new commissioners, quarterly updates regarding budget actuals and creating engagement opportunities with the public to inform parents, teachers and other stakeholders about the state of the district’s finances.

Re-imagining Central Office: Over the years, we have seen our Central Office grow while educators continue to pay out-of-pocket to cover school supplies and other critical needs. We don’t need more bureaucratic administrative costs. We need to do everything we can to make sure more funding goes directly to people that work with students, and we must have a hard look at our overhead costs.

Revenue & Philanthropic Opportunities: Revenue-generating opportunities, such as long-term leasing options and other investments, can help the district protect against a future downside. We should not operate from a position of scarcity. We have some of the largest companies in the world with offices in San Francisco. Collectively, these companies could make an annual $100 million commitment to our schools by committing 1% or less of their profits; in the form of stock holdings, endowment investments or contributing the money they spend on catered lunches to our students instead

ERAF Funding: Recently, Supervisor Gordon Mar introduced a $70M commitment of ERAF funding to the school district. I commend him and his colleagues at the Board of Supervisors for their support of public education. In the long run, we have to ensure a larger portion of City Hall’s $12 billion budget is supporting public education.

State and Federal Reform: There are school districts across California and the country grappling with budget deficits due to a continued lack of investment from the state and federal government. The growing cost of labor, pensions and other crucial services have outpaced our revenue. Unless we receive a larger contribution from the state and federal government, we are projecting a $95 million budget by year 2022. That’s outrageous.

During the Great Recession in 2009, I was laid off for budgetary reasons as a classified worker at Thurgood Marshall Academic High School. Laying off anyone, in any industry, is difficult, and this current situation deeply saddens me. Many people that come into the education sector believe this work is a “calling.”

I know firsthand how this decision can shake school communities but we will walk through it, together.

I hope leaders in this city will join me. Our children, families and educators deserve it.

Stevon Cook is a candidate for District 5 supervisor and serves as a commissioner on the Board of Education. Twitter @StevonCook. His opinions do not necessarily represent those of The Examiner.

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