You know the tectonic plates must be shifting because somehow
San Francisco has become the newest version of the Great Northwest — a rain-soaked timberland minus the timber.
But despite the steady deluge, comparisons with Portland and Seattle fall short in three key areas — (sur)real estate, public policy and the local public schools.
It’s heartening to realize that kids and young adults in The City won’t be ending their spring break with an extended spring break now that the school district and the teachers union have reached a tentative settlement in their protracted contract fight. Just when it appeared hopeless and a strike was imminent last week, the district pulled a few extra million out of its binder and the teachers got a much-needed pay raise.
But the only thing that The City got — besides (mostly) happier teachers and aides — was a lingering fiscal headache that will hang over the district for years or until they can make their next Faustian pact. I realize that they don’t teach religion in the public schools, but those who know about the Apostles will understand that this was a deal that robbed Peter to pay Paul — based on an assumption that Matthew and John had a few trinkets left over for the rainy day fund.
Admittedly, a strike would have been disastrous — the final punch in a bitter fight between teachers and district leaders that has lasted more than two years and helped speed the exit of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. Ackerman’s golden parachute, which she brokered knowing she had one foot out the door, was too much for the rank and file who had gone years without a pay raise.
But in the avoidance policy that the school board follows to neither a means nor an end, the last-minute contract deal leaves the district with budget holes big enough to drive a school bus through. And the initial theory on how those gaps will be covered requires a sort of perfect storm to blow through San Francisco — this one not bulging with water but voter-approved tax money that voters have been very unwilling to part with in recent years.
My Examiner colleagues have reported that under the tentative deal, the district will have to come up with nearly $20 million over the next two years — a sizable sum considering that the board has been unable to close enough schools to meet its budget shortfall. And the board has been unable to do that because it hasn’t been able to stand up to pressure from community activists demanding that fiscal reality bow in front of personal interest.
Indeed, even as the board and the union representatives were finalizing last-minute contract details, the Board of Supervisors — which is supposedly legally constrained to stay out of the way — was voting for funds to keep a school open that the trustees had already closed. And every delay and detour only complicates the district’s future course.
The district is hoping to divert "enrichment" tax dollars to help offset the shortfall, but that money was never intended to cover teacher pay raises, it was supposed to be spent on school counselors, social workers and nurses. District officials said it was not "illegal" to use the funds for such purposes, but inappropriate? You make the call.
"I don’t think we pushed the district into doing anything that they can’t [afford to] do," Dennis Kelly, the teachers union president, told me.
Both sides in the lengthy contract talks say they are hoping to erase the red ink with a parcel tax — but anyone who has witnessed the past few elections can tell just how eager already overtaxed city residents are to add to their future money obligations. So that means there likely will be addition by subtraction — cuts — just the thing teachers and parents and most of all, union officials, constantly rail against.
But maybe this dark cloud has a silver lining. We can all hope that educators will be so buoyed by their pay raise that they will teach that much better in the future, raising test scores and molding better students — without Ackerman being around to take the credit. And their parents will be so happy with the results that they’ll get more involved in the schools, a key for any successful district.
And we can pray that the ongoing tension between union and district officials will have finally cleared, making way for programs and school board meetings that actually focus on students instead of ideological forays.
Certainly it’s a lot to ask for, but it will likely take that kind of mind-set for everyone to weather the next storm.