City’s shield against school budget cuts weakening 

When budget time rolls around each year, public schools in The City are told they may lose teachers and vital services while cramming more kids into classrooms — all because of neverending financial problems at the state level.

Despite the dire warnings, little has changed at the San Francisco Unified School District compared with a decade ago. The 55,500-student district has only 11 fewer teachers for 8,500 fewer students, has reduced average class size by more than three pupils and has steadily improved math and English proficiency scores despite state funding problems, according to district data for the 2000-2001 through 2008-2009 school years.

Those results amid the constant decrying of looming financial trouble may have somewhat desensitized many San Franciscans to the problems the school district is facing today — a historic $113 million budget hole during the next two years that officials liken to a financial Armageddon.

“No matter what we do, it will have an impact on the classroom,” Superintendent Carlos Garcia told The Examiner in a recent interview.

That sentiment is more subdued when compared to the sky-is-falling statements Garcia has made since the district announced the deficit this year. The superintendent says he is not overstating the problem.

The California Department of Education says the schools are struggling now more than ever.

“The school districts are doing everything they can just to keep the lights on,” Department of Education spokeswoman Tina Jung said.

Funding for public schools in California is a complex process that involves money from various local, federal and state sources, though the majority comes from the state, which took control of the property-tax dollars earmarked for schools during the 1970s.

For years, the state has slashed funds for education as it balanced multibillion-dollar deficits, but the current recession has exacerbated the issue, Garcia said.

Since 2008, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has slashed $18 billion from schools and is proposing an additional $2.4 billion in cuts this fiscal year — a number expected to grow when he revises his state budget in May. The extra cuts are likely to make California — which ranks 47th in the state in the amount of money spent per student — dead last on that list.

During the last two years the San Francisco school district has shielded its classrooms from the impact of the state cuts by using local and federal emergency funds.

San Francisco voters are largely to thank for much of the relief that has helped The City’s schools, Garcia said.

“Every time we put in a parcel tax or a bond, it’s passed,” he said, adding that San Franciscans value education despite the fact that 70 percent of The City’s families don’t have kids.

For example, a 2003 ballot measure in San Francisco established a rainy-day fund that has provided the school district between $18 million and $24 million during the last three years.

The district has also avoided gaping cuts with the help of federal stimulus dollars, spokeswoman Gentle Blythe said.

In 2004, San Franciscans also approved Proposition H, which provides funding specifically for librarians, teachers and the visual and performing arts, the district said. Also, voters in 2006 approved Proposition A, which led to $450 million in bonds to pay for capital improvements at more than 60 schools, it said.

The shelter from the financial storm may be weakening, though.

The district will only receive $6 million in rainy-day funds this year, and the federal stimulus money is no longer streaming in. In addition, the district’s $113 million deficit is expected to grow larger by summer’s end.

To grasp the shortfall, $113 million equates to about one-quarter of the annual allotment the district can spend on the day-to-day operation of schools. The deficit means there is 22 percent less funds to afford teachers, counselors, textbooks, computers, summer school, art classes, field trips and more, Garcia said.

In addition to less money coming in, there are more funds being spent. The cost for teachers and employee benefits — the district’s largest expense — has risen during the last 10 years, district data show. The cost for benefits has nearly doubled, and the average teacher salary has increased by $12,400.

Garcia, who is currently trying to negotiate concessions from district unions, said paying teachers and maintaining staff levels have helped improve education in The City.

“I think what people don’t understand is that we’ve been extremely fiscally conservative in this school district,” he said, adding that it had been that way before he assumed his post.

But after months of mulling ways to close the $113 million, two-year budget gap, school leaders and the Board of Education say they’ve all but run out of big-money ideas to prevent teachers from losing their jobs.

Last month, the district sent preliminary layoff notices to more than 900 staffers — some 700 that were directly related to the budget problems. The number of pink slips nearly doubled compared with the amount sent last year.

Any labor reductions are contingent upon union negotiations that are ongoing and have been contentious thus far.

The district said it is also pursuing a parcel tax for the November ballot to restore funding. It is also suing the state for stripping funds.

Regardless of whether those pursuits pan out, Garcia said real change needs to happen at the state level. The state’s three-decade-old system for funding schools, he said, is complicated, marred in bureaucracy and jam-packed with regulations that hogtie the ability of districts to spend where students need it most.

Ironically, Garcia said, the state waited until this year — when districts reached financial crisis — to ease regulations on spending funds.

“We’ve been complaining about that for it seems a lifetime,” he said.

California on a mad dash to the bottom for per-pupil spending

The common complaint from California educators is that the state has rapidly gone from top to bottom nationally in what it spends on students.

Historical data supports that claim, as the state ranked fifth in per-pupil spending in 1965, 20th in 1977, 30th in 1980 and 41st in the late 1990s.

Today, the state’s rank is hovering near the bottom, more than $2,000 less per pupil than the national average, Education Week data show. That’s before the state Legislature readies for more massive budget cuts.

The cutbacks in recent years are largely due to the recession — the state just doesn’t have enough revenue sources streaming in to maintain funding levels. But the reason for the decades of decline is much more complicated — and the subject of hot debate.

One of the first major impacts to latter-day school financing in California was legislation responding to a Supreme Court ruling that said school funding statewide favored wealthy areas and was hence inequitable.

In 1972, a state law responding to that ruling established a ceiling on the amount of general-purpose money each school district can spend per pupil so that all state students could receive equal funding.

Years later, probably the most oft-cited hit to schools came in the form of Proposition 13, the 1978 initiative that capped annual increases at 1 percent of the property’s value and imposing a two-thirds vote requirement on future tax increases.

Before Prop. 13, more than 50 percent of funding for school districts came primarily from local property taxes. When more money was needed, local districts could pass additional taxes for revenue.

Not today. Only about 20 percent comes from property taxes, a source that is relatively fixed due to Prop. 13. The vast majority of school funding now comes from the state’s general funds, including sales and income taxes.

With the recession compounding the state’s budget woes, schools are facing cuts not seen since the Great Depression, leading to massive teacher layoffs, increased class sizes and reduced programs at schools.

The one complaint that a majority of educators and parents have is that time spent debating the problems far outweighs solutions that address them.

“Every year we go through this same discussion,” said Carlos Garcia, superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District. “In 10 years from now, what’s going to change if we don’t act now? No one is having these discussions.”

— Mike Aldax

*All numbers are approximate and vary per district

Source: EdSource

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