Cut administration, not schools

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I received an interesting opinion piece this week from a group of teachers and parents working on sfbudgetblog.com, which looks at the San Francisco School District budget. They make some valid points:

By T.R. Amsler
Just when you think you’ve reached bottom, California schools find another shovel. Next year, San Francisco school children face even deeper cuts as many lose summer school, face increased class sizes and witness the dismissal of beloved teachers.

In identifying Sacramento as the crux of the problem, San Francisco schools superintendent Carlos Garcia has advocated a lawsuit against the state of California for failing to provide adequate funding to educate all children.
While we wait for a lawsuit that has not been filed, his proposed a 2010-11 budget slashes funding to classrooms while protecting central office jobs.

We wholeheartedly support Garcia’s effort to hold California accountable for the shameful under-funding of our schools. But change at the state level will take time—and in the meantime, we are baffled as to why, on a local level, he is not demonstrating the kind of ethical leadership we know he believes in.

Because of the state cuts, San Francisco must reduce its schools budget by $113 million over the next two years. The superintendent proposes making over 50% of those cuts from schools and classrooms. Over $8 million of the cuts are achieved by increasing K-3 class size—impacting our youngest and most vulnerable children. Over $8 million is slashed from Targeted Instructional Improvement Block Grant funds for the city’s lowest performing schools. Another $4.5 million comes from summer school programs for our struggling high school students. Garcia saves over $3 million by eliminating supplemental counseling funds for high schools supporting college readiness. Another $9 million is saved through furlough days, cutting instructional time for all students when we need to be expanding it.

Some say these draconian cuts are the only option. Some say we cannot find cuts in the central office because it is already lean. Yet the facts suggest otherwise: Compared to four similar-sized school districts (Elk Grove, Santa Ana, San Bernadino, and Capistrano), San Francisco spends significantly more on administration ($462 per student in SF compared to an average of $387) and less on instruction ($4,763 per student in SF compared to an average of $5,685).
Where does San Francisco spend its money instead of schools? This year, the district spent $340 million in centrally-budgeted services, as compared to $257 million in school-based funding. A portion of the central funds flows to schools in the form of centrally-funded staff, but the majority does not. There are many talented people working in the central departments, and many of the central services are helpful. But in a crisis, we must ask: do non-classroom-based expenditures better support student achievement than direct support of classrooms?

If San Francisco were to cut 20% from these central office budgets, we could save $68 million a year and close the budget gap without touching a penny of school-based funding. This would mean radically rethinking how the central office works—but if the alternative is radically slashing our schools, that’s some rethinking we cannot afford to put off.
Garcia’s proposal is to drastically defund school sites, fundamentally changing the experience of students and families. The radical shift however needs to happen not to families, but to the central office.

A group called the Children’s Allocation Team has created an alternative set of central office cuts that demonstrate the real possibility of protecting our schools and classrooms during this budget crisis. We need district staff to engage in this kind of creative thinking too.

In the San Francisco Chronicle on January 27, Superintendent Garcia wrote, “I recognize that we are in the midst of extraordinarily difficult economic times, but to place that burden on our children is morally unethical.” We agree.
Now we need our superintendent to make the morally ethical budget cuts he calls for. It is time to radically re-think the central office, not to fundamentally defund classrooms. We can, and we must, close the budget gap without touching classrooms and students.

T.R. Amsler has been a high school teacher and journalism teacher for ten years. SFbudgetblog.com is a collection of teachers, parents and administrators losing sleep to represent their investigations and analysis of the SFUSD local budget. Read, consider and contribute at www.sfbudgetblog.com