Defiant San Francisco School Board Ignores Fiscal Crisis and Learning Loss
By Joel P. Engardio
Yet the school board remains defiant. It doubles down on failed policies rather than making corrections. The result is continued enrollment decline, which further reduces revenue and puts the school district into a death spiral.
Our children suffer the most, as academic performance drops and the achievement gap widens.
Well-run public schools are essential for a city to function and thrive. San Francisco’s future depends on being able to retain families, but too many are moving away because of our mismanaged public schools. That’s why every resident should care about the school board.
School board faces possible state takeover
San Francisco’s school board has long known about its deficit crisis — currently over $100 million for each of the next two years. Yet they refused to address costs and continued to spend $60 million a year in the red.
They were willing to spend millions on renaming schools and another million to cover up a mural at George Washington High School. They also used one-time state and federal pandemic recovery funds to cover this year’s shortfall without making any cuts to balance the budget — knowing those funds wouldn’t be available to cover next year’s costs.
This prompted the State Superintendent of Public Instruction to send a letter with a blunt warning: “The SSPI has determined that the district is no longer a going concern.”
By using an accounting term that refers to the inability to remain financially solvent, the state letter signaled a first step in a potential takeover of San Francisco’s public schools.
A state takeover strips the school board of its power and decisions are made without local input. It’s a painful process that Oakland and Richmond schools had to endure.
Fiscal incompetence is one of the many reasons parents organized to recall the school board.
School board continues to defy serious warnings
The California Department of Education didn’t just send a letter warning the school board that its fiscal recklessness could lead to a state takeover, a representative from the state agency personally delivered the news.
Michael Fine, chief executive officer of the state’s Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team, didn’t mince words at a recent school board meeting. He said the school board has a two-month deadline to show where it will cut more than $100 million.
“If you fail to act accordingly, then CDE’s intervention will increase to the point where your governing authority is set aside,” Fine told the school board. “There is nothing good about that process. Now is the time to act.”
Did the school board take this warning to heart?
Soon after hearing that a state takeover was a serious possibility if they didn’t cut costs, the school board voted to spend even more money to appeal a lawsuit it lost in its attempt to remove historic murals at Washington High School.
The school board also lost a lawsuit over its flawed process to rename schools and must pay those legal fees, too. They refused a deal that would have substantially reduced the costs because they didn’t want to admit their mistake or acknowledge the legitimacy of the lawsuit. The school board chose to pay more than it had to as the district faced massive deficits.
Then there’s the $87 million lawsuit Commissioner Alison Collins filed against fellow commissioners when they tried to censure her for racist tweets against Asian Americans. While a judge tossed the case as having no merit, the cash-strapped school district still had to pay legal fees to defend itself from Collins. Remarkably, the school board chose to let Collins off the hook for recouping the costs from her frivolous lawsuit.
Recently, the school board was unable to agree on making just $5 million worth of cuts at schools where enrollment has declined. Now they’re on notice that if they can’t cut $100 million, the state will do it for them.
Bad governance > enrollment decline > more financial trouble
The current school board created a death spiral of failed policies, which led to enrollment decline, which reduced revenue and compounded the deficit crisis.
Fed up parents fled San Francisco’s public schools, creating a significant decline in enrollment. New parents refused to even consider public schools, which resulted in a 10 percent drop in kindergarten enrollment. Overall, the school district lost more than 3,500 students the past two years. Fewer students means less state funding — a projected $35 million loss — which only exacerbates a growing deficit crisis of more than $100 million for the next two years.
The ballooning deficits and steep decline in enrollment led to a downgrade in the school district’s credit rating. Fitch and Moody’s cited “governance” problems.
Meanwhile, the school district neglected to establish a legally required oversight committee for a $744 million bond passed by voters in 2016.
And now the state is warning of a takeover as the school board dithers with the deck chairs on a sinking ship.
Academic performance dropped as students suffered from learning loss
Student proficiency in reading and math dropped on this school board’s watch, with economically disadvantaged and minority students falling behind the most. San Francisco is at the bottom five percent of all state school districts, according to the California Reading Report Card.
Yet the president of the school board, Gabriella Lopez, wouldn’t acknowledge any learning loss among students. She said students were “just having different learning experiences.”
We also cannot forget the school board’s fateful decision in June 2020 to not hire a consultant to plan for reopening schools. Superintendent Matthews begged for the hire, even telling the school board that rejecting the contract would be a “body blow.”
Reopening specialists were in short supply because every school district in the nation faced the same problem. But our school board refused to hire the consultant because they had previously done work for charter schools. Watch a compilation video of the remarks commissioners made when rejecting the consultant.
Our school board chose to put ideology over the needs of students. They promised to create a plan on their own. But the San Francisco Chronicle reported all the ways they had procrastinated and flunked the task. Our school board didn’t bother to start planning to reopen schools in earnest until faced with lawsuits, recalls, and protests from frustrated and exhausted parents.
Time to recall
There are troubling trends that keep San Francisco from having high quality public schools:
- San Francisco ranks among the worst school districts in California when it comes to the achievement gap facing Black and Latino students.
- A quarter of our kids attend private school, compared to only nine percent in California. We have to attract families back to public schools — especially the working parents stretching themselves to pay for private tuition.
- Many families leave San Francisco for better schools when kids reach a certain age, which contributes to San Francisco having the lowest percentage of children among major U.S. cities. We have more dogs than kids, and that’s a problem.
We can’t fix our public schools without first fixing an incompetent school board, which has ignored a deficit crisis and drop in enrollment that could lead to a state takeover.
That’s why we must recall the most problematic school board commissioners who failed their core duty to safely reopen schools for more than a year after the COVID pandemic started. Their inaction subjected students to harmful learning loss and mental health stress for many months longer than necessary.
Alison Collins, Gabriela Lopez, and Faauuga Moliga are being recalled because they all participated in disastrous decisions for San Francisco families and our public schools.
History was made when a caravan to City Hall delivered boxes containing 240,000 signatures for the recall of three San Francisco school board commissioners.
Despite many attempts, no recall effort for any local office has gathered enough signatures to qualify for the ballot in San Francisco in nearly 40 years.
A special recall election is expected in February. Meanwhile, the signature gathering effort has transitioned into a full-fledged recall campaign.
- Donate: It will take at least $500k to mount a viable citywide campaign.
- Volunteer: Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with “volunteer” in the subject line
- Join: Be part of the discussion in the recall’s private Facebook group.
- Get Informed: Visit the official recall website. Read the point-by-point case for recall here.