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Parents, teachers withhold signatures on SF school budgets

SF Public Press
 — Apr 15 2010 - 3:29pm

Amid a jarring education funding shortfall, committees of parents and teachers at two San Francisco schools are refusing to endorse the budgets for next school year, saying that signing off on them would excuse unacceptable cutbacks.

Members of the local school site councils, which were introduced in the 1970s throughout California as a way to broaden involvement in school administration, say the shrunken budgets that the San Francisco Unified School District is requiring school principals to submit would make class sizes too large.

While there’s disagreement about whether the councils have any real say in school budgets, district administrators say they are taking these protests seriously.

The councils at Dianne Feinstein Elementary School in the Outer Sunset and the San Francisco Community School in the Excelsior have sent letters to the district voicing their disappointment over the class size proposals. The council at the Dianne Feinstein School submitted its version last month and forwarded it to other public schools across San Francisco in hopes of igniting similar protests citywide.

“The budget allocation we have been given violates our students’ fundamental right to an adequate education,” wrote Marcia Fountaine, president of the school site council at the Community School, in the letter submitted to the school district this week.

The Community School’s site council also took the extraordinary step of submitting a separate budget for September that was that same size as this year’s budget — tens of thousands of dollars more than the district has allocated.

The letter the Feinstein School council sent was strongly worded too: “Voting for this budget condones unilaterally increasing class sizes and necessitates the consolidation of teaching positions because of the proposed increased class size.”

Citywide, public schools are facing a $113 million budget shortfall over the next two years, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. The crisis has also sparked an impasse in contract negotiations with the United Educators of San Francisco, the main teachers’ union, which intimated Tuesday that they would consider going on strike.

Last Friday was the ostensible deadline for schools to submit their site budgets, which must be approved by both the principal and the school site council. The Dianne Feinstein School site council’s rejection of the budget puts political pressure on the district. Wendy Tukloff, an assistant superintendent for San Francisco schools, said administrators cannot ignore the site council’s action. If the council does not sign off on the budget even after the district finishes negotiating with the union, Tukloff will step in and attempt to mediate an agreement.

“If we need to move to that level of mediation, we will,” Tukloff said. “But at this moment, this would be premature.”

“We’re accepting these letters, but we do ask the principals to submit their budgets,” she added. “We realize there may be a need for more discussions for the schools.”

More kids in each class

The district’s current class size averages 20 students per teacher in kindergarten through third grade. The proposed class size ratios At Dianne Feinstein School are 24 students per teacher in kindergarten and 27 to per teacher in first through third grades, Tukloff said. Class sizes, which next year will vary by school, remain a sticking point in union talks.

School site councils are elected bodies at each public school made up of teachers, parents and community members. Their job is to help administrators determine how to distribute funding the school receives. Each council can make recommendations in its budget on cuts at schools, including staffing and programming. 

Michelle Chang, principal of Dianne Feinstein School, signed off and submitted the school’s budget before going on maternity leave at the end of March, but enclosed the school’s site council letter with the budget, too. The letter, which Chang did not sign, says, “We will not participate in voting for this budget.”

Symbolic protest

Aaron Neimark, a kindergarten teacher and school site council member at Dianne Feinstein, who authored the original draft of the letter, said he knew Chang ultimately would have to approve the budget, but the letter serves as “a symbolic protest.”

“Her signature means this is the budget we are submitting, but this letter says nobody likes it,” Neimark said. Teachers at Dianne Feinstein gathered additional signatures for the letter during parent-teacher conferences in the week of March 22.

This move caught the attention of parents at the San Francisco Community School, where the site budget for the coming school year is $255,000 less than this year’s budget. The council, along with other parents and staff, followed suit and submitted a similar letter to the school district. The school’s principal, Kristin Bijur, and the council also sent a site budget to the district that was the same as the school’s budget this past year.

Adding to its financial woes, San Francisco Community School also will lose about $115,000 in state funding for next year, according to Rachel Lederman, a parent.

Last month, the San Francisco-based Children’s Allocation Team, a group of parent and teacher advocates, presented a draft of a budget during a Board of Education meeting that showcased how cuts could be made without increasing class sizes at schools.

Token participation?

School site councils have faced confusion over what their decision-making powers actually are. Last month, the United Educators of San Francisco sent an e-mail to its list reminding school site councils that they only have the power to recommend possible staff cuts, not decide which staff positions will be eliminated. Neimark said the school site council at Dianne Feinstein School recently learned about this distinction, too.

The union says the political process is being turned against participating parents and teachers. Matt Hardy, spokesman for the United Educators of San Francisco, said the district is using this confusion as “political cover,” blaming staff cuts on the school site councils themselves.

Adrienne Johnstone, a San Francisco Community School teacher and school site council member who took part in the March 4 protests against education budget cuts, said she is angered by the strictly advisory role school site councils play in budgeting.

“It takes all the heat off of them and it has us looking at our own schools and seeing which jobs we need to save,” Johnstone said. “It’s really a farce to say we have any actual decision-making power when you don’t give us enough money to educate our kids.”

Union tensions

After failing to reach an agreement, the teachers union broke off negotiations with district officials this week, the Chronicle reported. Dennis Kelly, president of United Educators San Francisco, told the Chronicle that the impasse is a result of the district not providing a written explanation about why it was rejecting some union demands, adding: “It’s the first step on the path to a strike.”

With negotiations at a standstill, it’s up to the Public Employment Relations Board to decide whether the bargaining should continue between the district and the union, or a mediator needs to step in, district officials told the Chronicle.

The district has fought with union leaders over increased class sizes, furloughs and layoffs, all proposals to deal with the budget shortfall. Union leaders have accused the district of being too conservative with its funds and in a hurry to get an official budget completed. California law requires the district to approve a final budget before July 1.