Finding the money to stop cuts

March 17, 2009

Kevin Chojczak, a first-year teacher at San Francisco Community School, reports on a fight by educators to stop layoffs.

SOME 250 San Francisco educators, students and community supporters came out to march and rally in front of City Hall March 12 to protest layoffs--and to celebrate Mayor Gavin Newsom's announcement earlier in the week that he would release emergency funds from city's "rainy day fund" to stop more than 500 pending layoffs.

San Francisco faces an estimated $560 million deficit, with a projected $29 million to be cut from the San Francisco Unified School District's budget next year. Teachers and support staff have been receiving pink slips in recent weeks, and members of the United Educators of San Francisco (UESF) have been putting pressure on Newsom and city officials to release 25 percent from the city's rainy day fund.

The fund, which currently stands at $92 million, was created in 2003 with the passage of Proposition G, which requires the city to save 5 percent of revenue during good economic times.

Newsom initially resisted the UESF's demand to release 25 percent of the fund, claiming that the school district was only entitled to $11.5 million--25 percent of the portion of the money that would go to meet deficits in other public-sector services. Newsom's new interpretation of Proposition G was a shameful attempt to deny people the needed money for jobs and services.

A teacher in a San Francisco elementary school
A teacher in a San Francisco elementary school

Last year, city officials released $19 million from the rainy day fund to avoid 535 teacher layoffs. But with the U.S. economy spiraling into deeper crisis, state and city budgets across the country are facing a historically dire situation this year, and the need for funds is even greater.

California is confronting a $42 billion deficit, and the state legislature recently passed a budget that reduces spending on public schools by $11.6 billion statewide. But that doesn't mean layoffs or cuts showed be seen as inevitable.

California ranks near the bottom of all 50 states in per-pupil spending and has seen an explosion in the number of charter and private schools. Yet California is still on the list of the top 10 wealthiest economies in the world. Last year, there were 47 billionaires in the Bay Area alone!

There is enough wealth in our state to fully fund our public school system and other public-sector services.

The UESF leadership, however, seems unable or unwilling to mount a serious campaign to stop the current round of cuts in our schools, and instead has focused mainly on the rainy day fund to rescue us from the current crisis. This narrow outlook has only pitted our union against other public-sector unions in a fight over the "scraps" of a diminishing pot of city money.

While the rally in front of City Hall conveyed a sense of victory over Newsom's attempt to hold onto funds needed for schools, there was also a strong sense that a more viable, long-term solution is needed. Grassroots forces in UESF recently formed a caucus, Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU), to amplify this message and raise the criticism that the rainy day fund is not a real solution to the current budget crisis.

Since the source of the fund is a percentage of tax revenues collected by the city, the economic downturn has caused the rainy day fund to shrink by 20 percent since last year. With the California Legislative Analyst's Office predicting a mounting $20 billion deficit in California's budget each year for the next four years, the fund will be depleted in this coming period.

The educators who came together to form EDU have started creating a new energy and excitement at the school site level for long-term solutions, such as progressive taxes (taxing the rich) and making major revisions in Proposition 13, a 30-year-old ballot initiative that slashed property tax rates for homeowners and business, and requires a two-third legislative supermajority to pass any tax increase.

I joined EDU because I believe we can make our case loud and clear that in order to make these changes, we need to forge relationships with our fellow public-sector unions to wage the necessary actions not just at the city, but the state level. It will be a long road ahead, but the EDU is dedicated to organizing an aggressive union that can defend and engage all members toward more militant strategies that will be necessary for fully funding our public school system.

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