Ready to fight S.F. school cuts

February 8, 2010

Kevin Chojczak, a member of United Educators of San Francisco and the Educators for a Democratic Union reform caucus, examines the city's plans for school cutbacks.

SAN FRANCISCO Board of Education Superintendent Carlos Garcia unleashed a budget "daisy cutter" bomb January 20 at the United Educators of San Francisco (UESF) monthly assembly. But union activists are preparing to fight back--and will link their struggles to California's statewide day of action on March 4.

At our union meeting, Garcia proposed a slew of cuts to make up for a whopping $113 million shortfall in the school's budget over the next two years. Given that the entire operating budget for the schools is $400 million, these cuts will be the biggest in the history of the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD).

"I want to allow you to join my nightmare," Garcia said before he listed the cuts, which include a freeze on teacher and staff salaries and four furlough (unpaid) days for the next two years. This represents an average loss of about $2,000 per year in educators' income. Garcia also wants to increase class sizes in the K-3 grades to a 25-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio. This would be a disaster for students and will lead to hundreds of layoffs of teachers and paraprofessionals.

SFUSD Superintendent Carlos Garcia
SFUSD Superintendent Carlos Garcia

In addition, more than $4 million would be cut from school programs for underserved students, $1.4 million would be taken out of art and music programs, and summer school would be eliminated for two years. What's more, Garcia wants to save $1.5 million dollars by reducing school bus transportation. Together, these cuts would drop current per-pupil spending in San Francisco from $6,342 to $4,977.

Rank-and-file educators were stunned at the size of budget shortfall, which had grown by $30 million from estimates made a month earlier. Garcia promised he would try to make most of the cuts at the central district office level and as "far away from the classroom as possible."

But even with the $97.1 million in proposed cuts, Garcia said that the district would still be $16 million in the hole. He then asked educators to "join the process" by asking us which sort of budget-saving option we would like to select. "Higher class sizes save a few million," he said. "How about two extra furlough days per year to save another $9 million?"

The response from teachers and other UESF members in attendance was mixed. While the scale of the crisis outraged everyone, some immediately leapt at the idea of taking more furlough days. Others asked how big a class size an elementary school could tolerate.

But many were skeptical about the lack of details in the $45 million that Garcia said would be saved by cutting at the central office. In fact, Garcia shrugged off additional reductions of administrative staff or cuts to their pay as either impossible, illegal or inadequate to make significant budget savings.

Several UESF members at the meeting said that the cuts were outrageous and invited Garcia to join us in fighting them. He replied that he had done all he can do and was asking for severe cuts to avoid having SFUSD taken over by the state. To top it all off, Garcia called on UESF to "join in negotiations" and sign on to the plan within 20 days in order to avoid hundreds of layoff notices being sent to UESF members.

IN THE days since the union assembly, our union's leadership has rightly blamed state legislators in Sacramento for failing to adequately fund our schools. Further, UESF called a rally at the Board of Education to oppose Garcia's proposal and to "defend the classroom." The union also called an emergency meeting of the union's executive board--with other members in attendance--to answer members' questions about the budget.

At the meeting, UESF President Dennis Kelly repeated the idea that "SFUSD should make cuts as far as far away from the classroom as possible" and provide "more transparency on the administrative end on where the cuts are to be made." UESF rejected Garcia's timeline and insisted that much more information would need to be presented from SFUSD before UESF would consider changes to our contract.

At the same time, though, Kelly and other UESF officers urged members to "get real" and understand that painful cuts will be necessary. They talked about how "protests can only go so far," and since the problem is in Sacramento, we would have to wait until November 2010 to challenge Proposition 13 (a huge property tax loophole for corporations and the rich), as well as repeal the California law which says no tax increase can be passed without a two-thirds majority vote in the state legislature.

In response, members of the USEF reform caucus, Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU), urged UESF to take a firmer position calling for "no cuts, no layoffs, and emergency funding for education."

EDU members believe that entering into bargaining with a position that cuts must be made is a defeatist position. More importantly, accepting the budgetary framework laid out by SFUSD doesn't prepare our members to wage a battle against local and state politicians who are ready to pull the trigger to make the cuts.

CERTAINLY, WITH unions across the country making concessions to try to stave off layoffs, it won't be easy for UESF to urge our members to fight back. But with further cuts in the pipeline and school privatization being pushed by President Barack Obama's Race to the Top program, UESF must begin now to organize our members for the prolonged fightback necessary to turn the tide.

This is why organizing for the March 4 statewide day of action to defend public education is so important. To its credit, UESF has endorsed March 4 and helped convince the California Teachers Association to back it as well.

UESF has called for a rally March 4 at the state building downtown at 4 p.m., followed by a march to a larger rally called by a faculty union at the Civic Center at 5 p.m. UESF has called on members at all school sites to participate in the day of action and take actions throughout the day.

These are important steps. But UESF has yet to make March 4 an organizing priority at the site level. UESF should be organizing both staff and members to visit sites across the school district to organize turnout for the day, but also to help build the most militant, organized actions possible at given sites.

UESF should also call the bluff of Superintendent Garcia and the Board of Education. If they are serious about wanting to work alongside our union to pressure the legislature for funding for education, they should support the March 4 action by sanctioning the early release of UESF members that day.

In any case, UESF should call for a day of "no work" on March 4 and turn the day into a massive San Francisco-wide teach-in on the budget and implications of cutting education at all levels.

But activists aren't waiting for union officials to act. EDU has been vigorously organizing actions at the sites where its members work and to do the base building among the rank and file at school sites. The groundwork is already being laid for many school sites in the city to launch an array of actions, including leafleting, teach-ins, sickouts, walkouts and marches to the downtown rally on March 4.

It's clear that on March 4, there will be a historic outpouring of anger and outrage across the state at the scale of cuts. Even more important are the activist networks forming to build for this action. These networks are the building blocks necessary to sustain a grassroots movement to put pressure on the politicians in Sacramento to fully fund public education at all levels.

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