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Number Crunch 

Is the school board solving its budget crisis or proving it's math-challenged? Take quiz, find out.

Wednesday, May 4 2005
Last week, after months of tear-filled public comment from teachers, parents, and students, the seven members of the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education -- trying to close a $22 million budget gap by the end of June -- voted to close four of the city's underpopulated schools: Golden Gate Elementary, De Avila Elementary, Franklin Middle School, and Yoey Child Development Center. They spared Malcolm X Elementary and McLaren Child Development Center, targeting schools based on lack of capacity and poor academic performance. Only slightly more than $1 million will be saved in school closures, so board members -- who were reluctant to take up the issue of controversial budget decisions before the election last November -- have also promised cuts to the superintendent's public relations department, a reduction in central administration salaries, and a rollback in consultants' fees. Funding for busing, special education programs, preschool, and nutrition programs could also be on the chopping block. The painful cuts come at a time when board members are squabbling with each other and Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who has clashed with board President Eric Mar especially, over the process for picking which schools to close. Are you an apologist for the state of the school board's financial decision-making? Take our quiz and find out!

1) Although employees at some of the schools selected for closure have long been resigned to their fate, staff members at Golden Gate Elementary in the Western Addition were particularly angered by the board's decision, citing a spike in state test scores despite having a student population of only 96 in an increasingly poverty-stricken neighborhood. As a board member, why would you have shut down the school, seen as a symbol of Ackerman's ability to turn around struggling classrooms with few resources?

A) Simple. Because Arlene didn't want us to.

B) Hey, whatever saves $300,000.

C) For the children.

2) Largely because of high housing costs, San Francisco -- which schools more than 57,000 students -- has been steadily losing population to the suburbs. About 4,000 children have left the school system in the past five years, and another 4,000 are expected to leave in the next five years. How do you think board members should respond to the problem?

A) Follow them right out of town.

B) Hmm ... seems like a good subject for next week.

C) Appear very, very sympathetic to the concerns of parents, teachers, students, and neighborhood groups. Then slash ruthlessly.

3) Critics of the school board, including Ackerman, have accused members of wasting time and resources on largely theoretical issues that are hardly central to the district's pressing issues, such as last year's months-long debate over whether schools should ban irradiated meat in cafeterias. What was your opinion on the issue?

A) I didn't have one. I was too busy pointing out that the school district was banning something it doesn't even serve.

B) Hey, better irradiated meat than Catcher in the Rye. (Bonus point for adding: "And what did you expect when you put a couple of Greens on the board?")

C) I'm just glad we got that settled. I mean, what's worse -- closing a couple of schools and firing a few hundred staff members, or facing a lawsuit because some kid has gotten sick from eating the nonexistent irradiated meat in our cafeterias?

4) In March 2004 new member Heather Hiles -- appointed by Mayor Gavin Newsom to fill a vacant seat -- sounded off to the San Francisco Chronicle about the school board's endless deliberations and internal arguments; she lost her re-election bid in November. Which of her statements fills you with the most hope regarding the state of the school district?

A) "I don't think my colleagues have been taught how to run efficient meetings and stay focused on the business."

B) "I'm really surprised because I've never sat on a board that's so inefficient."

C) "I'm not suggesting that I'm doing anything super, but the bar is so low right now that it's not hard to step over it."

5) Last year several school board members supported a failed proposal by then-Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez to raise their pay from $500 a month to $20,000 a year -- about half the average teacher's salary -- despite the upcoming budget cuts and their own criticism of Ackerman's spending habits. Board members argued that a pay raise would enable candidates from lower-class backgrounds to run for seats, and once on the board, would also allow them to spend more time on issues like the district's $650 million budget. What do you think?

A) But, wait a minute ... isn't the whole problem that they spend too much time on the issues?

B) Makes sense. Only a moron would settle for $500 to sit there and listen to all this crap.

C) Sure, pay 'em more. We can afford it, right?

6) Although the seven members of the school board are divided on most issues, they agree on one thing: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is to blame for the district's budget crunch. The board and education groups accuse Schwarzenegger of reneging on his pledge to reimburse schools $2 billion this year if they agreed to suspend Proposition 98, which funds public schools and community colleges. Now the governor says there's not enough money in the treasury to pay the funds, which would include an additional $69 million for San Francisco. As a board member, what would you have done with that extra money?

A) Save the jobs of the 70 classroom aides who have been laid off, and rescind the notices to the 300 teachers who could lose their jobs.

B) Waste months arguing heatedly about whether it should be best squandered on a massive, ultimately meaningless, half-day protest by students and teachers of Schwarzenegger's plan ... or on new carpeting for the district office.

C) Um, remember that raise for board members we were talking about earlier?

7) Other local school districts -- notably Oakland, San Jose, Contra Costa County, and Sacramento -- have been proactive about closing schools in the face of declining enrollment. Do you think San Francisco should follow their lead and continue an aggressive approach of eliminating underpopulated schools?

A) Why? That would just make practical and financial sense.

B) I think board member Sarah Lipson said it best: "It's not [students'] fault, and it shouldn't be their burden, but we're putting it on them."

C) What do I care? My kids are in private school anyway.

How to score:

Score zero points for every "A" answer, one point for every "B," and two points for every "C."

0-6 points: Look on the bright side -- the 30 percent of the city's children in private schools are at least getting an education.

7-10 points: Sorry, I just can't rock the boat on this one. Because if little Johnny doesn't get assigned to the school my wife wants, I'm a dead man.

11-14 points: Let's be fair. Math was never San Francisco Unified's best subject.

About The Author

Matt Palmquist


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