Where's teacher?

Layoffs at Horace Mann show how low SFUSD's proposed budget is willing to go

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By Brady Welch

news@sfbg.com

Horace Mann Middle School principal Mark Sanchez sounded exhausted when we reached him on March 26. It wasn't because Horace Mann is such a tough school, although the Mission District campus does have a disproportionate number of at-risk students. And it wasn't because it was the Friday before spring break, although that might have had something to do with it.

All week Sanchez had been reeling from news that a whopping 10 out of his 20 full-time teachers had been issued pink slips by the San Francisco Unified School District. Including counselors, a vice principal, and other staff, the budget cuts essentially lopped off 24.6 percent of the school's workforce, an unprecedented blow that speaks volumes about the state of California public education.

"A lot of the kids were wondering if the school was getting shut down," Sanchez said. And although Horace Mann isn't closing, with so many axed teachers, it might seem like a new school to many students come August. "If a significant number [of teachers] are moved, we don't know what we're in for."

There is a legend that you will meet the person who will seal your fate long before the final event happens. And in an interesting turn of events, it was Sanchez who, as president of the Board of Education in 2007, hired current SFUSD Superintendent Carlos Garcia. Attempting to close a staggering $113 million budget gap over the next two years, it fell to Garcia on Feb. 23 to send out 645 layoff notices across the district in a list that included 163 administrators, 239 elementary school teachers, 124 high school teachers, and 104 middles school positions. Horace Mann was hit particularly hard because so many of its staff lacked seniority. Final decisions on layoffs will be made next month by the school board.

The first indications of this massive fiscal blood-letting came Jan. 20, when Garcia sent a letter to the entire district on learning of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget. The document was a glaring reminder of how bad things had gotten in Sacramento, and the superintendent wrote candidly of what he saw and what it meant for the district. "These numbers are large, and they will be devastating."

Aside from the extraordinary blow to personnel, the proposed SFUSD budget will increase class sizes, freeze salaries, cancel summer school except for those who need credits to graduate, and reduce the number of days of classroom instruction to 175 annually, putting the district in conflict with a state law mandating at least 180 days. Given its deep cuts, Sacramento probably won't enforce the statute.

"The state itself is in such a budget crisis," Sanchez told us. "And [it's] refusing to raise taxes. The fix has to be at the state level."

But that's been difficult since the passage of Proposition 13, the 1978 measure that limits property tax increases and gives control of whatever revenue is generated directly to the state. Because all state budgets must pass the Legislature with a two-thirds super-majority vote, a disciplined minority of virulently antitax Republicans block budgets that adequately fund education nearly every time.

Yet now, the bill for that political stalemate is coming due at schools like Horace Mann.

Beyond the numbers and politics, the Guardian wanted to get a closer look at how this regular cycle of cuts and layoffs is affecting teachers and students, so we spoke to a couple of eighth grade English teachers at Horace Mann who described it as dismal.