Mayor Lee's priorities are wrong

Our schools face the worst budget cuts ever.

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By Margaret Brodkin

OPINION There was much back slapping at City Hall last week as officials congratulated themselves on what was described as a welcome "philosophical shift" in San Francisco politics.

The beneficiary of the acclaim and virtual political consensus was Mayor Ed Lee's proposed budget, the largest in history — including an unexpected windfall of new revenue. The budget's signature element, described in glowing terms by the San Francisco Chronicle's C.W. Nevius and warranting its own special mayoral press conference, is the expansion of the police and fire budgets — an $82 million increase over two years.

Amid last week's ovations was an unsettling silence from voices normally willing to cut through obscure numbers and rhetoric. Not one official commented that the best way to ensure public safety is to build strong children, families, and communities.

The cumulative impact of the devastating state budget and years of inadequate funding on families and children should not permit celebration. In light of millions in unanticipated revenue, politicians should not be satisfied with addressing urgent needs simply by sparing a few city departments from cuts, as appeared to be the case. Here's what they should be thinking about:

• Our schools face the worst budget cuts ever, with SFUSD preparing to lay off 400 employees, reduce the already-too-short school year, increase class size, eliminate most school bus lines and all high school after-school programs, and under-fund everything from food to special education.

• Our childcare system is being gutted by the state, with $20 million in losses this year on top of $9 million from last year. This will impact thousands of families and result in the closure of centers and family childcare homes. Many fewer parents will be eligible for childcare subsidies (no one with two kids earning more than $37,500 a year will qualify) — pushing parents out of work and onto "welfare," and children out of quality care and into unsafe settings.

• Support systems for children with disabilities are being eliminated and reduced through simultaneous cuts in multiple agencies.

• Young people entering community colleges or state universities face years of uncertainty — including whether their campuses will even exist. Already, the majority of SF students who enter City College are unable to graduate — stymied by costs, lack of educational support, or the inability to get classes they need.

It appears that little of the new millions will address these problems. The mayor's budget does not even fully fund the voter-approved Public Education Enrichment Fund, passed in 2004 to provide essential services to public schools and preschools. Funding falls short by more than $10 million. Providing schools the funds to which they are legally entitled is the least we can do when the city lands millions in new resources.

Let's be clear: crime is at historic lows — and has gotten that way with 200 fewer officers than the mayor is now advancing. There is little rationale to suddenly swell the ranks, at a cost of $140,000 per officer. The Fire Department's inefficiencies have been well documented by city budget experts, and many cost-saving recommendations have yet to be implemented.

Before signing off on a budget they have not yet discussed in public (as it appeared to last week), the Board of Supervisors must evaluate fiscal options in full view. Private meetings with the mayor are no substitute for a robust debate now that the revenue facts are known. This is the city's first two-year budget, and its policy direction will impact us all for years to come.

What looks to Nevius like a positive "drama-free, signature moment" for San Francisco, looks to many advocates for children and families like an abdication of responsibility.