By Tim Redmond
There’s a serious battle brewing over the re-authorization of the Children’s Fund and the city’s funding for public schools, possibly pitting the mayor and some of the supervisors against a grassroots coalition that has spent more than a year preparing reports and studies showing how the fund should be expanded.
The Children’s Fund, approved by the voters in 1991 and reauthorized in 2000, sets aside three percent of San Francisco’s property tax money for services for children and youth. It expires next year, and pretty much everyone at City Hall agrees it has been a success and should be extended.
The city also sends money to the public schools through the Public Education and Enrichment Fund, which pays for music, arts, sports, preschool and other programs that the low levels of state support can’t cover. That’s up for re-authorization too.
The Children’s Funding Community Coalition is asking for three major changes to the Children’s Fund: An increase in the fund from 3 cents per dollar of assessed value to 5 cents, the addition of services to some at-risk youth as old as 24 – and a new commission to oversee the Department of Children, Youth and Families and monitor the spending of some $50 million a year.
That would add another $30 million or so the money allocated entirely for children and youth services – and would take some of the authority for spending the money away from the mayor.
The group wants to extend the PEEF and make it more stable.
The coalition has hundreds of people involved, from community-based groups all over the city. It’s a grassroots group that is completely united behind the effort to expand and improve the two funding sources.
But just as the coalition was working on its plan, Mayor Ed Lee and School Superintendent Richard Carranza engaged a company called Learning for Action to conduct a “stakeholder” study of children’s services and needs. The results would be used to frame discussion on the re-authorization of the two funding programs.
The result is a report called Our Children, Our City – funded (and it must have cost six figures or more) by local foundations. It’s a remarkable document, in that it says almost nothing about the three critical areas the community-based coalition addressed – increased resources, a more open governance structure, and expanded services. Instead, it contains recommendations like this:
“We need to become more intentional and smarter about how we collaborate in order to capture more value from existing and future resources” and “we should adopt a more holistic approach to learning in order to support educational attainment and college and career readiness.”
It specifically declines to recommend increases in either fund, only saying that the level of support for children’s programs should be carefully discussed.
“The recommendations are really broad, but have nothing to do with the legislation at hand,” Chelsea Boilard, program director at Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth and a leader in the grassroots campaign.
And instead of putting a commission with appointments split between the mayor and the supervisors in charge of city spending on children and youth, Lee and Carranza are proposing a new Children and Families Council, chaired (of course) by the mayor and the superintendent, with sweeping authority to “craft the citywide vision, goals, and strategies” for spending on programs for families and youth.
There might be some sort of commission under that umbrella, but maybe not.
One of the main things that the Our Children, Our City group concluded is that everyone needs more help navigating the public school system and that services ought to be better coordinated. Nobody disagrees with either of those conclusions, but it hardly seems as if it should have taken eight months of intense work to discover.
In fact, Margaret Brodkin, who was the primary author of the Children’s Fund in 1991, told me that the process the mayor and the superintendent pushed “didn’t get us anywhere.”
Instead, she said, “any rational person will tell you that we need more money.”
The facts are pretty well documented. Although the Children’s Fund has been a tremendous success, economic inequality continues to increase in San Francisco, putting more and more pressure on services, especially for lower-income people. According to the coalition, one-third of all Latino and African American children in San Francisco live below the poverty line, and child poverty has increased 14 percent in the past five years. And that’s counting the official definition of poverty ($35,000 for a family of four in SF); when you look at actual housing prices, the number of needy families is a good bit higher.
Meanwhile, the state has cut local funding for child care and other services dramatically, and even the mayor and the superintendent agree that existing resources aren’t enough to meet current and future needs.
The coalition reports that there are 3,150 families on the wait list for subsidized child care, and that’s increased 130 percent over the past eight years. Some 2,600 kids need after-school programs, and 20,000 lack any sort of summer programming.
And there’s the challenge of serving the at-risk youth between 18 and 24, whose needs are not currently addressed by the Children’s Fund. There are 9,000 people of that age group in San Francisco who are neither working nor in school. Some of those young people were in foster care, and homeless and LBGT youth are disproportionately in that group.
The voters of San Francisco appear to agree that more money is needed: A recent poll by Tulchin Research shows that 74 percent of likely voters support expanding the fund for 3 percent to 5 percent and including 18-24-year-olds in the group targeted for services.
But there’s no word from the Mayor’s Office on whether Lee will support those goals. “We haven’t heard any response from them,” said Boilard.
Sup. Norman Yee is taking the lead on carrying legislation to reauthorize the funds, but he’s not sure yet exactly what his bill or bills will look like. It’s not clear if there will be one combined measure on the ballot this fall, or two measures. The Mayor’s Office apparently wants the new structure enshrined in the City Charter; the community coalition isn’t so sure.
And the way this has all played out is making some activists unhappy.
“The Children’s Fund came from the grassroots,” Sup. John Avalos told me. “Now the mayor wants to assert his top-down approach.
“I call it the Ivory Tower Plan. A ‘we know best’ approach is not in the best interest of the Children’s Fund.”
The Mayor’s Office has declined to respond to my questions on the issue. Christine Falvey, the mayor’s press secretary, told me recently that she’s so busy with press calls that it takes time to answer them all. I’ve given her more than a week; no word.
Yee told me he’s still working on the exact legislation and its form, but said he’s not sure the advocates will get the funding increase they seek. “For me, it’s something that the city is going to have to look at the hard numbers,” he said.
He defended the idea of creating the mayoral-led Children’s Council: “It’s going beyond children’s services,” he said “How do we increase the population of children in the city? What is the infrastructure?” He said the only way “to get departments to do anything” is to have the mayor in charge.
And Yee is already scheduling a fundraiser for April 30, seeking sponsors from $1,000 to $25,000, with checks going to the Our Children Our City Fund. That’s not, of today, a campaign committee registered with the city or the state. Yee said he’s in the process of registering a committee, which would make the fundraising efforts perfectly legal.
The problem is, nobody knows at this point what he’s raising funds for.
Yee told me that if there are two measures on the ballot, one for the Children’s Fund and one for PEEF, he’ll split the money between them. But what if the community advocates and the mayor wind up with competing visions – and possible competing ballot measures?
It’s particularly challenging since City Hall sources tell me that mayor isn’t likely to accept more than a modest, token increase in the Children’s Fund leaving the community coalition to accept what the mayor offers or seek a different plan.
“We have a lot of questions about this,” Boilard said. “There really isn’t a ballot measure yet. It’s as if the assumption is that all the decisions have been made.”
Brodkin was even more forceful. “This,” she said, “is the worst process I have ever seen.”