Budget Crisis Threatens Youth-Serving Groups

City Department Drops Mission Science Workshop and Many Other Nonprofits

By Alex Emslie
The Guardsman

The mayor’s scramble to close San Francisco’s $483 million projected deficit hit home for many youth-serving community organizations with the recent cuts to the Department of Youth, Children and Their Families budget.

Many nonprofits dependent on DCYF allocations to stay afloat were not awarded any grants. That’s the situation the Mission Science Workshop — a hands-on science program with City College roots — is in today.

“The Mission Science situation is critical in that, without the DCYF funding, they might shut their doors,” said Kathleen White, chair of City College’s child development and family studies department, a Mission Science Workshop partner.

Dan Sudran, the workshop’s founder, said he expected some level of cuts to public funding of his program, but he didn’t expect to lose half his budget — the yearly $120,000 the workshop receives from DCYF. The rest of the workshop’s funding comes from private donations and grants.

Beginning June 30, the end of San Francisco’s current fiscal year, many child- and youth-serving community-based organizations will see city funding drastically reduced or eliminated if the current budget is approved. These programs provide a wide range of services to San Francisco children and their families, like violence prevention, mentoring, job training and educational support.

“We’ve always really thrived in San Francisco,” Sudran said. “This is the first time we’ve ever really got a blow on the head, which is what it feels like.”

DCYF cuts

The DCYF website states that $20 million was available to award for the next fiscal year, but requests for funding totaled approximately $72 million.

“In terms of funding, we literally don’t have the money,” DCYF Director Maria Su told the city Board of Supervisors budget committee on April 28. “We’re looking at an $11 million reduction to our budget.”

Supervisors David Campos, Ross Mirkarimi, and budget committee chair John Avalos agreed the cuts to the DCYF budget were unreasonable, and that the department should be exempt from the mayor’s request that all city departments submit a 20 percent budget reduction for next year.

The mayor must submit next year’s budget to the board by June 1 and then approve a final budget by July 30.

“A lot of people in this room did not get what they requested in our Requests for Proposals process, and there are a lot of people in this room who provide high quality programs,” Su said to the committee chamber packed with community-based organization representatives waiting to testify about cuts to their program. “We just ran out of money.”

She defended the DCYF decision-making process, which uses an assessment of social and economic factors concerning San Francisco youth by neighborhood to choose the amount of money awarded to programs, stressing the need to maintain the quality of the programs that will be funded.

“It made no sense for us to give everyone $20,000 grants,” she said.

But Sudran said being completely dropped by the city would hurt his ability to acquire private funding.

“Our feeling is that even if it was a small amount, it could make a huge difference,” he said. “It’s kind of embarrassing when you go to a corporation or a private foundation and they want to know how sustainable you are and you can’t even say that the city is supporting you. In fact, if they look into it, they can see that the city actually dropped you like a ton of bricks, like you were infected or something.”

The Mission Science Workshop’s staff of three serves about 3,000 children yearly, mostly from Mission district schools belonging to San Francisco Unified School District — 2.5 times the service requirement set by the DCYF.

“They’re so into quality controls and performance standards,” Sudran said. “Then when you not only comply with them all but you actually over-perform, this is what you get?”

Early activation

There is a social justice aspect to providing early activation in science learning to children, White said.

“One critical issue is that we have an achievement gap in science,” she said. “In many low-income areas in San Francisco — the Mission being one of them — our kids don’t do as well in science.”

California ranked second lowest of all states on eighth grade science achievement, only above Mississippi, according to a 2005 National Center for Education Statistics assessment.

A 2007 UC Berkeley study titled “The Status of Science Education in Bay Area Elementary Schools” described early activation in scientific curiosity as a crucial aspect to improving California’s low science performance rate.

“They’ve sort of determined that the crucial age for getting people interested in science is between 5 and 12 years old,” Sudran said. “If you haven’t done it by then, it’s a really low probability that you’re ever really going to be able to do it.”

White said the social benefit of housing a hands-on science center in a neighborhood where science achievement has been historically low is “kind of a no brainer.”

“I understand from a developmental point of view that all children should be scientists and they begin to be scientists as soon as they start talking,” she said. “They ask questions about the natural world and the order of things, and that kind of curiosity should be fostered. That’s very related to learning, and learning is very related to success.”

Facing extensive cuts within their department and a much greater need due to the recession, the DCYF is facing a “perfect storm” of economic conditions, White said.

“You have less money, more need and fewer people to get the money out,” she said. “It’s really just this process, and if the process isn’t fully supported, it’s destined to be problematic.”

Worst case scenarios

San Francisco’s budget is not yet finalized, and there is still a possibility that money could be added back into the DCYF budget. Supervisors Bevin Dufty, David Campos and Sophie Maxwell introduced a resolution requesting the city controller’s office to conduct a review of DCYF’s award decisions to present to the board in time to adjust the 2010-11 budget.

“Some of the choices that are embedded in this proposal are not only wrong, but I actually think they’re dangerous because they leave communities with high levels of need without programs that are not only good programs, but are actually vital to the health and safety of those neighborhoods,” Campos said.

While “add-backs” to the DCYF resulting in some restoration of funding would help the Mission Science Workshop and other youth-serving non-profits, the budget maneuver only covers next year. DCYF grant awards cover the next three years.  Even with some add-backs, community based organizations would have no guarantee of funding for 2011-12, when the city’s budget deficit is projected to top $750 million, or for the following year.

Meanwhile, Sudran splits his time between doing what he loves, teaching science to kids in the Mission, and advocating for funding for his program. He is also actively planning for additional community science workshops in California through a grant from the S. D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation.

The worst case scenario is if the current budget passes, he said, meaning no add-backs or restoration of funding, and the workshop would be cut off from city funding for the next three years.

“We would figure out how to continue,” Sudran said. “I don’t think I could imagine ditching the program.”

Sudran said he would be left with the option of firing the workshop’s two employees and running it himself, serving less than one third of the children he does now, or forgoing his own salary and benefits and registering for social security and medicare to support himself. Or a private donor could cover the loss.

“Crisis can be opportunity,” Sudran said. “We’ve exponentially increased our amount of outreach because of this crisis. All kinds of people are finding out about us that didn’t know, including a number of supervisors who didn’t know about this program. Now they do, or they’re going to know. The mayor is for sure going to know.”

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