School Beat: Don’t Forget the School Board Election

by Lisa Schiff on October 9, 2008

In the midst of what may be one of the most important presidential elections in recent memory, it can be hard to pay attention to much else. That may be why the crowd was thin this past Tuesday at a panel discussion of candidates for the Board of Education (BOE) of the San Francisco Unified School District (SFSUD). Though the event held at Everett Middle School was sponsored by a host of well-known and respected community groups involved with families and education and normally would have filled much more of Everett’s ample auditorium, it was competing with the much anticipated second debate between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama.

That’s a hard act to beat, and many of us in the audience were wishing we could have been in two places at the same time. But those of us who decided to forgo the important presidential debate made the choice to listen to the ideas and visions of this full slate of candidates, because we realize how much of a difference each individual who may win one of these four positions can make to the lives of our children, next year and well into the future.

Four seats are up for grabs this November, two that are entirely open and two that are currently filled by incumbents Jill Wynns and Norman Yee who are seeking re-election. Out of the thirteen invited candidates, only one (Harold Brown) failed to show. The participation of the remaining twelve hopefuls made the forum an excellent opportunity to get a solid feel for almost the entire field at one time.

Such full participation by the candidates and the excellent spectrum of critical “heart-of-the-matter” questions made Tuesday night’s event one of the most successful and useful of BOE forums over many past election cycles. Panelists had to answer a few randomly assigned questions that had been crafted by the sponsors, and then were given a selection of questions submitted by audience members. Moderator Lisa Villarreal, Program Office for Education with the San Francisco Foundation, successfully managed the evening so that candidates were treated equally and stuck to their time limits.

The topics addressed were all of the priority issues facing our district today, issues on which San Franciscans are anxious for much progress to be made. Many of the questions clustered around the issue of academic equity—closing the achievement gap; supporting the implementation of the strategic plan which has the achievement gap as one of its core focuses; better serving English language learners and recent immigrant students; attracting, retaining and continually supporting the professional development of teaching staff especially in struggling schools.

All candidates agreed on the significance of these areas of work and most seemed hopeful that the district’s evolving strategic plan, which is now being developed at the school site level, holds the potential for supporting solid movement. Hitting a reassuring note of cautious optimism, some of the candidates subtly alluded to a concern shared by many of the rest of us, namely that the strategic plan is still at the beginning stages with much left to flesh out before that potential can really be counted on.

Another area of focus was on the budget, particularly what kinds of cuts candidates would seek to make in lieu of closing schools and scaling back program offerings. This question, although so important to all of us, is almost impossible for any candidate to answer, because until one is sitting on the board with full access to financial information and staff resources, specific answers can only be considered indicators of general values as opposed to concrete proposals.

Student assignment, as expected, was the third in a trio of pivotal concerns, appearing not only as a specific question (in terms of creating an equitable and transparent system), but also as a potential solution to other public education challenges such as truancy and the achievement gap. Variations of neighborhood school assignment strategies were invoked, from traditional neighborhood schools with some degree of choice, to assignment zones.

These are ideas which have surfaced and resurfaced many times over the last many years, but none has taken hold. Crafting the next student assignment plan is going to occupy a significant portion of BOE attention (as it has always done), and clearly a new plan is required. But, as we know all too well, a student assignment policy cannot on its own accomplish the panoply of policy goals that we seem to hang on it—the achievement gap, diversified student bodies, close school-community connections and reduced truancy. An assignment policy is surely a piece of the solution, but that is all.

One hot-button issue, JROTC and its fate in the SFUSD, did not get addressed in any of the formal questions, but only got raised in the responses of candidates near the end of the event. Given the “air time” JROTC is receiving these days from all sides of the spectrum, the focus on other core issues was quite welcome.

For those who have not been able to attend any of the panels for the school board candidates and who want a source of information other than endorsements and candidate websites, check out the parent interviews by “Sr. Dad” to get a closer look at what the candidates have to say.

The implications of the BOE elections are certainly not of national dimensions, but they will be significant for the future of San Francisco’s children and their families. A new assignment policy and the implementation of programs aligned to the unfolding strategic plan will profoundly shape our district and its schools for years to come. These ballot choices then, are just as important as any others we will make on November 4th.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA and is a board member at the national level of Parents for Public Schools.

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