School Beat: Say What? SFUSD’s Painful Communication Gaps

by Lisa Schiff on October 2, 2008

Communication. It’s the Achilles Heel of the San Francisco Unified School District (SFSUD). Even in a near-utopian world of full funding and an equitable distribution of education resources, it would be a safe bet that on any given matter parents and school communities in the SFUSD would still only be brought into conversations about our children as an afterthought. This is probably true of most school districts, but San Francisco is where we live, and San Franciscan’s demand more of their government.

The communication breakdowns range from the small to the large. In recent memory, the most significant missteps and silences were associated with the painful school closure process from several years ago. A more recent example is the “Flynnarado” immersion assignment fiasco, reported on in last week’s column and about which more columns will appear in the future.

A smaller incident, in terms of number of families affected though not in terms of the impact itself, was the situation last year with Excelsior and Denman Middle Schools. Right at the end of the first round of student assignments, after most families have accepted placements and fewer options remain, Excelsior was essentially closed by being “merged’ with the International Studies Academy (ISA) across town and its previous space was given to City Arts and Technology Charter School. The Denman community was belatedly informed that it would now share its facility with Leadership High School, a charter school, in a “co-location” arrangement.

Even this too-late-in-the-game amount of information may not have been forthcoming had activist parents and advocates not pushed the district to start talking with the community about what was going on and what options were available. When asked about this at a Parents for Public Schools community event a few months later, Superintendent Garcia invoked constraints imposed by charter school related laws (Proposition 39) about facility requirements that school districts must meet, including allowing charter schools to “shop around” for desired space.

Given the twisted nature of education legislation such an absurd possibility is not implausible. However, the Proposition 39 requirements and the related section of the California Code of Regulations (5 CCR Section 11969.3) that discuss facilities for charter schools make no mention of such constraints. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, laying out conditions and timelines by which charter schools and districts must negotiate and make decisions about space requests. The dates are quite clear:

November 1: Charter schools must submit facilities requests in writing: “To receive facilities during a particular fiscal year, a charter school must submit a written facilities request to the school district on or before November 1 of the preceding fiscal year.”

December 1: The school district must respond to charter requests: “The school district shall review the charter school’s projections of in-district and total ADA and in-district and total classroom ADA and, on or before December 1.”

January 2: Charter schools must respond to district objections: “On or before January 2, the charter school shall respond to any objections expressed by the school district and to the district’s projections provided pursuant to subdivision”

February 1: Districts must have written proposals to meet space requests: “On or before February 1, the school district shall prepare in writing a preliminary proposal regarding the space to be allocated to the charter school and/or to which the charter school is to be provided access.”

March 1: Charter schools must respond to the district’s written proposal: “On or before March 1, the charter school shall respond in writing to the school district’s preliminary proposal made pursuant to subdivision (f), expressing any concerns, addressing differences between the preliminary proposal and the charter school’s facilities request as submitted pursuant to subdivision (b), and/or making counter proposals.”

April 1: Districts must make a final offering: “On or before April 1, having reviewed any concerns and/or counter proposals made by the charter school pursuant to subdivision (g), the school district shall submit in writing a final notification of the space offered to the charter school.”

May 1: Charter schools must accept or decline the facilities offer: “The charter school must notify the school district in writing whether or not it intends to occupy the offered space. This notification must occur by May 1 or 30 days after the school district notification pursuant to subdivision (h), whichever is later. The charter school’s notification can be withdrawn or modified before this deadline.”

With such a well-structured timeline in the education code, there is absolutely no reason why parents and communities can’t be involved and informed much earlier in these facilities decisions. A reasonable step would be to make public and easily accessible any actions associated with the above deadlines on the part of charter schools and the district. Without such transparency, school communities will be taken by surprise, parents will have little time to make adjustments and adapt to new circumstances, and a background feeling of uncertainty around the stability of our schools will permeate some sites.

Critics of charter schools may jump at this as an example of how charter schools make life difficult for public school systems, but that would be missing the point. The lack of communication with affected school families has nothing to do with the charter schools and everything to do with how frequently the district fails to support parents as decision makers concerning issues affecting their kids. As evidence of this, we have only to look back to the handling of the mis-assignments in this past school year.

Charter schools are a part of our educational system now and the right of eligible charter schools to request adequate facilities is just simply a reality to be contended with. Making the meeting of associated requirements painful and confusing does nothing to challenge the charter system; using charter schools as an excuse for once again failing to adequately inform and involve parents only serves to weaken our entire public school system.

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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