Chan is Best Choice to Replace Ackerman

by Randy Shaw on September 13, 2005

San Francisco School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman is leaving her job in June, and attention has turned to who will succeed her. Fortunately, the district already has an excellent replacement: deputy superintendent Gwen Chan. A former teacher, longtime principal, and 38-year district veteran, Chan is popular with both the central administrative staff and the parent community. But despite her stellar qualifications,Chan faces two obstacles: she lacks the star quality of a candidate from another city chosen after a national search, and she is a team player who lacks the authoritarian personality of prior SF Superintendents. Can a person who acknowledges never having sought any of the many promotions she has received win out over less qualified but more ambitious competitors?

The San Francisco Board of Education has not gotten the praise it deserves for its handling of the increasingly volatile Arlene Ackerman. The Board should now build on Ackerman’s successes without the accompanying controversies by convincing Gwen Chan to take on the Superintendent’s job.

Chan is not widely known outside the educational community, but if a secret ballot vote were held among district employees and active parents, she would win the race for Superintendent in a landslide. Chan is precisely the type of person that San Francisco’s school system needs: she is not identified with any political faction, she has won praise as both a teacher and administrator, and she puts the kids, rather than her own prerogatives, first..

While these traits would seem to favor Chan’s selection, San Francisco has historically avoided hiring Superintendents from within. The city has instead preferred to bring in a leader from another city, a process that worked well for years with Ackerman (who came from Washington, D.C.) but which has allowed terrible Superintendents like Bill Rojas and Walter Marks to go from city to city screwing up children’s lives.

San Francisco School Board’s have long been star struck. They have selected strong personalities like Robert Alioto, Ramon Cortines, the disastrous Bill Rojas, and Ackerman on the theory that such authority figures were necessary to make the district run on time.

Chan, in contrast, prefers the collaborative approach. She told the SF Examiner earlier this year that she had never sought any of the promotions she received, something which certainly could not be said about her predecessors.

But given the longstanding conflicts within the school district, and the internal differences on the Board, Chan’s collaborative approach is exactly what is needed. While Board members Sanchez, Mar and Lipson have been criticized in the media over their alleged “interference” with Ackerman, the Superintendent should be held accountable by the elected Board and collaboration, not the top-down autocracy customary in the district, should prevail.

Frankly, one reason San Francisco schools were so messed up for so long was that the Board members simply rubber-stamped the policies of the various all-powerful Superintendents. We should be grateful to now have a Board that cares what parents, teachers, staff and students think, and who is willing to independently evaluate the Superintendent’s plans.

We should also be grateful that at this time in the city’s history the best-qualified Superintendent candidate is an Asian-American woman. I am not aware if Chan would be the first Asian-American to hold the job in San Francisco, but given the demographics of the district, a Superintendent from the Asian-American community is long overdue.

The only name other than Chan’s being discussed for the Superintendent’s job is Supervisor Tom Ammiano.

It is hard for me to believe that Ammiano even wants this position. Although Ammiano’s contributions to the school district merit the erection of a statue in his honor, or the renaming of a school in his honor, he lacks the administrative experience for the position.

Unfortunately, education is a field where many deem professional expertise irrevelant; after all, don’t parents know what’s best for their kids? But most parents have no clue as to what is involved in running a major urban school district, which is why Superintendent’s are either longtime educators or people who have experience running large organizations.

Tom Ammiano has neither of these qualifications, and, as stated, is unlikely to even want the job.

When Ackerman was hired, her top competitor was Henry Der. Der is familiar to many San Franciscans as the leader of Chinese for Affirmative Action, and has experience working on education issues at the state level.

But Der has nowhere near the administrative experience as Chan, and to my knowledge has not previously worked as a teacher, principal or administrator in the San Francisco Unified School District. Der could well have been a good choice in the last interview cycle, but he lacks the demonstrated district track record of Chan.

The San Francisco School Board has the most competent and caring members in its history, and it is sad to see people like Jill Wynns and Dan Kelly fighting with Mark Sanchez and Eric Mar—all of these folks want only the best for kids. To remedy this often deep internal Board conflict, a Superintendent is needed who is seen as being above politics and not aligned with any “faction.”

Gwen Chan is this person. She may not stay for a decade, but she will provide the stability, direction, and unity the district desperately needs as it battles for the increased state funding necessary to cure California’s educational deficiencies.

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