School Beat: Electing San Francisco’s Next Board of Education

by Lisa Schiff on September 20, 2012

One of many decisions San Francisco voters will make in the upcoming 2012 elections is who to cast votes for in the Board of Education race for the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). Four seats are available, three incumbents hope to be returned for another term, and eight additional candidates each aspire to fill one of those spots for the first time.

The eleven qualified candidates represent an interesting mix of individuals, as can be seen by even a quick perusal of each of their websites. Their collective backgrounds span a wide range of activities, from community organizing, teaching, public policy administration, public service, full-time parenting and more. As incumbents, Sandra Fewer, Rachael Norton, and Jill Wynns bring not only their particular areas of concern and interest, but the invaluable first-hand knowledge of what being a school board member actually entails. In Wynns’ case, she has accumulated this experience since first joining the BOE in 1993 so has a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge. Sandra Fewer has been a great advocate for student voices and perspectives, and has been the lead on significant efforts like introducing ethnic studies at the high school level. Rachel Norton has spearheaded special education improvements, particularly championing bringing inclusion to all schools and transforming special education from a program to a service. Norton has also provided an invaluable public service with her blog, which she regularly updates with summaries of each school board meeting and where she also takes the time to respond to questions and comments from readers.

Unlike their new-to-the-field competitors, the incumbents can also be evaluated on their voting records. A decision regarding layoff notices earlier in the year is turning out to be a significant factor in the race this fall. The teachers’ union, United Educators of San Francisco (UESF), has decided not to endorse any of the incumbents based on the hard decision the BOE made this past February to override seniority for layoffs at “Superintendent’s Zone” schools – lower performing schools that have had extra resources devoted to them. (See Commission Norton’s description of that BOE meeting.) While that vote was eventually overturned, the fallout remains as evidenced by UESF’s endorsements. But not everyone agrees with UESF’s perspective. Coleman Advocates, an organization with a great history of organizing and advocacy on behalf of struggling communities, came out in support of the BOE’s vote, while at the same time recognizing the importance of teachers and the union and the difficulty of the BOE’s decision.

When the layoff notices ultimately went out, according to the SFUSD the Superintendent Zone schools were disproportionately affected, with 1 out of 3 notices going to teachers at those 14 schools. This underscores a familiar problem and one that the next BOE incarnation might want to reprioritize–the mix of new and experienced teachers is not balanced across our district’s schools. This unevenness presents multiple problems, and not just when layoffs are on the table. For instance, because our district uses average teacher salaries for school-based budgeting, schools that have a greater percentage of new teachers who receive lower salaries are funding schools that have a greater percentage of more experienced teachers who receive higher salaries. Schools with a large percentage of struggling students, often have a greater percentage of newer teachers, but because the averaging of salaries, they are in essence underwriting the salaries of teachers at other schools. Education Trust West has identified this as the “hidden gap” of resources. Seniority is not at all the problem here, but is instead a factor that when focused on reveals all sorts of structural inequities.

Experience with the board and the district counts for a lot, but it’s not the only thing that matters. What a candidate sees as priorities; additional skills, knowledge and perspectives that he or she can bring to the table; and how well that individual grasps the responsibilities and limitations of a school board itself are all important. These are just some of the reasons why non-incumbents need to be looked at just as seriously as incumbents. Candidate websites (available from the official list of qualified candidates) are starting point for information about what these individuals might contribute. A more revealing source of data can be found in the San Francisco Bay Guardian endorsement interviews, which they make available as interviews are conducted.

One notable recent change in BOE elections is in the presence of candidates with children currently enrolled in the SFUSD. Not so long ago this critical parent perspective was missing from the board and from candidate pools. In this current race, parents of current SFUSD students include incumbent Rachel Norton and newcomer candidates Kim Garcia-Mezza, Beverly Popek, Sam Rodriguez, and Gladys Soto. In addition to the view from a parent’s corner, Kim Garcia-Mezza has also highlighted her years as a teacher and active member in UESF, a perspective that has had less direct representation on the school board for many years.

Evaluating candidates’ qualifications is only meaningful if done relative to the responsibilities of the position. In other words, when looking at these candidates we need to keep in the forefront of our minds what school board members are actually supposed to be doing. According to the California School Board Association, school board members have five overriding responsibilities:

1) Setting the direction for the community’s schools, which means establishing the district’s mission and vision.

2) Establishing an effective and efficient structure for the school district, including hiring the superintendent, setting personnel and other policies, overseeing the adoption of curricula, setting budget priorities and adopting an appropriate budget, and guiding collective bargaining agreements.

3) Providing support, including advancing the agreed upon policies and goals of the district, providing leadership, being knowledgeable about the district, making decisions to support priorities.

4) Ensuring accountability to the public, which includes evaluating the superintendent and setting policies for other personnel evaluations; “monitoring, reviewing and revising policies,” doing the same for student achievement program effectiveness, and the effectiveness of the board itself.

5) Acting as community leaders, which covers not only representing the needs and issues of the district and acting as an advocate, but involving the community in “meaningful ways” and communicating clearly with the district.

Of these five, the task of ensuring accountability stands out as the area requiring the most attention–this is where the SFUSD and the BOE have historically and into the present been the weakest. Mission statements can be compelling, sensible policies can be adopted, bold decisions can be made and resources re-allocated, but without true accountability any of those actions may well be for naught. Without rigorous evaluation–and the communication outward about that evaluation and its results–none of us, including the commissioners making these decisions, have any way of confidently assessing how the district is progressing towards any one of its goals, much less its overall mission.

Accountability means keeping track of programs, decisions and priorities, and folding in to any initiatives appropriate evaluation measures and a commitment to report back on that evaluation effort. Accountability means taking the evaluation and assessment seriously, and acknowledging that along with hoped for progress, we must expect to discover challenges and problems that require rethinking. It means that sometimes we will have to say that something didn’t in fact work and that a new strategy has to be tried or that the issue needs to be analyzed afresh.
Accountability means taking the time to ground decision making in thoughtful, careful analysis. The current debate over honors programs in middle school is a good example of an area that needs some analysis before any decisions can be made. Debate exists over the presence or lack of such programs, but that conversation is taking place without a good, shared understanding of the state and quality of the existing honors classes. What do we expect from such classes? Do those expectations make sense, do the current honors classes meet those, and why or why not? No good decision about honors programs can made without first answering these types of questions.

Structuring evaluation into programs and policy implementations means that it’s hard(er) to lose track of initiatives or have them subtly morph into something else. We’ve experienced this very thing with the Quality Middle Schools initiative, which somehow transformed into a student assignment initiative. The Middle School Feeder Pattern plan is not at all the same thing as an evaluation of the quality and opportunities available at each of our middle schools and a plan to bring them into parity, but that is now where the attention regarding change in middle schools has gone.

2013 will bring just as many hard calls as 2012, including those that are part of any effort to rectify the inequitable distribution of resources across our schools and communities, a problem recognized by all incumbents and candidates. In a setting where need outpaces resources and fairness calls for changes to the way things are, BOE decisions and their results will be rightfully scrutinized. Whatever the composition of the next Board of Education, SFUSD families need those seven commissioners to make the issue of accountability a top priority, because it must provide the foundation of everything else that they do.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the href=”http://www.sfpta.org/”>PTA.

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