School Board Candidates Struggle to Step Out of the Pack

by Paul Hogarth on October 4, 2006

With 15 candidates running for the School Board this November and only three positions available, last night’s forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters felt like the lightning round of an old TV game show. “This is the first time that I have met many of you,” said Dan Kelly to the other candidates. For 90 minutes, the candidates scrounged up on a very crowded panel and gave one-minute answers to four questions on a school district that educates over 60,000 students a year.

As the only incumbent running for re-election, Kelly had to defend the School District’s performance against 14 challengers, six of whom can be considered “serious” candidates. “The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) has tremendously changed from the SFUSD from 16 years ago,” he said. “The district runs better, and children are taught better.”

But one issue that separated Kelly from his challengers was whether future school closures were necessary and if so, what criteria the Board should use. In January, the Board voted to close, merge or relocate 14 schools – including John Swett Elementary in the Western Addition. “The number of children in San Francisco has dropped by 40% in the last 35 years,” explained Kelly, “but there haven’t been a lot of school closures until recently. It’s just not fiscally responsible to keep these under-enrolled schools open.”

“It’s impossible to tell if the school closures were necessary,” replied Kim-Shree Maufas, a parent at Thurgood Marshall High School, “because our district is not directing new students to under-enrolled schools.” Jane Kim, a youth program director, echoed Maufas’ comments by pointing out that the district doesn’t have an enrollment cap at the more popular schools. “We need a two-year plan for school closures like they do in other districts,” said Kim, “not three months.”

Many candidates criticized the district’s priorities of which schools have been closed, alluding that the closures disproportionately affected low-income communities of color. Bob Twomey, whose children attended John Swett Elementary, cited the need for a more “equitable criteria.” Mauricio Vela, a community activist from Bernal Heights, was even more blunt. “We can’t just close schools on the East side of town,” he said.

Candidates also addressed the school district’s racial achievement gap. While white and Asian students graduate with high test scores, black and Latino students continue to lag behind. Kelly and Twomey supported expanding pre-school to help minority children when they are young, but Maufas and Vela stressed the need to make the curriculum more relevant to minorities. Meanwhile, Jane Kim and Kim Knox both said the answer was more funding for after-school programs and voluntary summer schools to engage minority students beyond the classroom.

Candidates also struggled with the need to balance neighborhood schools with the goals of a diverse classroom – and the district’s policy of school assignment. Currently, the School District allows a limited form of “school choice” where parents who enroll their children before March get priority in selecting which school they will attend in the next year. “The early enrollment program is great,” said Maufas, “but minority families don’t know about it.” While Kelly stressed the need to have more outreach to minorities and have them enroll before March, Knox suggested scrapping early enrollment entirely so that they are not put at an unfair advantage.

While the candidates largely focused on the nuts and bolts of School Board policy, one political issue briefly surfaced at the forum. Hydra Mendoza, who serves as the Mayor’s liaison to the School District and says that she will not quit her job if elected, has been criticized by her opponents about the potential conflict-of-interest. Vela brought up this issue in what made for a very awkward moment. As he spoke of his work at the Bernal Heights Pre-School (which is currently housed at a local public library), Vela bitterly complained that “now the Mayor and his candidate are trying to evict us.”

But Mendoza felt that such an attack was unfair. The library, she said, is being completely renovated as part of a grant that comes from the Mayor’s Office of Community Development. “There won’t be enough space for the pre-school when the work is complete,” she explained, “and legally you cannot use library funds to pay for a pre-school program.” Mendoza added that the pre-school will be relocated and re-opened four blocks away at Paul Revere Elementary School, where she feels that it will be more appropriately located.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Prior to joining Beyond Chron, Paul Hogarth personally endorsed the following candidates for School Board: Jane Kim, Kim Knox and Kim-Shree Maufas.

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