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Crosscurrents is our award-winning radio news magazine, broadcasting Mondays through Thursdays at 5 p.m. on 91.7 FM. We make joyful, informative stories that engage people across the economic, social, and cultural divides in our community. Click here to listen to full episodes.

What San Francisco Unified Board Meetings Reveal About School Reopening

SFUSD School Board.jpg
San Francisco Unified Board of Education / Marcus Hung, Ben Alexander
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Bay Rising Action
Members of the San Francisco School Board as of January 2021. From top left in clockwise order: Kevine Boggess, Alison Collins, Gabriela López, Matt Alexander, Mark Sanchez, Faauuga Moliga, and Jenny Lam.

On April 12, the San Francisco Unified School District will welcome some of its youngest students back to the classroom. On April 26, some secondary students will return as well. The reopenings are a victory to some. But others say it isn't soon or comprehensive enough.

NOTE: KALW reports independently but our station license is held by the SFUSD.

The San Francisco Board of Education is a group of seven elected commissioners who determine policy for public schools from pre-K through twelfth grade. Together, they oversee and direct the school superintendent, Dr. Vincent Matthews. And it’s Dr. Matthews who runs the day to day operations of the district. If you’ve ever seen the Jedi Council in "Star Wars" approving or denying what the Jedis want to do, the school board and the superintendent are kind of like that.

Being a board member is not a full time job. Board members make about six thousand dollars a year and often hold down full time jobs outside of their work on the board. It’s a position with a fair amount of power, but it also comes with a lot of work. And for almost the last year, the school board has been almost consistently in turmoil over delayed reopening and efforts to promote equity in school names and admissions to its most elite high school. In just the last month, the district’s superintendent, Vincent Matthews, announced his plans to retire in June. Two weeks later, the board voted to strip its vice president, Alison Collins, who is African American, of her title and committee assignments. The vote came after an alumni of Lowell High School found and publicized tweets Collins made in 2016 about anti-blackness in the Asian-American community in a way that many people found offensive, especially at a time when violence against Asian-Americans is dominating news headlines.

A closer look at two board meetings over the last year provide a window into some of the turmoil around reopening. These days, the board meets in public on the second and fourth Tuesday of every month. These meetings are not your average one-hour Zoom session. Sometimes they go on for eight hours. Sometimes they include sweet and moving student art performances. At other times they involve hours of finalizing school employee contracts. Despite how dry some moments can be, these meetings can draw a fairly large audience.

At one recent virtual meeting the facilitator ran into a problem: “We only have capabilities of having 500 people on our webinars. We have exceeded that already.”

These meetings are popular because the decisions made here affect families across the city in a tangible way — like how students are admitted to schools and what they are taught there. The board balances a lot of priorities — what voters want, what teachers want, and what the district has the capacity to do — and, this past year in particular, that balancing act has gotten complicated. It was especially clear at one meeting in June of 2020. A meeting that some believe was the moment the reopening plan went off the tracks. Fours hours after they began, the board took up the first item in Section H, Special Orders of Business.

The item began with a presentation from Daniel Menezes, the Chief Human Resources Officer for the school district. He came to the meeting with the superintendent to request that the board approve money to hire a consultant to help the district manage its planning for reopening. The district had a big task on its hands: To reopen quickly and in a way that includes the preferences of teachers and families, while also meeting ever-changing local, state, and national guidelines. To find the right consultant, district staff solicited proposals over the course of a few months. They received seven and selected one based on that group’s experience and commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. But the district can’t hire an outside consultant, or spend over $50,000, without board approval. So that night, Menezes was there along with other district employees to secure it.

“Can we just please please stop connecting ourselves to folks who are part of the privatization world. I am deeply concerned.”

There was a hitch as there often is in these meetings. It's the moment where the conditions change from smooth sailing to decidedly choppy waters. A moment that often occurs during public comment.

One caller said, “If you look at their partner page, you'll see that they are deeply connected to charter school organizations.”

The consulting group, which applied under the name The Partnership for Planning Group, included people who also worked for an organization called Promise 54. Promise 54 had previously consulted for charter schools, which sometimes divert money and resources away from traditional public schools. Members of the public took issue with association with charter schools.

Another caller echoed the opinions of others, “Can we just please please stop connecting ourselves to folks who are part of the privatization world. I am deeply concerned.”

Then, Susan Soloman, the president of the teachers union, weighed in: “We weren't involved in the selection process. Had we been involved, we could have helped to flag this as an issue.”

Superintendent Matthews tried to calm the concerns of the public by saying, “Almost all, for sure, had some connection with both charters and traditional public schools. The second piece, what we're looking for, was really a project manager. It's not someone who's going to come in and try to start a charter school, but really, it's just a management project.”

But some commissioners, including Alison Collins, had a problem with this. When the conversation turned back to the commissioners, Collins said, “It is concerning to me that we have to hire somebody to do project management. We should be able to do project management. We need to build our own capacity to engage our community and work with families and labor. You know, people are saying invest in black businesses, like, how are we building capacity for homegrown and community based organizations if we continue to spend money on people that are funded by the Walton family foundation?”

The Superintendent replied, “I agree, we want to build ourselves up. But, this is at a time where we knew that we just pretty significantly cut from central. So, this is why we wanted project management assistance on this.”

Here’s where the district was financially at the time this meeting took place: They started the 2019 school year with a $22 million dollar deficit and the onset of the coronavirus almost doubled it. To spare school sites, the board directed most budget cuts to come from the district’s central office. So, employees were let go, and, now, fewer people were available to do district-wide project management.

Commissioner Norton expressed a desire to support the superintendent and what he and his staff said they needed. She said, “I think we're losing sight of the real important underlying issue here. We need to have the best opening we possibly can. I don’t see why adding on difficulty to the staff makes any of that better for our families and our students. So, you know, I don't love who they've worked with, either. To me, that's less important than supporting our superintendent and holding him accountable for making sure he gets this process right.”

Commissioner Collins felt differently: “When we're talking about making this difficult, I'm asking, I want this to be authentic, okay. We've got parents that work for free. You're telling me that some of this money couldn't pay parents? Honestly, we're just perpetuating white supremacy and saying, a firm — we'll pay them a lot of money. And then, the real work is done by people who don't get paid. I've said since the beginning of COVID, we need to do things differently. Now is a good enough time to do it as any, because, you know, we could come up with a plan. And, if it's not based on actual input that's authentic and is co-created with community members then I don't care about a plan. It doesn't matter.”

"Were we counting on this? There's no doubt we were. You know, from our perspective, the staff’s perspective, would it be smoother with this organization leading a facilitated effort for us? Yes.”
San Francisco Unified Superintendent Vincent Matthews

Norton responded, “I just want to say I do care about a plan Commissioner Collins. I mean, I heard Daniel say that, in fact, the consultant was putting together a plan that we would do the outreach and we would be engaging with our families. So, you know, I agree with you.”

Then Board President Mark Sanchez asked what other options existed: “Alright. I hear you, Dr. Matthews, that the other organizations have similar relationships with other folks we don’t appreciate. I’m just wondering, what’s plan B?”

The superintendent said, essentially, there wasn’t one: “I wish I could give you that answer. I mean, we're gonna do everything we can to make that happen. But, were we counting on this? There's no doubt we were. You know, from our perspective, the staff’s perspective, would it be smoother with this organization leading a facilitated effort for us? Yes.”

In the end, funding for a consultant to help with reopening was denied. Commissioners Lam, López, Collins, and Moliga voted against hiring the contractor while Sanchez and Norton voted for it. One board member, Stevon Cook, was absent.

That meeting was almost ten months ago. Between then and now, there was a board election. More ballots were cast in that school board race than in any in over a decade. In January, the new board met to discuss priorities for the year with the help of a hired facilitator. Newly elected commissioners Kevine Boggess and Matt Alexander were making their first appearance. Three hours in, the board began finalizing its goals for the year. Boggess tried to focus the group on the nuts and bolts of reopening: “I'm going to add this one in as another priority: identifying staffing needs to reopen school safely and support student success.”

But Commissioner Collins and newly-elected Board President López redirected the conversation.

Collins said, “Whenever we talk about reopening schools, I also want to make sure that we're also talking about supporting students in distance learning. Since the majority of our students are going to be in distance learning, like our high school students, our middle school students, I want to make sure that our resources are allocated equitably. There's populations that don't feel safe going to school.”

“If we can move away from reopening schools as a conversation, and more towards re-envisioning what we know to be schools ... We cannot go back to what was, because it wasn't working.”
San Francisco Unified Board President Gabriela López

That didn't come out of nowhere. In a survey collected by the school district in early January, about 60% of respondents said they were planning to attend in-person learning if it became available. And there were differences across demographics. Eighty percent of white families were planning to attend, compared to about half of families of color. Only about 30% of Asian-American families said they were planning to attend in-person learning.

Commissioner López encouraged the board to think more broadly than reopening: “If I could just say, I actually want us, if we can, to move away from reopening schools as a conversation, and more towards re-envisioning what we know to be schools, because we have identified a number of issues that have lived in our physical school buildings for decades. We cannot go back to what was because it wasn't working.”

Just a few weeks after that meeting: the board voted 6-1 to rename 44 schools.

The district was criticized and caricatured in the national press. A few weeks after that, they put the effort on hold. They were sued by San Francisco's mayor and city attorney. And parents began an effort to recall the three board members that were eligible for recall: Commissioners Collins, López, and Moliga. If this board was feeling pressure before, now they had the eyes of the country and world on them. Still, decisions about reopening need to be made.

A staff testing plan needs to be finalized, and school buildings need to be modified. And, as of now, most middle and high school students have no idea when they will return to in-person learning.

In recent weeks, a San Francisco judge denied the city’s request for an order to force public schools reopen. The judge found that the board has a plan for reopening, even if perhaps it’s moving slower than some people might like. And, there’s another, new lawsuit. Commissioner Collins is suing the district and most of her fellow board members saying they violated her free speech rights when they stripped her of her title as vice president and her committee appointments after her 2016 texts were re-publicized.

COVID-19 created an opening for a long overdue reckoning on how our schools serve the city's communities of color. Now, the San Francisco Unified Board of Education is struggling to address that, while also responding to a global pandemic. What happens next may have long-lasting impacts on our lives and in our communities. Which is probably why we, and the board, are fighting about it so much.