A recent decision by San Francisco’s school board to end a popular high school military program has left the district’s acting superintendent questioning whether to apply for the permanent job.
San Francisco’s school board is poised to launch a national search for a school chief and expects to have a search firm hired by the end of the calendar year.
Gwen Chan, a 37-year veteran with the district, has been a temperate leader in the 10 months since the district’s strong-willed former superintendent, Arlene Ackerman, stepped out of office, citing her ongoing battles with a faction of the school board.
Chan said she’s not so convinced she is the right person for the job, saying the odds are “50-50” she’ll apply. The board’s 4-2 vote on Nov. 14 to eliminate the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps due to anti-war concerns and the military’s ban on gays has made her question what relationship she’d have with the school board, she said. Chan openly expressed support for the program.
“I try not to take it personally, but I wonder if it’s a reflection on my leadership,” Chan said, noting that in the months prior, the board worked agreeably as a team to help pass a $450 million school facilities bond. “This was my first setback, my first jolt.”
Not unlike the political nature of The City, San Francisco’s school district is frequently mired in ideological struggle, which can add weight to the myriad challenges already heaped upon a large urban school district.
In the coming months, the seven-member school board — which will have three new members — will be expected to deal with the problems of declining enrollment, an achievement gap for some minority subgroups, employee contract renewals and revisions to an assignment system that strives to integrate popular schools but provokes ire from parents who want an automatic guarantee to their neighborhood campus.
Newly elected school board member Kim-Shree Maufas said she’d be happy if Chan, who was born in San Francisco’s Chinatown and attended The City’s public schools, would agree to take the permanent job.
“She can be the calm in the storm, and that’s extremely beneficial when issues such as school closures or the assignment process or budget or other tensions arise,” Maufas said. “I’m looking for a superintendent that will not add fuel to the fire.”
School board member Mark Sanchez, along with Jill Wynns, said he hopes Chan applies for the job. Both district policymakers, however, also said they were interested in exploring all of the district’s options for a permanent district head.
“I’m excited to be able to look at a wide breadth of candidates,” Sanchez said. “I think that’s our opportunity and our obligation.”
Chan’s contractas acting superintendent expires in June, and the school board is working to hire a new district chief by next school year. The last superintendent search, for Ackerman, took about nine months, attracted 91 applicants and cost approximately $40,000, according to veteran board member Wynns.
Partly as a result of the competition for qualified applicants, a growing number of school districts are opening up the pool of potential superintendent candidates to include noneducators, such as retired military heads or business leaders.
Los Angeles Unified recently hired a former admiral to head its 700,000-student district.
“Now all the big districts have gone nontraditional,” said Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. “It started with Seattle when they hired John Stanford, a retired general. He did a fine job and suddenly, everyone was saying ‘Let’s get a general or an admiral.’”
The former head of San Diego’s school district, Alan Bersin, was a former U.S. district attorney. Bersin recently resigned as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s education secretary.
For San Francisco, it might be an option, as finding a new school’s chief may be difficult. The combination of high-stakes testing, the scarcity of resources and the clashing interests of diverse city communities often make the top job in a city district less desirable than one at a suburban school district, according to Houston.
Additionally, San Francisco has a “perception that the board is not always easy to please,” Houston said.
School board member Jill Wynns said she’s interested in hiring another educator to direct The City’s public schools, adding that she’d like someone who would continue with some of the reform efforts, such as allocating per-pupil dollars on a basis weighted toward need.
Board member Mark Sanchez said he’d be willing to consider a nontraditional candidate, such as someone who has worked in academia but not necessarily run a school district, or a person who has worked for a nonprofit that works with urban school districts.
“I’m also willing to look at a totally different model, a co-leadership model, with a very strong fiscal office leader and a very strong academic leader,” Sanchez said.