The San Francisco Board of Education on Tuesday sanctioned a nonprofit to continue hiring professional artists to teach in classrooms at the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts but voiced lingering concerns about equity and oversight in the organization’s financial practices.
The Memorandum of Understanding between the San Francisco Unified School District and the nonprofit Friends of School of the Arts (FoSOTA) allows the group to legally fundraise to pay for artist teachers at the renowned school. The board initially delayed a vote on the MOU last month.
Board President Shamann Walton was the only board member to vote against the MOU on Tuesday, but other members of the board echoed his concerns.
“I’m not voting for this MOU because it is not what is best for our district and it is not what is best for our students,” Walton said.
Walton explained that his opposition stemmed from FoSOTA’s attempt to suspend the high school’s prestigious artists-in-residence program following the board’s decision to delay the vote.
“The fact that FoSOTA has the ability to shut down instruction…and disrupt student learning when there are disagreements is very problematic for the district,” Walton said. “We have a responsibility to make sure that never happens again.”
In August, FoSOTA’s executive director, Colleen Ivie, told the San Francisco Examiner that the board’s failure to approve the MOU then had stalled ongoing artist contract negotiations at the start of the school year, impacting instruction.
“Without the approved MOU, FoSOTA did not have the necessary authorization to continue the program,” Ivie said Wednesday.
But on the same day that the suspension of the program was announced, SFUSD Superintendent Vincent Matthews penned a memo to FoSOTA requesting that the organization continue to provide its services to the school until the matter was resolved.
Last year, FoSOTA raised some $1 million in parent and private donations, grant money and from student event ticket sales. That money is spent on all expenses related to the artists-in-residence program, as well as student performance expenses and supplies, said Ivie.
FoSOTA spent about $390,000 on artists’ salaries, and about $94,000 on Ivie’s executive director position and a part-time development consultant, she said.
A review last school year by the district of “all practices employed by FoSOTA to manage revenue and expenses were keeping within standard,” said SFUSD Chief Academic Officer Brent Stephens. He added that the school board was erroneously informed in August that FoSOTA’s administrative salaries totalled some $200,000.
But questions about oversight and equity remain for some parents and district leaders.
“When and why did we hand over the communications channels of a public school to a private nonprofit? Where is the oversight?” asked Paul Lanier, the son of renowned San Francisco artist Ruth Asawa, the school’s namesake.
Lanier’s children attended the high school, and it was during that time that Lanier said he “saw first-hand how this organization grew behind closed doors.”
“Suddenly we started to see letters signed by an executive director, we noticed others were being paid to do things previously done by volunteers, anyone who asked questions had their reputations tarnished and worse,” said Lanier.
Ivie called the allegations “absolutely untrue.”
“Asawa SOTA is a public school and donations are not required as a condition of enrollment or participation,” she said, citing FoSOTA’s fundraising letter.
But former Supervisor Eric Mar, also a former Board of Education member and parent of a senior at the high school, said that he too has questioned the organization’s practices around fundraising and whether they ensured equity for all students attending.
“Even from day one the goal has been to request money from the parents,” said Mar, adding that this pressure could present a burden for low-income parents. “If a parent does not give money, Colleen knows that and it has an impact on the student at times.”
But Tuesday’s hearing also drew dozens of student and parent supporters of FoSOTA, who maintained that the organization plays a key role in supporting the school’s celebrated art curriculum.
“If the dance program needs a flamenco dance teacher, what FoSOTA can do is find someone in the San Francisco art community who can do that. They arrange for the background check… and pay for liability insurance and workers compensation insurance,” said Jeffrey Holtz, the father of a RASOTA sophomore. “Now [student] dancers can quickly get teachers they need for a performance with no effort from the school district or taxpayers.”
“The group’s structure makes perfect sense,” he added.