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SFUSD takes control of program placing artists in classrooms at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts

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SFUSD officials are taking over a program that hires artists to teach at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts. (Laura Waxmann/S.F. Examiner)

A decision by the San Francisco Unified School District to reclaim control of a program that for decades has placed professional artists in classrooms at the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts has left parents concerned about the program’s future.

An agreement between the school district and Friends Of the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts (FoRASFSOTA) has allowed the nonprofit to legally fundraise to hire on artist teachers as independent contractors. The nonprofit is also currently in charge of managing parent donations, funds raised from ticket sales at events and student performances, as well as the artists’ background checks, contracts and pay.

But in a letter sent to the school’s community Thursday, Principal Barnaby Payne announced that the school district’s leadership would not renew the annual contract with the nonprofit but instead planned to return management of the Artists-in-Residence program, box office sales, and student body accounts to the school at the start of the 2018-19 school year.

The change comes as the district “seeks to create better alignment between the relationship with the school and its non-profit, and similar relationships across the district,” wrote Payne, adding that the decision was made after considering several issues, “including the need to fully supervise programs in compliance with California Education Code.”

Payne told the San Francisco Examiner on Friday the change is “an opportunity to improve our systems and to think about long-term, how we can build a relationship between the nonprofit, the school and the district that will serve the students right now and into the future.”

But a number of parents at RASOTA described the change as “disruptive,” and said they believed that the district’s decision take control of the program to be part of longstanding plans to move the high school into a $294 million Arts Center slated to rise near Civic Center in the next five years.

“Our kids are in school right now and the arts center won’t be built next year and our kids won’t be attending it next year,” said the mother of a sophomore at the school, who declined to give her name. “But my son will be a junior next year and he relies on the AIR to provide additional coaching for him to play the saxophone. All of this turmoil could impact his education here.”

According to FoRASFSOTA’s executive director, Colleen Ivie, the school district previously struggled with paying resident artists on time and in 2008 asked the organization to take over management of the school’s fundraising and AIR program.

In the 2016-17 school year, FoRASFSOTA brought in raised nearly $1 million through parent donations, ticket sales for student art performances, and through grants and donations from sources outside of the school’s community.

But The City’s Board of Education, which does not review the nonprofit’s revenues or expenditures, has criticized the group for a lack of transparency around its finances. Last August, it postponed a vote to renew the organization’s contract, citing concerns over it’s accounting practices.

In September, the board renewed the contract for this school year. Ivie said that she has long worked to address the district’s concerns, including agreeing to an independent audit of the organization’s finances.

Earlier this year, an SFUSD review by of the nonprofit’s accounting practices conducted by the district revealed that the it was operating within the law.

According to a SFUSD spokesperson, the district is “not making allegations of mismanagement, nor does the district want to diminish the nonprofit’s commitment and involvement in RASOTA.”

“We have tried hard to work in good faith with the distinct but I can’t say the same [about the district],” said Ivie, who said she is making $90,000 for her work in the organization this year and has repeatedly invited the board to “review our books.”

In a statement published online about the district’s decision, the nonprofit said that SFUSD cited concern over “potential liability” related to the independent status of the Artists-in-Residence, but also noted other issues, including an “interpersonal conflict” between Ivie, members of the district’s Visual and Performing Arts Department and relatives of the late San Francisco artist Ruth Asawa, the school’s namesake.

Suz Dehne, a member of the school’s Parent Teacher Association, said that the district takeover of the program has contributed to a growing “lack of trust” between the school’s community and the district.

“It affects everything — our fundraising capacity, [our ability to get] volunteers,” said Dehne. “We have our new student orientation coming up on Monday..and we can’t guarantee ourselves a completely smooth transition.”

District officials say they have been working over the past year to develop a process to employ the same 80 artists currently contracted under the program as part-time employees starting in the Fall.

SFUSD Superintendent Vincent Matthews said in a statement that the district and school’s leadership are “committed to a smooth transition and full support for student programs, and are confident that this change is in the best interests of students and the school community.”

The artists will continue to be paid through parent donations and a school trust fund account that is tied to the school’s budget.

In effort to ensure that the program is not impacted by the transition, the district will provide additional staff to the school “to manage the AIRs, the box office and increased school accounting services.” The district will also hire a third assistant principal for the school to help manage the program.

The school does not plan to sever ties with the nonprofit completely. According to Payne, the group can still continue fundraising for the school.

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