Achievement gap, money loom large in SFUSD election

Twelve candidates are hoping to grab one of the four open spots on the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education and help the district close the student achievement gap and shore up the budget.

Sandra Lee Fewer, Rachel Norton and Jill Wynns are seeking re-election, while nine newcomers — Kim Garcia-Meza, Matt Haney, Joseph Kelly Jr., Victoria Lo, Beverly Ho-A-Yun Popek, Paul Robertson, Sam Rodriguez, Gladys Soto and Shamann Walton — are aiming to unseat those incumbents or take the open seat. Board President Norman Yee’s seat is open after he decided not seek re-election and instead run for the District 7 seat on the Board of Supervisors.

All the candidates agreed that there are many challenges the district faces in the next four years, but closing the achievement gap between minority students and their white and Asian peers is a priority.

“We need to take what works and make it better,” said Popek. “I’d like to see more of an effort of trying to have students understand why they have to go to school and how it will make a better life.”

Soto pointed out that the achievement gap exists at all schools, not just the historically underperforming campuses.

“If you go to a high-performing school there’s still a big achievement gap,” Soto said. “We have to work in all schools.”

The board also will have to find ways to fund programs that have been specifically aimed at addressing underperforming schools. For instance, School Improvement Grants funding from the federal government is scheduled to expire at the end of the year. Many of the affected schools are part of the SFUSD’s Superintendent’s Zone, which places a heavier focus on student achievement at certain low-performing schools by providing resources and professional development for teachers.

Many candidates said the programs are working, but now it’s a matter of expanding them.

Superintendent’s Zone schools “are an incubator of the best research,” Fewer said. “We’ve done a lot to change the culture of the classroom and how we reach students, but now we have to interpret and expand to other schools.”

Wynns remained optimistic that new funding or a new achievement program from the federal government could help.

“There will be another program, which is a good thing because I think we need to invest in our most highly challenged schools,” she said. “But it’s important that we’ve learned from past programs and we don’t start over from scratch.”

However, finding funding is the main problem any school district faces. If either tax initiative, Propositions 30 and 38, aimed at education funding on November’s ballot does not pass, all candidates acknowledged that drastic cuts would need to be made.

But Walton said that as an executive director for a nonprofit, he’s been able to raise private funds and is hopeful that experience could help him bring in money for schools.

“We know it’s a dire situation, but there is opportunity for revenue streams outside of Prop. 30,” he said of the measure being pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown. “There are billions of dollars coming to The City for development. I think we have an opportunity to bring some of that money to the schools.”

Meet the candidates

Twelve candidates are running for four seats on the Board of Education in November’s election.

Sandra Lee Fewer, 55, incumbent
Residence: Richmond district
Why she’s running:
“I am running to continue the upward trajectory of the district, to support the goals of the strategic plan in closing the achievement gap, to give parents an empowered voice and to ensure all students graduate prepared for college and a living-wage job.”

Kim Garcia-Meza, 45, early childhood educator
Residence: Westwood Park
Why she’s running: “I have 20-plus years of experience with SFUSD as a classroom teacher in the Mission district, a [union] representative, a parent and parent advocate. I believe that I bring a unique set of skills and experience to the Board of Education race.”

Matt Haney, 30, executive director of University of California Student Association
Residence: Hayes Valley
Why he’s running: “Public education is the most essential institution in our democracy, and providing every young person in our city with a high-quality education that prepares them for college or a career is our most critical challenge. I am a product of public schools and I bring knowledge, skills and over 10 years of experience as an educator, policy analyst and advocate to help meet that challenge.”

Name, 24, pediatric researcher at UCSF
Residence: Richmond district
Why she’s running: “Despite the high unemployment rate, California science and technology employers have difficulty finding qualified candidates to fill their vacant positions. I hope to establish partnerships with both public and private organizations to enhance the math and science education in our schools. I also hope to expand school-based health care and focus on narrowing the achievement gap.”

Rachel Norton, 46, incumbent
Residence: Richmond district
Why she’s running: “I am running for re-election because there is still a lot of work I want to do in our schools. I’m pleased with our progress, but not satisfied yet.”

Beverly Ho-A-Yun Popek, 38, educator and civil servant
Why she’s running:
“It’s personal. I am an active public school parent, educator and product of the SFUSD.”

Paul Robertson, 52, small-business owner
Residence: Mission Terrace
Why he’s running: “I want to bring neighborhood schools back, which will bring students, which brings money to fund schools. I want to handle the truancy problem costing SFUSD $18 million yearly and other things.”

Sam Rodriguez, 52, education and workforce adviser
Residence: Presidio
Why he’s running: “As a public school parent, I’ve experienced making tough decisions at our school and laying off our science teacher. My daughter fell in love with her science teacher, and she was emotionally affected by the decision. That crystallized for me that it’s time to get involved in a very serious way and use my collective wisdom and knowledge to change the paradigm of how we confront public education.”

Gladys Soto, 48, mother of two
Residence: St. Mary’s Park
Why she’s running: “As a Latina mom with two students in public schools, I want to bring the Latino representation back to the school board. There has been four years since we have had Latino representation and over 10 years since there has being a Latino mom’s perspective. We need to have a voice in developing and implementing policies.”

Shamann Walton, 37, executive director, Young Community Developers
Residence: Excelsior
Why he’s running: “I want every child in San Francisco to be successful and I believe that SFUSD is that vehicle to success, and we owe our children a quality public school system.”

Jill Wynns, 64, incumbent
Residence: Bernal Heights
Why she’s running: “I have been dedicated to the school board and served for 20 years, and I want to continue my work. I am president of the California School Boards Association and I believe my position is an important asset to our community.”

Note: Joseph Kelly Jr. could not be reached for comment.

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