Assignment system is key issue

Fifteen candidates running for three seats with board’s balance of power at stake

San Francisco’s school board has historically been a battleground for educational ideals. School board members may share similar goals of providing a quality education for students, but what that education looks like and how to achieve that goal are questions that usually create political dividing lines.

Next month, voters will have 15 candidates to choose from for three seats, enough to tip the current precarious balance of power on the seven-member board. The new school board faces several significant decisions in the months ahead, including possible school closures, a superintendent search and revisions to the district’s controversial student assignment system.

Highlighting the importance of this school board race, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, which has a policy of not making official candidate endorsements, released a list of its top choices for the school board for this election.

Bolstered by such endorsements, as well as financial support for their campaign, some front-runners have emerged in the school board race.

Bayard Fong: The father of three children attending San Francisco public schools, he is one candidate who didn't get much attention earlier in the race, but appears to be shooting ahead. Fong, who works for the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, appears among the Chamber’s picks, but didn’t get the endorsements usually associated with a school board win: from the teachers union and San Francisco’s Democratic Party. Fong is the top fundraiser of the candidates, picking up more than $30,000 in contributions by the end of last month.

Fong is campaigning on a platform that supports “neighborhood schools,” one of the great dividing lines among the board. On the other side are candidates who support the district’s effort to maintain socio-economically diverse schools, enabling students from poor neighborhoods to attend more desirable schools in other areas, sometimes at the expense of kids who live closer to that school.

Dan Kelly: The incumbent, who also received the Chamber of Commerce’s endorsement, stands on the side of the current system, and wants to reintroduce race into the mix of factors used to assign schools to encourage more diversity. Kelly, a public school parent who has been on the board for 16 years, did not win any other key endorsements, and as of the end of September had not raised more than $5,000 for his campaign. At a recent League of Women Voters candidate panel, Kelly took credit for the positive changes within the district in recent years, noting that the district has “tremendously changed” during his tenure.

Boots Whitmer: A parent of a San Francisco public high school student, Whitmer also got a nod from the Chamber of Commerce, as well as one from San Francisco’s Republican Party. As of last month’s filing deadline, she had not raised a significant amount of campaign contributions and has financed her own campaign with a loan of slightly more than $5,000. At the recent League of Women Voters panel she also supported neighborhood schools, saying she would not reform the school-assignment system, she would “dump it.”

Omar Khalif: The parent of four daughters attending San Francisco public schools said he decided to run for the school board at the urging of District Attorney Kamala Harris. An ombudsman for The City’s Juvenile Probation Department, Khalif is on the Chamber of Commerce’s list of top picks but had raised less than $2,000 for his campaign by last month’s campaign-finance filing deadline.

Hydra Mendoza: The parent of two young San Francisco public school children, she has the strongest of leads in this race, with endorsements from the Chamber of Commerce, the teachers union, the Democratic Party and her boss, the mayor. Mendoza, who works as Newsom’s education adviser, also shows across-the-board support in her fundraising with contributions coming from union groups, city workers and educators. She has said the assignment system works when good schools that are less well-known get marketed.

Bob Twomey: A father of two public school children, he has been endorsed by the teachers union and Democratic Party. Twomey works for United Healthcare West and has strong support from local labor groups, with nearly 30 percent of his $10,950 in campaign contributions coming from individuals or groups associated with organized labor. At the recent League of Women Voters panel, Twomey said he would “do everything I can to make sure we don’t resegregate our school system.”

Jane Kim: Although trailing in key endorsements, Kim, the youth program director with the Chinatown Community Development Center, received contributions from as many donors as Bayard Fong and is the second-place fundraiser in the race. She is supported by the Green Party, which backed the candidacies of two existing school board members, Mark Sanchez and Sarah Lipson.

Mayor’s adviser sees no role conflict

In a statement describing why she is running for office, school board candidate Hydra Mendoza notes that as Mayor Gavin Newsom’s education adviser, she works to build a strong partnership between The City and the school district.

Some have questioned her ability to shape the mayor’s views on education while also shaping the school district’s policies — particularly since city money goes to the schools.

For example, Newsom allocated $105,000 of city taxpayer dollars to support one of the district’s language immersion programs, a program Mendoza heartily supported for years in her prior role as president of the local chapter of Parents for Public Schools.

The City Attorney’s Office told Mendoza that conflict of interest laws did not prohibit her from seeking the school board seat and maintaining her job with the Mayor’s Office. However, the memorandum she received to that effect did note that the laws could affect her ability to participate in decisions or disclose confidential information. For example, Mendoza couldn’t vote on decisions that involved contracts between The City and the school district.

And what if the mayor supported an education policy that she disagreed with?

“I’m not afraid he’s going to fire me,” Mendoza said.

Newsom told The Examiner that he also believed she could be an independent voice, and said his endorsement — and $500 campaign contribution — was in no way an effort to gain some control over a school district that has historically struggled to find the balance between larger political ideals and the routine decisions related to running a school district.

“There’s a big difference between appointing someone and someone that’s been independently elected,” Newsom said. “And the voters of San Francisco could decide if they think it’s better to have a strong partnership with the school district or maintain our independence.”

Mendoza bristled at suggestions that she should quit her City Hall job if she wins the race.

“I’m raising two kids and living in The City; you want me to quit my job for a $500 a month position?” she said.

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