Mayor London Breed on Tuesday appointed Jenny Lam, a social justice advocate who for the past three months has served as Breed’s education advisor, to the San Francisco school board.
Lam will fill a seat left vacant by Matt Haney, who was sworn in as a member of the Board of Supervisors earlier this month. She is joining three newly elected commissioners on the board, Alison Collins, Faauga Moliga and Gabriela Lopez, and will have to run for election in 2019 to maintain the seat.
Breed made the announcement at Roosevelt Middle School in the Richmond District, which one of Lam’s two children attends.
“It’s critical that the Board of Education as we know is represented by parents. They know firsthand the impact of the decisions that get made,” said Breed, who added that Lam’s heritage as a second-generation Chinese American also played an important role in qualifying her for the job, as “30 percent of [San Francisco Unified School District] students are Chinese.”
“There was no representation on the school board. That was definitely an important consideration when making the decision,” said Breed.
Lam, 44, told the San Francisco Examiner on Tuesday that her first language is Cantonese. She said her priorities are addressing SFUSD’s achievement gap, increasing supports for English Learners and increasing health supports for all students, educator recruitment and retention, and integrating technology in classrooms throughout the district.
A spokesperson for Breed confirmed that Lam will continue working in her role as Breed’s advisor while in office.
In her Linkedin profile, Lam describes herself as a “proven public sector leader with over 15 years of experience spearheading innovative community initiatives, building and managing high-level relationships, and driving social impact.”
Lam served as engagement manager for EducationSuperHighway, a national nonprofit focused on connecting public school classrooms to high-speed internet before being tapped in November as Breed’s education advisor.
She is known for her role with Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA), a leading social justice nonprofit that advocates on behalf of Chinese Americans and the broader Asian and Pacific Islander community in San Francisco, where she served as director of community initiatives from 2010 to 2016. She also co-chaired the San Francisco Unified School District’s Public Education Enrichment Fund Community Advisory Committee, which advises the school board and superintendent on distributing the local funding, from 2014 to 2018.
Li Miao Lovett, a City College of San Francisco counselor who ran for a seat on the school board in November and also vied for the appointment, said that she has worked personally with Lam and would support her in the new role.
“I was working on the front lines of our CCSF accreditation crisis and in the thick of it around 2013 CAA, who she worked for, really took notice,” said Lovett. “Their coalition was instrumental in our pushing for transparency around a process that was so scary and overbearing — this was an accreditor that went rogue.”
Haney, who recommended either a Chinese or transgender candidate replace him, was supportive of Lam’s appointment, describing her as someone who is “highly qualified.”
“She is a well known and respected advocate and she served at a number of levels in the school district and I’m sure she will be well received,” said Haney. “I’m excited that she will bring representation from the Chinese community, which is currently missing.”
However, Haney added that he hopes Lam will “keep her independence” on the school board.
“The Mayor’s office does not get a direct representative on the Board of Education, so while she is a school board member she will have a sole responsibility to the district and to the students and families of SFUSD,” he said.
Haney pointed out that there have already been “some differences” between the district and the Mayor’s Office, particularly around Proposition G, a parcel tax approved by San Francisco voters in June that is expected to raise $50 million annually for teacher salaries, but is currently the subject of a legal dispute.
Haney and school district officials have called for $181 million of windfall funding recently received by The City to be allocated to the district to help maintain the wage increases promised under Prop. G. Breed, however, has called for the excess funding to be spent on affordable housing and homelessness services.
“There could be a bit of a conflict there around Prop. G, and in the future there will be differences,” said Haney. “The relationship between the school district and the mayor over the last few months has been a little more rocky than usual — I hope that Commissioner Lam can help to build a strong relationship between the Mayor’s Office and the district.”
District 1 Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer said that she is considers Lam “a friend” whom she has encouraged to run for school board “not once, but a couple of times.”
But Fewer echoed Haney’s concerns regarding a potential conflict of interest in Lam’s dual roles as Breed’s education advisor and school board commissioner.
“We should re-examine whether someone who represents the mayor as an education policy advisor should have a voting seat on the board — we should have a discussion about it,” said Fewer, adding that there is a “clear line between SFUSD and The City and County of San Francisco.”
“They are governed by two different bodies. There’s a reason why we don’t have mayoral control over our school district. I think it depends on how independent Jenny Lam is in this new capacity,” said Fewer.
There is a precedent for Lam’s dual roles. Hydra Mendoza McDonnell, who served as education advisor under former San Francisco mayors Gavin Newsom and Ed Lee, ended a 12-year stint on the school board last September. Mendoza McDonell was appointed by Newsom in an effort to improve the relationship between the district and The City, and then elected by voters three times.
In response to the supervisors’ concerns, Breed said on Tuesday that she and Lam “align on so many policies around the achievement gap and equity.”
“There will be challenges but I’ll support her decisions whether I agree with them or not,” said Breed.
For her part, Lam said that she considers herself to be “very predictable.”
“You have seen me since day one, working in Oakland, working in low-income communities ensuring we are making decisions that are inclusive and that everybody has an educational opportunity,” said Lam, adding that all of her decisions “will be based upon that experience.”
Asked about the windfall funding, Lam acknowledged that there is “a dynamic debate between the mayor and board of supervisors that is underway,” and that she is hoping to learn more about the funding requests, but declined to give an opinion on where the money should go.
Victor Tence contributed to this report.