The timing couldn’t be more critical for strong leadership on the school board, which has four seats up for grabs in November.
How schools operate has been upended since March, when campuses closed as coronavirus cases populated. Educators and families suddenly had to conduct class online while fulfilling basic needs for many became a herculean task overnight.
The new remote school reality has settled in, but San Francisco Unified School District has several pressing issues to confront.
By the time four Board of Education members are sworn in at the beginning of 2021, the district will: face a gargantuan financial crisis that went from bad to worse under coronavirus, (hopefully) have students safely on campus again, make up for roughly a year of severely disrupted education, overhaul its school assignment system and grapple with how to sustainably remove symbols of racism in schools.
“San Francisco has done a great job compared to cities across the state, I do want to lift that up,” said Kevine Boggess, education policy director for Coleman Advocates spurred to run partly by the pandemic. “We haven’t filled the gaps that are caused by this moment and the gaps that existed before.”
It’s with those challenges and beyond that 10 candidates vie for a spot on the school board. Four seats are open in a race with two incumbents, some repeat hopefuls and new contenders.
Commissioner Jenny Lam, the board’s newest addition, and Board President Mark Sanchez, who has served on and off since 2001, are the two incumbents. Commissioners Stevon Cook and Rachel Norton declined to run for re-election.
Mayor London Breed appointed Lam, her education advisor, in 2019 to replace Supervisor Matt Haney; she held on to the seat, winning a special election in November 2019. Her stated priorities are emotional wellness, increasing access to technology, bringing more revenue through ballot measure Schools and Communities First, and centering student voices through a student advisory committee and allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections.
Lam, parent to SFUSD students, has since helped facilitate a badly-needed $15 million lifeline from Breed’s budget to help close a $22 million deficit for the current academic year. She also co-authored a unanimously-approved resolution in June with Commissioner Alison Collins to end the district’s relationship with police and to comprehensively review its supportive services by the end of the year.
“It is so clear that navigating through a pandemic is really highlighting what work we need to continue to do for our students,” Lam said at an Examiner editorial endorsement meeting in August. “It’s not just about passing policies, it’s about implementing action.”
Sanchez, the only teacher on the board, personally saw how coronavirus disrupted his third-grade Daly City classroom leading up to closures, as well as experienced remote teaching. Before the pandemic, he worked to ensure budget cuts didn’t affect school sites and toward obtaining affordable housing for educators.
As board president, Sanchez works closely with the district and other city leaders, who kicked into high gear dealing with the pandemic.
Fisher, an adoptive parent to children with individualized learning plans, is a special education advocate. She chaired the SFUSD community advisory committee for special education and is a member of the African American Parent Advisory Committee. A longtime fixture at school board meetings, Fisher, if elected, would prioritize funding supportive services and making the budget processes accessible.
“We have to figure out where those kids are, was there regression, how are we going to those benchmark assessments,” Fisher said. “If you can reach the kids that are hardest to reach, you reach everyone.”
Parker, an active SFUSD parent who has served on several school committees, has a leading role on the Second District Parent Teacher Association, advocating for funding at the state level. She touts her ability to oversee large, complicated budgets at a time to address the economic crisis while promising to center student needs and equity.
Those in tune with school advocacy and meetings will recognize Boggess, a San Francisco native who works closely with the union, United Educators of San Francisco, to close the opportunity gap. He’s at the forefront of racial and social justice and has repeatedly pushed for transparency and accountability.
Matt Alexander is also equity-focused, having founded and led the June Jordan School for Equity that had students overwhelmingly from low-income households. He has perhaps the keenest eye of candidates on funding formulas and The City’s property tax distribution to bring the district more revenue. The former teacher and current organizer with Faith in Action Bay Area seeks to close the digital divide and shape more community schools.
“I think we need to get in the weeds,” Alexander said. “If we’re not going to have a serious conversation about that, I don’t know how we’re ever going to fund our schools.”
Other candidates include Genevieve Lawrence, a teacher in San Mateo and former analyst for the Clorox Co.; Nick Rothman, a SFUSD parent and department chair of San Francisco City College Automotive, Construction and Custodial departments; Andrew Douglas Alston, a high school teacher in Oakland; and Paul Kangas.
UESF members have endorsed Sanchez, Lam, Boggess and Alexander. Lam’s community work, such as leading programs at nonprofit Chinese for Affirmative Action, the longstanding role as an educator played by Sanchez and Alexander, and Boggess’ close work to break institutional barriers stood out to educators, said UESF President Susan Solomon.
“All four got a majority on the first round, that doesn’t always happen,” Solomon said. “They each have individual strengths and assets. I have to say, in these difficult times I admire people who want to do this.”
Among myriad other endorsements, Fisher is supported by state Senate candidate Jackie Fielder and San Francisco supervisor candidates John Avalos and Myrna Melgar, while Parker has been endorsed by Mayor London Breed and supervisors Rafael Mandelman, Ahsha Safai and Catherine Stefani.