Ken Garcia: Losing qualified schools chief would be blow, shame for city

The Examiner reported this week that acting San Francisco public schools superintendent Gwen Chan is openly questioning whether she should apply for the permanent job. And that makes some sense when you consider that Chan is experienced, capable, steady and has little taste for politics.

She just wants to see The City improve the district through better education, teacher development and upgraded facilities. And that would no doubt put her at odds with any school board bent on ideological adventures, political opportunism and racial activism.

It’s hardly a coincidence that the school board waited until after the election to vote to jettison its highly popular Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program — a move that has rightly been denounced by parents and students. Considering that there are so many things wrong with the school district, why would you target one of the things that actually works? But that question was sidestepped while Chan led a successful campaign to get voters to approve a $450 million school facilities bond. If the board had engaged in its political antics during the campaign, I think a lot of voters would have been reminded of the district’s sorry history of fiscal and philosophical management.

In her 39-year career with the school district, Chan has pretty much seen it all, including the ouster of her former boss, Arlene Ackerman, whose clashes with the school board over reasons not often related to educational matters finally led to her exit. The trustees paid dearly for Ackerman’s departure with money they didn’t really have, yet it hardly mattered to board members who seem to act at times like they don’t really want a superintendent anyway.

But if Chan isn’t convinced that she wants the job, then it’s up to the board to help change her mind.

There are three intelligent women of varying political stripes joining the board next year, but differences aside, they should be able to see that having stability and continuity at the head of the district is not only desirable, but desperately needed. People who know the district well say the agency is probably better organized now than at any time in recent history, and that is clearly a key reason why voters were willing to give it a much-needed financial boost at a time they were rejecting other tax hikes.

Newly elected trustee Kim-Shree Maufas was on the money describing Chan as the “calm in the storm,” because, given the number of contentious issues facing the district in the next year — declining enrollment, school closures and student assignments — leaders of the public school system are going to be under a lot of heat in the coming months.

Chan told me that the 50-50 odds she gives for herself to apply for the job are “truly how I feel right now.’’ But she said she was going towork with the new school board starting next year before deciding.

Chan was born and raised in Chinatown, attended local public schools including Lowell High, and earned her teaching credential and master’s degree from San Francisco State University. She taught at numerous schools in the district before moving to Washington High as vice principal in 1985 and then became principal of Lincoln in 1992. She joined the district’s administrative staff five years later before being promoted to deputy superintendent last year.

“I’ve been preparing for this job all my life,’’ she told me.

So the idea that the board could find a better person to lead the district by starting a costly, national search seems a long shot at best, especially considering that the same six big-city superintendents (see Ackerman, Bill Rojas) have already rotated through the country so many times they begin to look like recycled baseball managers.

“I can’t imagine they could find anyone better or more qualified than Gwen,” said financier Warren Hellman, who is part of the advisory group that has helped raise money for the district and who has hired more than his share of chief executive officers. “You’re usually better off in companies if you can find someone internally rather than externally. I certainly hope that The City’s politics don’t drive her out.”

That will partly explain why a lot of school districts are turning to noneducators to fill the role of superintendents, since the available pool of obvious candidates is so small that it reads like a list of the usual suspects. A few school districts on the West Coast have turned to former military leaders to bring order to unwieldy agencies.

San Francisco already has an officer who has risen through the ranks. It’s time her bosses got on board.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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