Relatively calm S.F. school year could be lull in storm

After several tumultuous years in the San Francisco Unified School District, the new school year started amid relative calm, but the school board faces several significant turning points in the months ahead.

An election, possible school closures, a superintendent search, a new teachers contract and revisions to the student-assignment system all loom. These changes could shift the school board’s precarious balance of power and rekindle old controversies.

For years, acrimony between some school board members and the district’s former superintendent, Arlene Ackerman, seemingly turned every board decision into a divisive battle. Earlier this year, Ackerman left the district, blaming her departure on her ongoing struggles with the board.

Her temporary replacement, Gwen Chan, a 39-year veteran of the district, was Ackerman’s former deputy. She said she’s pleased with the cordial way meetings are now conducted.

“I think the honeymoon period is still on,” Chan said.

That could change when at least two new school board members are elected in November.

According to several school board members, the district’s continued decline in enrollment will likely result in more unpopular school closure decisions to save money. In January, the board voted to close three schools and merge four others into two sites. If the district follows the same timeline as last year, new board members — who take office in January — may find themselves at meetings filled with angry parents, pleading children and no easy answers.

“We should try and make the decisions about school closures in December,” board member Jill Wynns said. “It’s unfair for new school board members to be put in that position.”

By next spring, board members will also be charged with interviewing superintendent candidates and choosing a permanent school chief for the district. Chan said there’s a “50-50 chance” she’ll apply for the permanent position.

The district will also have to go back to the bargaining table with the teachers union about that time, Wynns said. The current two-year agreement was reached last spring under the threat of a teachers’ strike, but one year was retroactive.

Discussions about changing the district’s controversial student-assignment system will also heat up in 2007, with board members hoping to make changes to the desegregation effort by next December.

The district’s current system attempts to balance parental choice with a goal of creating diverse schools by assigning students to popular schools based on a complex formula of socio-economic factors. The system has provoked the ire of parents who want an automatic school assignment near their home, but, until December 2005, the district was under a decades-old federal mandate to maintain the desegregation effort.

The district is unlikely to make any changes in its system until next summer, according to Wynns, when the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hand down a decision on race-based admissions in public schools.

beslinger@examiner.com

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