The pandemic focused a bright light on San Francisco school board meetings as parents, staff and students clamored for information or urgency on campus closures.
Meetings often stretched from 3 p.m. past midnight as the board took up big issues like removing police from campus, ending selective admissions at Lowell High School, renaming schools, and inner turmoil stemming from a Twitter scandal.
Through it all, a public school parent nonprofit has dutifully live-tweeted school board meetings with matter-of-fact, comprehensive reporting since 2015. It was an accessible way for families to stay informed about district changes without having to tune in.
But earlier this month, Parents for Public Schools San Francisco put #BoardWatch on indefinite pause for its loyal following. The fallout from the pandemic brought a constraint in resources and staffing, leading to the decision to prioritize other programs that support families through enrollment and partnering with their children’s schools. While the effort has helped residents better understand what’s going on with public schools, it’s had limitations in reaching families that run into language and technology barriers.
“It’s a very labor-intensive program and we are an organization with a very bare-bones budget,” said Miranda Martin, PPS-SF interim executive director. “Our focus has been for a long time on trying to make sure there’s roots for equitable engagement. All of our programming outside of #BoardWatch is more directly focused in that area.”
When the nonprofit started thinking about a program like this in 2014, Martin said committee meetings were hardly attended. To view the recording, you had to put in a request and wait for a cassette tape to arrive in the mail.
PPS-SF decided to live-tweet from the meetings and share with newsletter subscribers rather than synthesizing what happened as non-journalists. It was the most manageable way to keep a record. Keeping the recaps free of bias was by design.
“This is not about making a comment about what’s going on, it’s just about letting people know,” said Martin, who has been with PPS-SF for eight years. “It’s been a measure of accountability of the board to know that people are paying attention and there’s a recording of what happens.”
Videos are now uploaded to the San Francisco Unified School District YouTube page and can also be accessed through SFGovTV but taking the time to view them still isn’t feasible for families and school staff. During the pandemic, meetings moved online and more people were able to tune in and provide public comments. Newer parent groups, such as Decreasing the Distance (now known as San Francisco Parent Coalition) and Families for San Francisco, got involved as other news outlets devoted more resources to live coverage — each of whom had different nuggets to highlight or stances to take.
Martin hopes some of that accessibility can remain past the pandemic and is glad there are more eyes on the board, a governing body that she’s noticed has been more involved in crafting policy than in the past. But she has concerns that it won’t represent a holistic view of how families feel.
“The one thing the program didn’t accomplish in the way we hoped was to create more equitable engagement,” Martin said. “It’s probably perpetuated and made worse the existing sort of bias toward hearing from people who are more comfortable with tech, more used to voicing their concerns. It’s not as much raising the voices of people who aren’t people heard — that’s our push going forward.”
The next chapter for PPS-SF means more coalition-building with groups doing similar work, such as Coleman Advocates and Chinese for Affirmative Action, as the nonprofit continues fielding questions from families navigating the school enrollment process and hosting workshops. Meetings may be monitored again, though perhaps not consistently, depending on staff capacity. Previews of issues facing the school board distributed to newsletter subscribers will likely continue.
Martin noted the pandemic era was very divisive as trust in the district eroded. She’s also surprised at how much traction the school board recall effort has and urged people to do their own research.
“The goal of our organization is to have people feel good about public education in The City,” Martin said. “I feel like there’s so much need for repair and rebuilding. I really hope that people are at the point where they’re ready to think about solutions that involve working together.”