Can SF’s school district turn from death spiral to sea change?

What the impending state takeover of SFUSD means

The San Francisco Unified School District has been a slow-motion car crash for years.

Declining enrollment, unhappy parents and school board meetings that drone aimlessly into the night? Yep, that sounds like the SFUSD.

But recently we came upon two tipping-point moments that we can’t ignore.

First, for all the exasperation about the district, last week’s news had to shock even jaded critics.

The state of California announced that the SFUSD budget was so deep in the red that the state is likely going to take over. This as the district predicts deficits over $100 million, beginning in 2022.

It doesn’t take much calculation to understand the dilemma. The district is not attracting new students, meaning attendance continues to drop, which means less funding at a time when the district is already unable to pay its bills. It’s not just a vicious circle, it’s a death spiral.

Things are so bad we’ve lost control of our school system. That should get all of our attention.

The second point is actually good news. A confluence of factors, including the likely recall of three members of the school board, might result in the kind of systemic teardown and rebuild that is clearly needed.

Because it is impossible that a wealthy, global city cannot provide public education for its children. It’s ridiculous.

Let’s begin with the bad news.

The budget shortfall is no joke. But rather than concentrate on getting back on track — the district is technically required to balance its budget every year — school officials dithered.

The state ordered SFUSD to come up with a plan for recovery, but apparently the dog ate that homework. Elizabeth Dearstyne, the state’s director of School Fiscal Services, noted that “after a year of discussion,” no plan had arrived.

Ergo, the state takeover. It’s embarrassing.

“It’s worse than embarrassing,” says Rachel Norton, who served three terms on the school board, leaving in 2020. “They’re saying you didn’t do your job, which is bad. But in addition you lose that ability to control your local values. And San Francisco takes its values very seriously.”

The deficits aren’t a new concern. Full disclosure, earlier boards also overspent. But this is the worst yet. And the effects can be seen clearly.

Last week a news story detailed the appalling conditions at Buena Vista Horace Mann elementary and middle school in the Mission. The story documented rodent infestations, a gas leak and stinking bathrooms.

That was awful. But what made it worse was that almost exactly the same story was written back in 2019, right down to the rat droppings.

Clearly nothing was done in three years. And the district’s outright gaslighting would be funny if it weren’t so serious.

According to one account, when students said they smelled a gas leak, officials tried to blame it on “decaying rodents.”

When your positive spin is dead rats, you’ve got a problem.

However, this is also a unique moment. With the potential recall of School Board members, and knowing that Superintendent Vince Matthews is retiring in June 2022, you have the potential to remake the upper levels of management.

You might even be able to turn this into a school district that parents would want to send their kids to.

For instance, Norton and current D-6 Supervisor Matt Haney fought to revamp the byzantine school choice system, which has baffled and infuriated families for years.

“School assignment change is so needed,” Haney said this week. “And so overdue.”

Students will be put in neighborhood “zones” starting in 2024-25. Kids may not get to go to the nearest school, but they will be assured that it will be in their general neighborhood.

As Norton says, when parents had the option of moving to the suburbs and enrolling in their neighborhood school, rather than going through a lottery and perhaps ending up on the other side of town, they chose the suburbs.

“I think we collectively realized that it was affecting our ability to compete for students,” she said.

And yet, approval for even that common sense change was touch-and-go. Members of the board were so caught up in ideology that it was almost rejected.

Now, a word about the recall. As the election approaches, you are going to hear a lot about how the three recall targets, Gabriela López, Alison Collins and Faauuga Moliga are people of color.

Which is fair. If someone says they are being treated unfairly because of their race, sexual orientation or religion, that should be taken seriously and examined.

OK, we did. That’s not it.

The recall has been fueled by two factors. First, unpopular and frivolous policy choices. With S.F. parents begging the board to find a way to reopen schools, they were off on a quest to rename schools, including “canceling” Abraham Lincoln. It made the district, and The City, a laughing stock.

Even López has admitted “mistakes were made.”

And second, there were real-world consequences to the political grandstanding.

The school-naming controversy provoked a lawsuit and rang up legal fees of $60,000.

The controversy over an offensive mural at George Washington High School — depicting both slavery and the murder of a Native American — has dragged on. When the board voted to cover up the mural, painted in 1936, the George Washington Alumni Association sued, claiming the board hadn’t followed environmental impact regulations.

Which they hadn’t. So they lost, at a cost in legal fees of $145,000.

Unable to let it go, the board has now announced it will appeal the decision. So more legal costs.

(A suggestion: Why not leave the mural up, and install a large plaque that says something like: Some of the images in this mural are offensive and abhorrent. We would never condone slavery or the genocide of Native Americans. However, they are part of our history. We display it here to remind us of those terrible injustices, to recognize how far we have come and to know there is more to do.)

And finally, there is Collins’ ridiculous $87 million vanity lawsuit against the district and her fellow board members. The suit was thrown out by a judge, who said it “had no merit.”

No merit, but plenty of legal costs. The estimate is Collins’ temper tantrum cost the district $120,000. And the board has voted not to go after Collins to recoup the costs.

In all it is over $200,000 of legal fees in these quixotic wild goose chases.

That’s why you are getting recalled.

And that is when we arrive at our moment of hope for change. If the three members are removed from office, replacements will be appointed by Mayor London Breed.

It would clearly be a less ideological board, especially because Breed also appointed moderate — and voice of reason — Jenny Lam. That’s four of seven appointed by the mayor. Add a replacement for lame duck Superintendent Matthews and you might have a sea change.

As Haney said about school selection, “So needed. So overdue.”

Contact C.W. Nevius at Twitter: @cwnevius

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