Editorial: A voice of humility for the district

When was the last time you heard a leading public servant or a top corporate executive express personal doubts while on the job? Not recently, we dare say. Such individuals are supposed to beam self-confidence into every darkened corner. To use the cliché, they are expected to be the smartest in the room.

That is why the self-critical comments by Gwen Chan, San Francisco’s acting school superintendent, are so intriguing. Ambivalent about whether she’ll apply for the job, Chan wonders if her leadership skills failed her in the recent debate over the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps. She favored keeping it. The school board, unambiguously taking an anti-war stand, voted to kill it.

“I try not to take it personally,” the 37-year veteran of the district unburdened herself to The Examiner, “but I wonder if it’s a reflection on my leadership.” It’s enough to suggest that Chan, just maybe, finds it shrewd to pursue a strategy of paradoxical intention.

Marketers (and Zen masters) understand the concept. Not only do manufacturers build demand for a product by withholding it from consumers (just think of Microsoft’s next best cyber-entertainment at Christmastime), but popular entertainers create affection for themselves by withdrawing in self-abnegation from the public (just think of that last “last tour,” followed, after a decent interval, by a new tour).

We don’t for a moment insinuate that Chan’s public candor cynically fits such a design. In fact, we’re taken by what appears to be its authentic modesty. The refreshing nature of it might even be working. Already Kim-Shree Maufas, a newly elected board member, describes Chan as “the calm in the storm,” poised to guide the district through the next set of troubling issues.

The perception certainly can help as the reconstituted board — three of its seven members are new — casts a wide net for a permanent superintendent who can steady the district’s course 10 months after the forceful Arlene Ackerman’s departure. There’s even talk of finding someone from outside the schooling establishment — from business, say, or the military — not to mention the debatable proposal, floated this week on these pages, for the mayor to seize control of the district.

The truth is, in any community the job of school superintendent can be the most important — it nurtures and prepares young lives for citizenship, after all — as well as the most impossible. The role is thankless, but anyone who makes a respectable showing can win a measure of celebrity, perhaps even a step up in a political career.

Gwen Chan’s humility is not misplaced, but we’d like to see it spread across the district itself. That would mean abandoning social engineering schemes and getting back to basics. That would mean granting parents some competitive choices inside The City. Otherwise, as those declining enrollment figures rudely indicate, parents will choose to take their children elsewhere.

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