Three months ago, San Francisco Unified School District’s Board of Education member Alison Collins was stripped of her leadership position in a five to two vote amidst calls for her resignation after a series of tweets she wrote in 2016 were unearthed. Before that, the Board triggered a nationwide backlash for proposing to rename 44 schools during a pandemic. These and other issues prompted widespread questioning of the Board’s competence.
In response, a group of concerned parents are campaigning to change the Board from an elected body to an appointed one, with members selected by the Board of Supervisors or a newly constituted special committee. Advocates believe an appointment system would better ensure that members have the expertise and experience needed to effectively carry out their responsibilities and provide greater accountability.
Opponents of the campaign counter that eliminating elections would deprive families, especially low-income and immigrant parents, of a voice in their children’s education.
SFUSD serves a large, diverse student population. Board decisions are rarely universally popular. The added pressures of the public health crisis, however, and what many believe to be an inadequate District response, have prompted families to call for a fundamental change in the way public schools are governed.
The Campaign for Better SF Public Schools (CBSFPS) was co-founded last spring by two SFUSD parents, Jennifer Kuhl Butterfoss, a former Alvarado Elementary School principal, and Patrick Wolff, a financial analyst with whom Butterfoss connected through the political organization Families for San Francisco. Butterfoss, Wolff and their supporters cite a litany of problems that, according to Butterfoss, “are keeping San Francisco schools from being the best in the country, which we know they can be. Most of these problems were going on long before the pandemic, but I think the pandemic has really exasperated public dissatisfaction with our current board and how they’ve been making decisions.”
CBSFPS asserts that Board decision-making is motivated by ideology rather than the needs of schools, educators and families, and that the system of electing commissioners has consistently failed to produce a board with the range of expertise needed to effectively administer one of the country’s largest districts.
While other groups are working to recall Board of Education members, CBSFPS wants to change the way membership is formed, advocating for a transition from direct elections to an appointment system in which Board candidates are chosen by an outside entity, most likely a special independent committee, which’d also have some degree of oversight.
Critics counter that this change would undermine the democratic process. While the Board of Education declined to comment on the issue, Vice President Faauuga Moliga, speaking on his own behalf, stated, “Representative democracy is fundamental in America and [moving away from elections] would deny parents, teachers and all San Franciscans from having a voice in our public schools.”
In 2016, San Francisco voters approved a measure allowing non-citizen guardians and parents—whose children compose an estimated one-third of SFUSD students—to vote in school board elections. Non-citizens don’t have the right to vote for mayor or other elected municipal positions. Moliga pointed out that such families would lose the representation they recently gained should the District switch to an appointment system.
“It is disappointing that now there’s a group of people seeking to change the system to disenfranchise San Francisco voters from electing school board members,” Moliga said.
According to Butterfoss, advocates want “to see a stronger reform effort that can really ensure that we get the most qualified people in the positions of Board of Ed commissioners. In doing so, we’re looking to move to an appointed system. What that will bring about is greater accountability for our board and a closer relationship between our city and the public school system.”
An elected Board of Education operates with a high degree of independence from the rest of The City. Municipal officials have no authority over the Board. When accusations were made early this year that Board members were prioritizing the renaming of schools over educating students, City officials had little ability to compel the Board to focus on resuming in-person learning.
According to Butterfoss, “it took a long time, and a lawsuit from the mayor,” for the Board to concentrate on re-opening. “There is no mechanism for the two, really, to cooperate,” she said. CBSFPS contends that an appointment system, such as used by Boston public schools, would allow for more direct oversight of the Board by municipal leaders.
District staff and educators interviewed by The View maintain that reopening delays have been driven by shifting COVID conditions and associated complications. A sharp increase in infection rates during the winter holidays set back the District’s ability to meet benchmarks for re-opening and prompted concerns among school employees and families that needed additional time to address.
Board critics contend that the process might have gone more smoothly and quickly had the Board voted to hire a pandemic preparedness consultant last June, as recommended by Superintendent Victor Matthews. The outside consultant, whose fees would’ve been covered by private donations, was rejected by the Board in a five to two vote in part because of concerns over the effectiveness of external advisors and the fact that the identified consultant had previously worked with charter schools. Board members have been consistently hostile to charter schools.
According to Butterfoss, the Board hasn’t been transparent about its decision-making process or effectively communicated with families. Citing Board meetings that extend for hours before issues related to remote schooling or re-opening are discussed, and the appearance of indifference to parental confusion and frustration, Butterfoss contended that the Board “has shirked its responsibility.”
“There was a vacuum and a lack of any messaging, any commitment, any urgency around the situation. There was nothing. They were discussing renaming schools. They were discussing anything, but there was no reassurance to the public and to us as families, as we were trying to make plans, as we were trying to make decisions around childcare—do I stay in my job, or not?—there just was no assurance from our leadership, that [maintaining the quality of education during the pandemic] was their priority or focus.”
A recent decision to halt a merit-based application system for Lowell High School, one of the country’s highest academically ranked public high schools, has been met with considerable resistance and charges of ideological purity being prized over students’ needs. The Board’s preference for the lottery system was intended to confront substantial educational inequality in San Francisco. As revealed in a 2014 report by San Francisco Public Press, 10 of the District’s elementary schools collectively receive as much private funding as the other 61 combined. The report pointed to segregation trends in student assignment as an underlying problem.
Opponents counter that the lottery exacerbates inequality by, among other things, driving families of means out of the public school system. According to 2020 Common Core Data and American Community Survey data, 32 percent of San Francisco elementary through high school students are enrolled in private schools.
Proponents of an appointment system argue that elections have made the Board highly politicized, attracting candidates who see Board membership as an entry point to a political career and are more skilled at campaigning than in the boring, practical skills needed to effectively administer a large school district.
Board of Education President Gabriela López declined to comment on the reform campaign, citing the Board’s need to focus on a return to in-person learning. Moliga responded that the Campaign for Better SF Public School’s “mission does not sit well with me.”
Butterfoss hastened to add that an appointment system would most likely not be directly controlled by the mayor’s office but instead involve establishing a nomination panel, such as used in Boston public schools, whose members represent a diversity of stakeholders, including teachers and neighborhood representatives, that’d propose candidates. Boston’s approach, however, is influenced by that city’s mayor’s office.
Proposal details are being worked out; CBSFPS wants input from experts, stakeholders and concerned San Franciscans. Initiative supporters have until September to collect enough signatures to get a measure on the June 2022 ballot.