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Monday, September 26, 2022

Opinion: The window of trust is closing on San Francisco’s school district

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By Laurance Lem Lee

Special to The Examiner

The San Francisco Unified School District is far from fixed, even with three new Board of Education commissioners. Just four months ago, the school district dodged disaster when the Board of Education mercifully rejected a sparse, two-slide “alternative budget vision.” Had it said yes, the state-appointed fiscal expert guaranteed state takeover the next day. Since then? More big, unresolved messes.

Teachers not paid correctly. Students pleading to save their beloved teachers. District administration bloat. Unrealized school building fixes.

With a budget of $1.2 billion for a student population of 50,000, SFUSD completely fails the reputation test to the casual observer. It can’t do the big things right.

Take the latest teacher pay debacle involving a software called EmPowerSF. Despite an original $9.5 million, then $11.1 million and now $13.7 million paid for that system, dozens, if not hundreds (thousands?) of teachers, didn’t get paid, didn’t get their benefits and didn’t get their retirement contributions. This has been terribly wrong since at least January, precipitating a three-night sleep-in at the school district headquarters. And it’s still not solved. Rebecca Fedorko, an SFUSD teacher, told me she cried when she did her taxes, owing nearly a month in take-home pay because SFUSD messed up. “I felt like a complete loser,” she told me.

A month ago, the Board of Education approved a new contract with the United Educators of San Francisco — the SFUSD teachers union — that, in effect, gutted Advanced Placement spending to provide one-time bonuses for some teachers. In an emotionally wrenching board meeting (ironically cut short because improper noticing of the meeting violated state law), student after student pleaded to save their teachers and Advanced Placement programs, which signal academic achievement and college readiness. The students lost. Given all the places to cut, the decision came off as random, fiscally unsound and inflexible.

For years, we San Francisco residents faithfully gave SFUSD money. In 2016, we gave the district $744 million to fix schools. Year after year, SFUSD’s Public Education Enrichment Fund provides $80 million for athletics, libraries, music and more. We’ve given millions a year to help bring up teacher salaries. We approved millions for still-unbuilt affordable teacher housing.

Yet today SFUSD is $125 million in the hole. A tragedy in a city so rich. Sure, more money is definitely needed, but the district must be a good steward of the money it has now. It has not been, and students are bearing the brunt.

Student outcomes, suboptimal before the pandemic, have gotten worse, and even more so for those who need help most. A review of state data shows that Blacks, Hispanicsand Pacific Islanders are well behind their peers around California. And we call ourselves “student-centered.”

Rex Ridgeway, a grandparent in the district, pointed out that Bret Harte Elementary has 8% students reading at grade level. Charles Drew has 19% at grade level. He told me, “What angers me is that the district is doubling down on curriculum that has proven not to work — reading programs like Fountas and Pinnell and Lucy Calkins.”

Students and teachers are not getting their schools fixed or modernized, as promised.

Money has barely gotten to Buena Vista/Horace Mann facilities, despite the public outrage and fire drill we went through last fall. Remember the gas leak for days, the overheated rooms? That school community who voted for the 2016 bond may have to wait until 2024 for major work to commence.

Let me go a little deeper into the lack of transparency on facilities spending. For all that money, now over $2 billion since 2003, you would expect that we citizens would have access to a detailed facilities budget. Seems easy, right? Not with SFUSD. SFUSD was supposed to form something called a Citizens’ Bond Oversight Committee. Did it? No. It went ahead and spent our money, behind closed doors, and — even SFUSD admits — in violation of the law. SFUSD simply couldn’t bother to comply with the law.

So if you thought we solved all of SFUSD’s problems by recalling three commissioners, I’m sorry to say: No, there’s a lot more work to do.

SFUSD needs to commit to transparency and restoring trust. It needs to pay its teachers. It needs to fix crumbling schools. It needs to address the structural deficit without kicking the can again. It needs to provide kids with an education that other districts envy.

SFUSD is at a critical inflection point. We have a chance here, but the window of trust is closing rapidly.

The sooner SFUSD and the Board of Education understands this and starts focusing on the basics — finances, infrastructure, reading, math, nutrition and the well-being of all students — the quicker we will find ourselves out of this mess. I remain optimistic that we have an opportunity. But even a semester is a lifetime for our kids. We must seize the moment.

Laurance Lem Lee is a second-generation Chinese American, SFUSD graduate and General Contractor. You can follow him on Twitter @eyessfboe.

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