Stevon Cook and Shamann Walton are the only candidates endorsed by the teachers' union
Stevon Cook and Shamann Walton are the only candidates endorsed by the teachers’ union

By Tim Redmond

SEPTEMBER 2, 2014 — The San Francisco School Board race is something of a sleeper this year; not much in the way of new stories, not much of the sort of high-profile news that’s kept the Community College Board race in the headlines.

But that could change very fast if the board can’t come to terms with the teachers’ union, which has overwhelming membership support for a strike that could happen before Election Day.

There will be at least one newcomer on the board – Kim-Shree Maufas has decided not to seek re-election. There was talk for a while that Hydra Mendoza would also decline to seek another term, which would be fine with me: Mendoza has always been a problem. Not that she’s always a bad board member, but she’s worked for years as the mayor’s education advisor – and that creates an immediate, unavoidable conflict of interest. Is she representing the mayor and his wishes, as she has to do all day to earn a living – or what’s best for the schools? At times, those are in conflict.

But she decided to run again, and it’s hard to oust an incumbent unless the person has done something pretty bad, and the voters don’t seem to agree with me that Mendoza can’t serve two masters. So that the odds are that she and incumbent Emily Murase will retain their seats — unless the teachers walk. Then it’s anyone’s race.

Maufas is strongly supporting Stevon Cook – although Cook didn’t get the Democratic County Central Committee nod, which went to Trevor McNeil (a DCCC member), incumbent Emily Murase, and Shamann Walton, who also ran last time. Cook did get the Milk Club, along with Jaime Rafaela Wolfe.

And, significantly, Cook and Walton are the only two candidates who have the support of the teachers’ union. That’s because negotiations are tense: “Given that we’re in the middle of a contract fight, we can’t possible endorse any of the incumbent board members,” Ken Tray, political director for the United Educators of San Francisco, told me.

There’s always a bit of saber-rattling in labor negotiations, but in this case, more than 2,000 members showed up and 99 percent voted to authorize a strike. It’s all about the cost of living in San Francisco: “Teachers can’t afford to live here,” Tray said. “We think there’s a value to having educators living in the community that they serve.”

Here we have another example of the predictable, but overlooked impacts of igniting a tech boom in San Francisco. The mayor loves the tech jobs, but the housing crisis (which was created by the tech boom, not by a lack of supply) has spilled over into all sorts of other realms. City workers need more money to afford the rent. Teachers need more money to afford housing costs. That means SFUSD has to find more money – not because the teachers are greedy but because Mayor Lee was happy to support tech jobs without thinking about the consequences.

End of speech. Until next time.

Meanwhile, what intrigues me – although it probably won’t mean that much unless there’s unexpected money involved – is the push by the Plan-C-type moderates to “shake up the School Board” – not because of labor issues but over, of course, the long-fought issue of how to assign students to local public schools.

The real shake-up would be a strike: Teachers are popular in San Francisco, and if the district can’t reach a deal that the United Educators of San Francisco accepts, the anger from parents will be focused on the superintendent and the board.

(Oh, and wouldn’t that leave Mendoza in a bad spot? The mayor couldn’t possible avoid taking some role in a teachers’ strike, even though it’s not in his jurisdiction. Would she be representing the mayor or the board in those negotiations?)

But instead, according to the moderates, it’s about school-assignment politics, which we’ve been over and over and over in this city for decades now.

Let me take a step back here and put this in some context. San Francisco schools have improved profoundly in the past decade, that we have the best big-city school district in California, and that most of my friends in middle-class professional families (the ones everyone seems to say have abandoned the local schools) send their kids to SFUSD and are quite pleased.

This is not a failing district. SFUSD is a solid operation that keeps getting better.

Yeah, there are problems, most of them stemming from Prop. 13 and a lack of state money for education. Throwing money at government problems doesn’t always work, but when it comes to schools, the evidence is pretty clear: Spend more, you get better results.

There are inequities. Black student achievement is inexcusably low. Some schools are much better than others, and a few are really in trouble.

But we have come a long, long way, and everyone associated with the district deserves credit for that.

And with the economic inequality in San Francisco today, you’re not going to solve the school assignment issue by giving people more preference for neighborhood schools.

I love the idea of neighborhood schools, where kids can walk to the classroom and home again, and everyone in the area gets involved. Nice concept. Not real. Not when we have such vast economic differences between different parts of town.

See, the secret that never gets talked about is the way the schools really work in SF is parent fundraising.

In all of the “better” schools, the parents raise money to supplement the inadequate amount the state gives us. Schools with wealthier families that have not only the resources but the contacts and skill sets to raise large sums every year get smaller classes, improved facilities, and more educational options. Schools with low-income families where everyone is working two jobs just to pay the rent get nothing.

We’re talking funding differences of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Shift more toward “neighborhood schools” and schools in richer neighborhoods with richer parents will get even richer, and schools with poorer parents will get even poorer. And unless you tax the parent contributions to the higher end schools and send that money to the more needy schools (anyone want to take that one on? Didn’t think so) neighborhood schools are going to increase inequality.

The assignment system we have is imperfect. Not all families get their first-choice schools, and some don’t get their second or third. Some wind up with schools pretty far across town, which is particularly bad in K-5, when kids can’t really take Muni alone. But in a lot of cases, those families are sending their kids far away because they want a better school than the one nearby. And by high school? Even middle school? Gimme a break. It’s a small city. Kids can ride the bus. Mine do.

The notion that we could have “a great school in every neighborhood” sounds lovely, but: money. The reality is that a lot of San Francisco parents want a choice in where they send their kids to school (especially with special programs like language immersion). The ones who want their neighborhood schools are, overwhelmingly, the ones who live in better-off neighborhoods – and if they and their neighbors can fund and improve a local school, and everyone who lives nearby gets to go, it hikes property values.

Yes: The SF schools remain too segregated, and low-income students of color wind up in some of the poorest schools. One reason – less fundraising (see above). Another, bigger reason: Lower-income families have a much lower rate of responding to the school-selection program.

You want to desegregate the schools more? Send language and culturally sensitive advisors to every home with a low-income school-age kid and help the parents fill out the forms and file appeals if they need to. Open satellite placement-counseling offices in all of the low-scoring zip codes, with evening and weekend hours. How about we fundraise for that program?

In the meantime, the imperfect lottery system isn’t really that bad. And I have yet to hear anyone come up with a better one.

“It’s a distraction,” Tray said.

So let’s talk about how we’re going to pay the teachers a living wage in this hyper-inflated housing market and how to improve educational opportunities for the kids who fall behind. (Hey, just for fun, let’s talk about parents raising money for SFUSD in general, and distributing that by need to all schools.)

Because I’m done with the assignment debate. I really am.