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Sunday, May 22, 2022

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News + PoliticsEducationJudge refuses to get involved in SF schools' reopening decisions

Judge refuses to get involved in SF schools’ reopening decisions

Herrera's case had no legal grounding -- which isn't really much of a surprise.

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A San Francisco Superior Court judge refused today to order the School District to open classrooms immediately – a decision that didn’t surprise me a bit.

In fact, it doesn’t seem to have surprised City Attorney Dennis Herrera, either:

“We swung for the fences in seeking this court order because San Francisco families deserved it,” Herrera said. “We came up short, but the case is not over. We’re evaluating all of our legal options going forward.”

City Attorney Dennis Herrera made a political argument, but not an effective legal one.

The complaint reads more like a political argument than a legal one. It notes that the School Board moved forward with a process to rename schools while students were still stuck with remote learning – and argument that foes of the existing board have used repeatedly, and one that is completely irrelevant to the real issue here.

The SF public schools have always needed more than a court order to open; they needed a system of testing, tracking, vaccinations, and a functioning and safe public transit system. (It’s all well and good to open the schools, but if Muni isn’t working, a huge number of students won’t be able to get there.)

Judge Ethan Schulman was dubious of this case from the start, and ruled that he couldn’t issue an order that would

Dictate or oversee the District’s decisions regarding how to reopen a large public school system comprising over 50,000 students and nearly 10,000 teachers, staff and administrators at 130 schools.

There’s another whole side to the story, though: The School District has a collective bargaining agreement with the United Educators of San Francisco. And I just don’t see an SF judge issuing an order that would amount to busting the union.

You can’t order unionized workers back to a job that isn’t safe. That’s a pretty basic part of labor law. And when working conditions are profoundly changing – as they have been and will be – management and labor has to come to an agreement.

I mean, the city attorney and the mayor seem to have no problem when the cops insist that they can demand “meet and confer” on basic management issues impacting public safety. The supervisors approved a contract with the Police Officers Association that allowed the group to continue to block reforms this way.

But with the teachers? Oh, the city should just tell them to stop negotiating, forget the union contract, and get back to class, because private schools are doing it and it’s pretty safe. Maybe.

Actually, a lot of COVID spread has been happening in the workplace. A significant number of SFUSD teachers are, or have spouses, partners, or other co-habitants who are at high risk from COVID. The school buildings are old; in many cases, it’s impossible to have decent ventilation without substantial work.

The district administration has, indeed, been terrible about making clear what it needs. When Sup. Hillary Ronen pleaded at a hearing for a list – what do you need to open the schools, and how much does it cost, and what can the city do? – the administration just danced around the question.

And the parents are, and should be, angry: My kids went to public schools, and if they were still young, I don’t know what we – two working parents — would ever have done. I really have no idea how people are managing. (Although if my son had missed a year of in-person middle school, we all might have been a lot better off. Seriously; middle school is a nightmare, and we need to change the configuration.)

Herrera says his case brought more attention to the issue:

It was only after we sued the school district and parents mobilized to demand action that school officials finally began making progress on reopening. It’s unfortunate that it took a lawsuit and families rallying in the streets to get the school district to focus on the most important thing – getting its students back in class.

Actually, it was only after months of complex negotiations with the union, which were taking place pretty much every single day, that the district was able to open classroom doors.

But putting public school teachers at the front of the vaccine line, and providing the resources the district needs to upgrade classrooms (oh, and provide for school nurses and social workers) would have done more to get the classrooms actually open.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

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