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Friday, October 22, 2021

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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.

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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5 COMMENTS

  1. Why is 48hills maintaining radio silence over anything to do with the Allison Collins lynching by right wing Asians? San Lauter has been vocal about this. Is he on the clock here?

  2. Looks like the consigliere of corruption got his ass handed to him by the judge as he tried to appease San Francisco’s Trump supporters.

    Why was Herrera wasting money on this pandering instead of spending more of his office’s resources ascertaining that his department head clients were not defrauding the taxpayers of honest government?

  3. I wonder when Herrera will be returning to his office to model the appropriate behavior. Seems like he should go first, or at least not longer after Breed and the others who think teachers need to give up their workplace safety concerns.

  4. Teachers went to the front of the line for vaccines but the re-opening plan is a joke. K-12 should be open 5 days a week to all students who want to go in person on April 12 … not just a few days a week for K, 1st, and 2nd. We will be in the orange tier and all teachers will have had > 6 weeks to get their shots. When the school board is on the ballot, I’m voting against everyone currently holding the position and I encourage everyone to do the same.

  5. For the full year+ of the Public Health Order, I’ve thought a lot about the city’s response to the Tenderloin, and it has been really weird to watch as elected officials like Mayor London Breed, Assemblyman Phil Ting, Supervisor Hilary Ronen, termed-out Supervisor Fewer and Dennis Herrera scream, threaten, cry and in the City Attorney’s case sue about the damage SFUSD has been inflicting on its students as the district continues to work through the complex issues around reopening schools for in-person learning, including working with labor unions to ensure safe working environments.
    Despite early action on the part of community stakeholders, two elementary school principals, and the San Francisco Marin Food Bank, the Tenderloin did not have a large, community-wide food pantry until the end of September. (La Voz Latina and other organizations continued to operate their own pantries, but they had limited capacity.)
    I was part of that early effort and initially was fairly optimistic that this would be a relatively straightforward project. I really had not expected that San Francisco’s can’t-do attitude toward the Tenderloin would include blocking a food pantry for hungry families. But the logistics of parking a truck, getting operations staff (such as library and other employees still on the city’s payroll), setting up bagging and distribution tables, and organizing a socially-distanced line for people in need was too complicated for whichever city departments and officials got in the way of such a simple idea. More than five months into the pandemic, the Food Bank was going to be allowed to open a pantry on UN Plaza, but shortly before the planned start date, someone (I haven’t done the Sunshine Request, but I am fairly certain I know who it was) decided that the Plaza was an unsuitable location. So, no food there – SF couldn’t allow food distribution to happen on a site where there is a farmer’s market three (now two) days a week. Instead, a short-term pantry was opened by Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, but it got forced out so the Department of Elections could open the outdoor voting center. At the end of September, Tenderloin residents finally got a neighborhood food pantry on the 200 block of Ellis Street, the same block as Glide Memorial Church. Miraculously, all the logistical issues that had prevented convenient access to food for six months vanished – it almost seems those issues had never been real.
    Figuring out how to park a truck and distribute food is vastly less complex than reopening more than 100 school sites for 50,000 students, but that relatively simple task was stymied for nearly six months – by ineptitude, indifference and (I guess) more important things (or people) to take care of.
    The city’s failure to address food insecurity in the Tenderloin is exceeded by its disregard for the physical and mental health of 3,500 kids in the neighborhood who almost entirely disappeared from public spaces after order to shelter in place was issued. The transformation of streets elsewhere into safer places to walk, run, bike, play and breathe could not be done in the Tenderloin. SFFD and SFMTA refused to budge: Slow Streets was not a good fit for the neighborhood, emergency vehicles needed access to TL streets in ways that were entirely inconsistent with what they needed (or got) elsewhere in San Francisco. “The City that Knows How” just didn’t know how. End of story. Sorry, kids, there’s nothing we can do for you. There’s nowhere to play. Stay inside and invisible so we won’t look like a crappy city that mistreats its kids. The absence of children from public spaces in the Tenderloin had been so total that when ten or so preschoolers from Wu Yee finally outside again walking along Golden Gate Avenue to get to Boeddeker Park a couple blocks away, Randy Shaw could caption a photo of them “Children return to Tenderloin streets” (Beyond Chron, 30 June, 2020) – as if ten were enough.
    For most of the pandemic, concerned and committed community members haves sought city support (or at least cooperation) in creating safe recreation spaces in the Tenderloin. By mid-October when the state finally allowed playgrounds to reopen, the Tenderloin had gotten just a handful of street closures on the 200 block of Turk Street for several hours of Play Streets. After months without anything, Play Streets will return to the neighborhood tomorrow, this time on one block of Golden Gate Avenue.
    Those wonderful few hours when kids were in the street have been far too little. Trying to get more has been a painfully slow process, despite weekly Zoom meetings to which dozens of people from many city departments (including the School Board Commissioner Jennie Lam, the Mayor’s education advisor) are invited. Having learned from a friend who works in Phil Ting’s office that Sean Elsbernd, the Mayor’s Chief of Staff, was convinced that the city had failed Tenderloin kids, I emailed him in October asking for leadership and financial support for the proposals we’d been working on for so long. I’m sure he’s a busy man, and failing TL kids is just one of the city’s problems, but he couldn’t be bothered to respond or even delegate the response to someone else. Once you’ve failed a neighborhood, you might as well keep failing.
    Although we are about to get a one-block pilot project up and running on Turk Street, we still can’t get a short alley closed and Rec and Park has failed to follow through on their commitment to creating a designated kids’ recreation area on Civic Center Plaza. Having seen similar enclosures on other Rec and Park property, I had proposed a fenced area as a safety measure, but I was told fences are too ugly for such a beautiful and historically significant plaza so we settled on signage. That was September. Still waiting. (But, speaking of ugly fences, I do wonder why the police barricades are still blocking City Hall ten months after they were put up to “protect” the building from Black Lives Matters demonstrators.)
    San Francisco city government has repeatedly failed the Tenderloin since well before COVID-19. Nearly a year of advocacy for kids has wrested a few crumbs from this fabulously wealthy city and county. Unlike the politicians and others who can’t shut up about SFUSD’s steady work over the past year, I realize these are complex issues that actually take a lot of work and coordination. Nonetheless, there is no denying that San Francisco has compounded multiple long-term failures by refusing to treat Tenderloin kids with respect in the midst of yet another emergency in their lives.

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