Since the beginning of the year, French
anthropologist Anne-Marie Arnaqueuse has been traveling throughout the
United States, studying the political culture of American cities and towns
and publishing regular reports in the left-leaning literary magazine
La bętise. The SF Call has obtained a translation of the article she
wrote following her visit to San Francisco:
When Prices Are High and Talk Is Cheap
Decision-Making at the San Francisco School Board
It is a truism that we French are a logical people,
but the first thing that one notices about any American city is the
chaotic nature of its public institutions. San Francisco is no exception.
In geography and population, the City and County of
San Francisco are one and the same, and often referred to as one entity,
“the Siddy n Cowny uh Sampencisco.” In theory, it consists of two
overlapping jurisdictions, governed by an archaic collection of agencies —
elected officials, bureaucrats, and citizen commissions — that follow an
arcane collection of rules. In practice, its operating procedures are
simple: most activity takes place in public meetings where decisions are
reached through a ritualized and often orchestrated interchange among a
limited group of actors.
Therefore, in order to learn how power is actually
distributed in San Francisco, I decided to sit in on several public
meetings and watch the interaction among the various participants. My
first stop was the Board of Education.
The operating principles of the San Francisco Unified
School District are particularly opaque, because its superior governing
body is neither the city nor the county, but the office of the state
superintendent of public instruction. Schools receive their financing from
a mixture of sources, with state contributing the lion’s share of 55%. Per
capita spending on students is low — it was 25th in the country
in 2004 — and so are students’ scores on standardized tests. In many
districts, there has been an exodus from the public school system: San
Francisco has a school-age population of more than 100,000, but less than
60,000 children attend public school. Occasionally local calls for reform
are heard, ever so faintly, but they tend to get lost in the multitude of
regulations and entrenched interests.
There seems to be no way to get a handle on the
system. The websites of both the state
Department of Education and the
San Francisco Unified School District are bursting with “standards”
and “policies” and “missions.” But they lack the straightforward
explanations that citizens need if they are to understand how these
organizations work and who is responsible for their success or failure.
Has no one here heard of organizational charts? Or simple declarative
Recently, the federal government has added its own
level of confusion, an equally mysterious national testing program called
No Child Left Behind, which affects schools’ funding and accreditation.
Even conscientious parents must be frustrated when they try to learn
what’s happening to their children’s schools and they encounter
explanations of NCLB like this one, the whole story that the SFUSD
presents on its website: “In 2001, Congress reauthorized ESEA as the ‘No
Child Left Behind Act’ (NCLB). Under NCLB, teachers and paraprofessionals
must be certified as ‘highly qualified.’" Imagine how they feel when they
read the introduction to the program offered by the California Department
of Education, which is followed by an entire page of links to technical
reports, regulations, and power point presentations: “Each state is
required to develop and implement a statewide accountability system that
will ensure that all schools and districts make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)
as defined by NCLB.” Even the very source of the new program, the U.S.
Department of Education, provides an example of public relations run amok.
DOE’s “Introduction” buries visitors in the details of a
Guide to Education & NCLB,
Four Pillars of NCLB,
Executive Summary of NCLB,
Fact Sheet on NCLB Act.
Oh, how I long for
the rationality of France’s organization and the clarity of French
expression! Because of Americans’ renowned linguistic limitations, it is
doubtful that they would appreciate the simplicity of the system outlined
on the French
Ministry of Education’s website. But they would surely envy the
down-to-earth language in the description offered by the
French embassy to the United States.
Putting nostalgia aside, I remind myself that I am
not here as an ambassador. I am here to observe. Last week I entered the
SFUSD building at 555 Franklin, wondering how this bureaucratic muddle
would play out in an actual meeting.
The windowless room where the School Board meets is
long, probably twice as long as it is wide. When I came in, the Board
members were sitting, facing the audience, behind a brightly lit
almond-shaped table that covered the front of the room. President Eric Mar
was in the middle, evoking tough chic in a black shirt, black leather
jacket, and bright tie. Throughout the meeting, he was unfailingly polite;
his mantra was the phrase “Thank you so much.” The other members, dressed
more unobtrusively, arranged themselves to his right and his left, along
with several advisers and clerks. Board member Eddie Chin and
Superintendent Arlene Ackerman were absent. During the meeting, most of
the members confined their remarks to questions and brief statements, with
longtime members Jill Wynns and Dan Kelly more inclined to indulge in
reminiscences and extended commentary.
According to an
assessment made in 2002, “San
Francisco public schools are currently 89% students of color, including
30% Chinese, 22% Latino, 16% African American, and 7% Pilipino. Almost one
third of SFUSD students are English- language learners of many different
ethnicities, with the top primary languages being Chinese (over 7,300
students), Spanish (about 6,900 students), Pilipino or Tagalog (over 700
students), Vietnamese (over 500 students), and Russian (over 400
students). The School Board, whose members are elected, does not represent
this distribution: Chin, Mar, and Norman Yee are Asian; Kelly, Wynns, and
Sarah Lipson are Caucasian; and Mark Sanchez is Latino. Although
Superintendent Ackerman is African American, there are no African
Americans on the Board.
At last week’s meeting a succession of SFUSD
representatives sat on the other side of the table, facing the Board.
Their voices were audible, amplified by tiny microphones, but their faces
were not visible to the audience, any more than their names appeared on
the SFUSD’s website. To their left — far off to the side — stood a lectern
reserved for members of the public, also equipped with a mike. The rest of
the area was filled with space-age chairs, some padded, some constructed
of clear acrylic. Members of the audience chattered freely among
themselves during the meeting.
Most agenda items included time for public comment,
but I was told that this is one of the public’s sore points because
speakers are often bumped from one time slot to another. While I was
there, this did indeed occur. Although one member of the audience near me
had filed a card indicating that she would like to speak, her name wasn’t
called at the appropriate moment. When she asked why, she was told that
she had been rescheduled for another comment period, at the end of the
meeting. Four hours later, she rose to speak.
The meeting began half an hour late, at about 7:30.
When the first general comment period was announced an hour later, a group
of advanced placement teachers lined up to speak. Yes, teachers were
considered part of the public here, even though their appearance was
backed by the teachers’ union, the United Educators of San Francisco. No
members of the general public joined them, and no students.
The teachers had come to protest proposed cuts in
their class schedule. Their contracts are up for renewal, and the trigger
for their appearance was a cost-saving measure proposed by the school
district to eliminate the additional conference/preparation periods that
AP teachers say they need to do their job effectively. They portrayed
themselves as dedicated teachers, concerned with the challenges and
rewards of making college-level material comprehensible to high school
students. They described their less-than-ideal working conditions, with
limited supplies and crowded classrooms — one AP science teacher said he
teaches more than 35 students in courses designed for less than 20.
In San Francisco’s public meetings, comments like
these do not usually begin a dialogue. They generally fall into a great
black hole, unanswered. At the end of these comments, however, a
disembodied administrator’s voice arose from the table in response,
stating that the suggested change was part of ongoing contract
negotiations and therefore should not be discussed in public.
It was difficult to assess the distribution of power
in this situation, especially because the superintendent was absent. The
Board members did not enter the discussion at all. I found out later that
their hands were tied — or at least their mouths were muzzled
— because the topic was not on the agenda. And the administration
refused to engage. But at the same time it could not silence the teachers
by controlling access to information, because the contract proposed by the SFUSD — along with the teachers’ own proposals — was already
available on the UESF website with AP prep periods clearly marked for
The District shall provide two (2) additional
conference/preparation periods to each regular high school for Advanced
Placement (AP) classes, plus an additional conference period for each
twenty (20) AP exams above forty (40) taken at said school the prior year.
Teachers of AP classes may make recommendations to the principal for
allocating AP additional conference/preparation periods.
In effect, there was a three-way standoff between the Board, the
administration, and the teachers, presumably to be resolved at a later
date. Other constituent groups — parents, students, and the general
public — were noticeably silent.
The meeting lasted until nearly midnight, and this was by no means the
only issue discussed. But it became the most significant.
Earlier, members of the administration reported on the distribution of
funds from two bonds passed in 1997 and 2003, delivering a chronology of
events in the bland, watered-down phraseology of a fourth grade history
textbook. Passive verbs were used. Faulty procedures were changed. Funds
were disbursed. At the end of the presentation, UESF president Dennis
Kelly, a large man with the weighty walk of a labor leader, approached the
public’s lectern. Then and only then were listeners reminded that the
handling of the 1997 bonds had been embarrassingly lax, marked by “no
fraud, but incompetence.”
The lackluster bond presentation was followed by an almost giddy report
from the Proposition H Citizens Advisory Committee. In March 2004 the
voters of San Francisco overwhelmingly passed Prop H; the measure,
sponsored by Supervisor Tom Ammiano, instituted an 11-year program to give
the school district more money, beginning with $10 million and working up
to $60 million a year. The CAC presented its wish list. As required by the
law, one third of the funding is earmarked for preschools; the SF
Examiner, which has been following Prop H closely, carried an
article on the preschool funding on the day
the meeting. In addition, one third is allocated
for general educational needs, including additional counselors and nurses;
and one third is for SLAM — sports, libraries, arts, and music. CAC member
Novella Smith said happily, “It’s an amazing amount of money… to bring
back things that we have lost over time.”
But the committee’s joy may be
short-lived. Under the terms of the proposition, the city may defer a
quarter of the funding in any year, like this year, when it anticipates a
budget shortfall of $100 million. That would leave $7.5 million to start
the ball rolling.
Despite agenda items like these, the AP teachers’ appearance served its
purpose, which was not to secure a resolution of the issue but simply to
draw attention to it. The SF Chronicle devoted its
entire initial coverage of the meeting to their plight (with a small
additional item a day later about the school calendar). The next step will
be public pressure — faxes, phone calls, and emails — on the School Board
and the SFUSD. That, and not a dispassionate discussion of policy, is
likely to sway the outcome.
In this land of obfuscating bureaucrats and fuzzy-minded commentators, it
may be too much to ask that children’s future be decided by dispassionate
policy discussions. When, I wonder, will the Americans realize they need
another visit from Lafayette?