Meeting notes, April 26: Edison and other controversies

Get ready, long post!

The main business item on tonight’s agenda was the renewal of Thomas Edison Charter Academy’s charter for five more years. The school has a long, tortured history in SFUSD, colored mainly by the very poor relationship between the district and the school’s former operator, for-profit Edison Corporation.

The ancient history is that back during the Rojas years (1996-1999 ish; don’t quote me on the exact years), the Board approved Edison’s charter, then a few years later sought to revoke it. In what Commissioner Wynns tonight characterized as a backroom deal, Edison was ultimately allowed to ask for a charter renewal, which the Board denied, then appeal the denial to the State Board of Education to become a state-issued charter.  Since then, the school district and Edison have mostly ignored each other, aside from the fact that Edison has been occupying prime school district real estate on 22nd and Dolores Streets, smack dab in the middle of the child-rich Noe Valley and Mission neighborhoods.

The state has renewed Edison’s charter at least once, but what has changed this time is that the school has now severed its ties with Edison Corporation and is now an independent charter operator. The current administration is apparently inexperienced in the ways of charter petitions, and the renewal petition submitted to the Board back in January was incomplete and inadequate from a budget perspective. So while the Board’s Curriculum Committee voted 2-1 back in February to give the petition a positive recommendation, the Budget Committee unanimously recommended to the Board that the petition not be approved. The full Board later voted unanimously to deny the renewal petition.

Enter the State Board of Education, which could in the past always be relied upon to approve any charter application that it saw. However, the State Board makeup has changed dramatically under Governor Brown, and many speculate that it is now much less charter-friendly than in the past. Anyway, apparently the Edison petitioners revised their petition before appealing to the State Board, but rather than approving the appeal outright, the State Board asked the SFUSD Board to take another look at the revisions before it agreed to review the petition.  (According to testimony from SFUSD staff tonight, the State Board has some kind of rule about making sure it is working off the same information provided to local governing Boards, so it asked us to rule on the revised petition before it considered taking action).

Tonight SFUSD staff presented its review of the newly-complete petition, but still found deficiencies that warranted denial of the petition. Specifically, there were several grounds cited: that the budget figures and analysis provided in the petition contained omissions and inaccuracies; and that the petition contained inaccurate or incomplete descriptions of certain aspects of the program (discipline and employee rights).

Now, it’s important to note that the standard for a charter renewal is generally much looser than that applied to a new charter. If a school has a track record, my experience is that our staff generally recommends renewal. So it’s no small thing that the staff recommended denial of the renewal petition in this case. On the other hand, Edison’s record of achievement — especially with our priority groups — is quite good.

Other Board members seemed to share my uncertainty about denying a petition for a school that has a good academic track record, but a financial situation that is shakier than we might like (and given the budget climate we are all entering into, shaky is not good). In the end, we decided to take more time with the decision and give the budget aspect of the petition a deeper discussion at the Budget Committee this Thursday. A final vote on Edison’s charter petition will come at a Special Meeting after the Committee of the Whole on May 3.

The Board also heard a presentation from students at Principal’s Center Collaborative, a Big Picture school that is a joint program of the Probation Department and the school district. Five students from the school came to tell us what they have been working on, what they value about their school, and demonstrated impressive poise while facing the Board, as well as a group of neighbors opposed to the school’s moving from dilapidated trailers in the outer Sunset to the soon-to-be refurbished site at 7th and Lawton (more about that later). Their highly-regarded principal, Jim Fithian, accompanied by members of his staff, looked on proudly.

Students at Principals Center Collaborative face the Board

On to public comment, another hour of it:

  • An impressively large  group of parents from Robert Louis Stevenson Elementary came to discuss issues they are having with a teacher who has apparently been out on some kind of disability for 70 percent of the school year. This is a personnel issue, so there’s not much to discuss here, but the Superintendent did assure the parents that the administration is aware of the issue. The classroom has a permanent sub for the rest of the year, but parents are understandably concerned about what happens next year.
  • Another group came from Lincoln HS protesting the decision to cut back the school’s music program for next year. No one likes cuts, especially to the arts. But in examining this situation more closely, it’s important to realize that this was a site-based decision, voted upon by the Lincoln HS site council. Site-based budgeting means that you allow sites to set their own priorities, within certain parameters, and in return you agree to live with the resulting decisions. Second, the decision to cut the music teacher was made last year, with the hope (some say promise) that the position could be reinstated for 2011-12. Unfortunately, now that schools are having to implement their “Scenario B” budgets (B=Bad and the result of the legislature’s failure to extend tax increases or even put them on the ballot for the voters to extend),  earlier hopes are fading. Lincoln’s site council has chosen to spend its limited but protected Prop H dollars on visual arts and drama programs, including darkroom photography, AP studio art, ceramics, drawing, drama, theater tech, and computer art. You’d have to ask them why they’ve decided these programs are more important than music, but I support their right to set the school’s arts priorities.
  • Teachers from the Chinese Education Center came to express their dissatisfaction with the direction of the program.
  • And we heard from a group of Inner Sunset neighbors about their continued opposition to the district’s plan to move Principal’s Center from 43d and Judah to 7th and Lawton, currently undergoing various construction work.  I want to discuss this in greater detail below.

The neighbors are upset because:

  • The district did not discuss its plans to move Principal’s Center to the site before making the decision;
  • They are worried about the impact of the program on their neighborhood (I’ve heard neighbors raise concerns about parking and safety both of students at the school and neighbors and visitors to the neighborhood);
  • They think an elementary school or middle school would be a better use of the site.

The group has asked for answers to a number of detailed questions about the decision-making process, the planning process the district utilized in making the decision to relocate the school, as well as numerous requests voiced in earlier comments on this blog.  I’m very sympathetic to the frustrations of neighbors who live next to an SFUSD school — generally, they put up with a lot (the Superintendent himself lives across the street from one of our elementary schools and says his driveway is often blocked by parents double-parking or illegally parking their cars during dropoff and pickup times).  There’s traffic and/or sidewalk congestion, parking issues, and issues with student discipline or misbehavior. I absolutely believe that every school community has the obligation to be a good neighbor and consider impacts of school events and programs on the safety and livability of a neighborhood.  But at the same time, no neighborhood has the right to choose which school or which students are located in its midst — and as the governing board, we expect the Superintendent to make decisions that benefit the entire system, not one particular neighborhood.

With respect to Principal’s Center, the Superintendent had the authority to make the decision to relocate the school, unilaterally, without the Board’s approval. Of course, as the Board, we have the authority to ask him to revisit that decision, but at this point I don’t see a majority — or even a minority–of the Board wanting him to do that.

On the group’s specific concerns:  I think if staff had it to do over again, they would approach the neighbors differently. It’s probably always better to over-communicate than under-communicate, and at least some of our current problem with the neighbors is due to years of under-communicating.  On the elementary school suggestion: At this moment, the school system does not need another elementary school in the Inner Sunset — the neighborhood’s elementary schools (Clarendon, Grattan, Alice Fong Yu, Lawton and Jefferson) are impacted, yes, but they are impacted because people from other neighborhoods are willing to travel to attend those schools.  Finally, on the safety issue:  No one I’ve talked to in the district is aware of any notable complaints arising from the 43rd and Judah neighbors (“not a peep” is how one person characterized it).

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11 responses to “Meeting notes, April 26: Edison and other controversies

  1. re: Edison – tonight the renewal received unanimous support from the Budget committee (Norton, Yee, Fewer). Commissioners Maufas and Murase were also present and indicated they were inclined to support the position. One never knows what the full board will do, but I would say those winds are favorable.

  2. Dear Commenters: Sometimes it takes me a few hours or even a day to get to comments. Sometimes I don’t post them at all. Most of the time I do. In any event, rest assured I read all comments. There is no need to post your comment multiple times, nor include smarmy little aphorisms.

    re: March placement data – the published data (which represents all of the data I myself have seen) is not detailed enough to draw any kind of conclusion about how much need there is in the Inner Sunset for an additional elementary school. I believe we will get additional data points on the March 18 round at the student assignment committee meeting on May 9 but it may be June before I see that kind of detailed analysis. I based my earlier statement on the lack of need for an elementary school in the Inner Sunset on our the projections from our demographers the board reviewed last year when formulating the new student assignment policy.

  3. Rachel — I don’t know what you all are going to do on Edison, but I would urge you to remember that there are real families at this school. If SFUSD doesn’t grant their petition, then they won’t be considered by the state board until July — and if turned down by the state the parents will have barely a month to find a new school. That’s fundamentally unfair. (I know because I checked with the state folks about timing.). Perhaps there is some way to give the school a year to wind down?

  4. On the elementary school suggestion: At this moment, the school system does not need another elementary school in the Inner Sunset — the neighborhood’s elementary schools (Clarendon, Grattan, Alice Fong Yu, Lawton and Jefferson) are impacted, yes, but they are impacted because people from other neighborhoods are willing to travel to attend those schools.

    I believe you have answered why we DO need another school in the neighborhood.. people are willing to drive their kids from outside of the Inner Sunset neighborhood, giving the local kids the largest pool of applicants to compete against, city wide. (79% wanting schools outside their neighborhood ( i.e. District 5 and 6 at 20:1 ration of applications to seats available) ) vs. 54% Inner Sunset kids wanting a local school in District 5 and 6 ) Let’s not forget the local kids are also being handicapped by the lottery ranking system, that uses neighborhood as it’s fourth tie breaker. AND Alice Fong Yu and Lawton do not even use neighborhood schools as a tie breaker as they are classed as Citywide schools. I parsed the data out from your own stats published in March. I can accept being wrong or misunderstanding the data but the comment you made comes across as at best poorly informed on the placement data and school selection process.

  5. the comparison is student to student not crime outside in the neighborhood
    so it is a comparable sub group….drunks coming out of the Marina or 9th and Irving bars and not part of the sampling.

    I am more interested in how the SFUSD will address budget cuts to probation officers assigned to the school, that I really would like an answer on.

  6. That’s just an absurd comparison – to say that somehow crime stats around other elementary schools say something about PCC. I’m sure you could look up crime stats around other high schools and make a similarly absurd comparison.
    Last year I looked up crime stats around elementary schools to make a point about a specific school people said was in an “unsafe” neighborhood — I found that of the 15-20 elementary schools I spot-checked, Sherman ES in Cow Hollow had the highest incidents of assaults and other crimes during a 30-day period. Why? Who knows? Probably because of the Union St./Marina bar scene. The crime stats around the school had exactly zero relationship to the perceived or actual safety of the school.

  7. OK, that’s a peep. But I might add that the incident you cite happened almost three years ago, not in the vicinity of the school.

    – not at the school but 3 blocks from my house…i guess that makes it better? Wasn’t one of the neighbors also robber of her computer by two students she i.d. I would class daylight car robbery a “peep”.

    Any comparable stats on student gun incidents or robberies at Clarendon, Alice Fong Yu, Lawton, Jefferson?
    Any information you can share on how security staffing at the school will not be tied to future budget cuts?

  8. OK, that’s a peep. But I might add that the incident you cite happened almost three years ago, not in the vicinity of the school.

  9. Finally, on the safety issue: No one I’ve talked to in the district is aware of any notable complaints arising from the 43rd and Judah neighbors (“not a peep” is how one person characterized it).

    2008. Excerpt from Page 14 below: 09/12/08 8:00 am 9th and Judah A young man who attends the Principal Center School on the 1300 block of 42nd Avenue was accosted by two fellow students at 9th and Judah. The two suspects threatened him and pointed a 9mm handgun at the victim. Officers Sandra Newland, Richard Jue, Kevin O’Leary, Inspector Richard Quesada and Lieutenant Richard Pate responded to the school, located the firearm hidden on the roof of the school and arrested the two suspects. The suspects, who live on the 900 block of Ellsworth and the 2800 block of Mission, were arrested for threats and firearm violations. Case #080967696

  10. Hi Rachel,

    You noted that, “no one likes cuts, especially to the arts. But in examining this situation more closely, it’s important to realize that this was a site-based decision, voted upon by the Lincoln HS site council. Site-based budgeting means that you allow sites to set their own priorities, within certain parameters, and in return you agree to live with the resulting decisions.”

    This granting of site-based authority on important programmatic and even curriculum (honors v. differentiation) decisions seems to me to be one of the major flaws of the middle school feeder plan. Site-based decision making only really makes sense if parents can choose among different options. I realize the situation at Lincoln is somewhat different because high school is still all-choice, but it does show the problems with this system.

    I would also argue that a program that takes many years to build up and sustain, like band or orchestra, should not be left to the whim of a particular year’s site council, whose composition may vary from year to year. You can’t just start and stop a music program. We chose Aptos for our daughter primarily because of the music program. I would be really upset if the site council decided that this wasn’t a school priority. In these difficult budget times, I think there needs to be a re-examination of whether site-based decision-making is appropriate for certain programs such as band, or honors. Or possibly schools need to make longer term commitments to certain programs — 5 to 10 years at least?

    As the daughter of a Lincoln band alumni (probably the only thing that kept my dad coming to school every day) I find the removal of such a critical program as band very disturbing.

    Anne

  11. Regarding Lincoln, in my view it goes far beyond just impacting the school site when one of the city’s largest high schools decides that its music program is expendable. For one thing, it impacts the students feeding into Lincoln — and that’s a lot of students, given Lincoln’s size. For another thing, it undermines the value of music education — and thus arts education overall.

    When the voters approved Prop. H, it was partly on the basis that sites shouldn’t be forced to make such decisions — and, on the flip side, to some extent, that sites shouldn’t be totally free to make such decisions.

    Regarding Edison, I’m one of the few resident veterans of the Edison wars circa 2001 — this issue really appears to be entirely different, just for the record. Here’s a succinct description of the Edison wars of the past — this was an “education reform” “innovation” in which a for-profit company was attempting to profit investors by running public schools, with shares publicly traded on the NASDAQ. The description is from a research and information project that I co-founded as a volunteer.

    http://www.pasasf.org/edison/edison.html