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.
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).