Wednesday, September 28, 2005

SF Schools: The Real Story on Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's resignation?

To help folks get beyond the SF Chronicle’s propaganda and big business controlled mainstream media ‘spin’ on SF schools issues and the political drama around the 9/7/05 resignation of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, we wanted to share a few alternative news sources that help fill in the holes left out by the mainstream press.

San Francisco Magazine’s September 05 article by Berkeley investigative reporter Rob Waters tells the complex story of the differences [and common ground] between Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and SF Board of Education members, United Educators of SF leadership and teachers, and parent, community and student groups.

SF Magazine September 2005 - “ Ackerman's Last Stand
By Rob Waters
The last few months have been one long schoolyard brawl for Arlene Ackerman, San Francisco's embattled superintendent of schools. She's no stranger to conflict, of course; her tenure here has been full of high drama. But during the spring and summer, tensions between her and most of the key players she deals with seemed to have reached the breaking point.
Faced with declining enrollment and huge funding cuts, she and members of the Board of Education spent numerous meetings sniping at each other and agonizing over which schools to close and whom to lay off. Parents, teachers, custodians, and even kids alternated between begging the board to spare their school or job and blasting the superintendent and the board for their callousness and irresponsibility.
Then things got personal. In June, former supervisor and mayoral wannabe Matt Gonzalez filed a lawsuit to void the rich new contract ($250,000 salary, $2,000-a-month housing allowance, and $375,000 severance package, even if she quits) that school board members—including one lame duck—awarded Ackerman late last year in an unusual, specially scheduled meeting. And it wasn't just Gonzalez who lashed out. Even high school students on the district's student advisory council voted 14-0 (with one abstention) to ask Ackerman to renegotiate her contract.
Ackerman's response—more parental than professional—only inflamed matters. When she heard about what the students were up to, she tried to cancel their meeting. And after the vote, her public relations office put out a bizarre 30-page press packet denouncing the students and unnamed people for "using students to further adult political agendas."
And then there's the gag order saga. Rumors that she had ordered district staff not to talk to reporters without permission blew into the open when teachers' union vice president Bradley Reeves told board members that the order was real and that district employees had been reprimanded for having unauthorized conversations. Ackerman supposedly got up and followed Reeves to the hallway, chastising him for his statement. Ackerman denies the entire incident, including the existence of any gag order, and she spoke graciously, and at length, for this article. But in June she told the Bay Guardian she would no longer grant the paper any interviews, and in late July, she announced that things had gotten so fractious around here that she was starting to think about quitting.
This being San Francisco, all the players in this school drama are liberals who believe in equity and educational justice. All agree that the greatest challenge facing the district is to address the huge achievement gap between the Asian (44 percent of the school district) and white students (10 percent) on the city's west side and the Latino (21 percent) and African American students (15 percent) on the east….”
Click here for the full story

Other reporting on the superintendent’s resignation has been more shallow – but SF Chronicle reporter Heather Knight’s Sept. 6, 2005 article on the growing number of critics of the Superintendent I think also led to her subsequent announcement of resignation the following day. Here’s Susan Ohanian’s comment on the Knight article:

“San Francisco Schools Chief Losing Support”Ohanian Comment: Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? provides information on what corporate-lead leadership in the San Francisco school had done to community-based programs before Ackerman arrived and a brief history of Ackerman's devotion to the test prep highway--in Washington D. C. and in San Francisco.

SF Chronicle, September 6, 2005 by Heather Knight
”If San Francisco schools chief Arlene Ackerman reveals this week she is leaving her post -- as many observers expect -- even some of her most avid supporters will agree it's time for her to leave.

… "She probably needs to find another place to be at this point," said Novella Smith, a parent who served as campaign manager for Ackerman backer Jill Wynns' successful bid for re-election to the school board in November.
"I don't think she has a choice," Smith said. "The silly nonsense is coming from every direction -- from her, too. It makes the children look mature." Pauline Vela, a member of Parents for Public Schools and Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth and a self-described busybody, said she no longer hears resounding support for Ackerman. "Very few parents I know would be shocked or saddened," she said of a potential departure. "For people, even some supporters of Ackerman, it will be a relief. People are just ready to say, 'Let's try somebody different.' "

Ackerman also has butted heads with the three over their support of Service Employees International Union 790, which represents custodians, secretaries and other school workers, and has scheduled a strike vote for Sept. 21-23 over their stalled contract negotiations with the district. Union members are upset that they last got a raise in July 2002 and don't get the same heath coverage for dependents as other district workers do. On Thursday, members of the union marched to Ackerman's office, where they chanted, "Arlene Ackerman, you can't hide! We can see your greedy side!"
If the union does strike, it could be a joint walkout with the local teachers union, which also is in contract negotiations with the district. "It would certainly be very effective, and I think it's quite possible," said Dennis Kelly, president of the teachers union.

Dennis Kelly, for one, isn't too bothered by the potential departure of Ackerman and the daunting task of finding her replacement. "I don't think the elected board is going to leave town, so I guess it's her turn," he said. "Superintendents come and go. The teachers, (classroom aides) and cockroaches -- we abide…."

Click here for the full Susan Ohanian piece


Thanks to investigative reporter Tali Woodward and political editor Steve Jones, the San Francisco Bay Guardian’s coverage of the conflicts with the Student Advisory Council, the ‘gag order’ with the press, and differences with City officials reveals some of the important issues the mainstream press has been unwilling to cover –

Cover article from the June 29, 2005 issue:
“The $400,000 spin machineWe've never found the folks on Ackerman's PR team helpful, but we didn't expect them to assert that SFUSD students are stupid.
By Tali Woodward

VERY SOON AFTER Arlene Ackerman came to town to oversee the city's public school system, it was clear that her administration was going to make public relations a top priority. Within a couple of years, the school district's single spokesperson had been replaced with a team of four who work to package Ackerman's policy initiatives, monitor the flow of information, and stage press events. …”

Click here for the full article

This piece covers the conflict with teachers in the 57,000 student district:

“Against all enemies: Ackerman's aversion to debate is making it harder for the school district to grapple with serious issues.
By Tali Woodward and Steven T. Jones
SUPT. ARLENE Ackerman's long pattern of treating those who disagree with her as enemies has destroyed her relationships with key schools stakeholders and seriously restricted the district's ability to function.
Ackerman's battles with the elected San Francisco Board of Education have grabbed headlines for years, but this year she has simply stopped coming to many meetings, offering her recommendations on complicated and controversial issues, or engaging in more than cursory conversations with board members.
Lesser known but equally important is the devolution of her relationships with the teachers union, student groups like the Student Advisory Council, the Board of Supervisors, and the media (and not just the Bay Guardian, which Ackerman announced last week she would stop talking to).
At the same time, Ackerman has strengthened her ties to groups that have overtly conservative political agendas, from SFSOS to the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, which have become proxies in her political battles: staging press conferences and rallies on her behalf, blasting Ackerman's opponents in interviews and e-mail blitzes, and pumping up the indignation and turnout at public meetings.
Lately, the situation has come to a head in the form of this striking dichotomy: Ackerman works well with conservative political groups that want to influence school policy but not with the teachers who do the day-to-day work of educating the students, or the school board members elected by the people to supervise her. ..

Click here for the full article

Former student representative to the SF Board of Education Alan Wong gave his perspective on the conflicts with the Superintendent in the same June 29, 2005 issue.

Ackerman stifles dissent:
THE STIFLING OF dissent by some administrators of the San Francisco Unified School District has to stop.

by Alan Wong, Student Delegate to the SF Board of Education
"Two years ago, I spoke during public comment at a school board meeting to criticize the unilateral firing of Student Advisory Council staff by the administration. The next day – during school time and without the consent of my parents – I sat in my principal's office for an hour and a half while I was questioned, advised to give more respect to Supt. Arlene Ackerman, and told to stay mum. How do staff members at my school have the right to tell me what not to say at a public meeting of the school board?
At a meeting called by the district staff last month, district staff and Youth Leadership Institute, which works with SAC on a district contract, told SAC representatives that if we continued to advance resolutions opposing Ackerman's policy requiring teachers to reapply for their jobs at restructured schools and criticize her lucrative contract, the superintendent "would retaliate against the SAC," and our council would be dismantled. Later I found out staff members had also called individual students specifically for the purpose of asking them to take their names off the resolutions. …“

Click here for the full Alan Wong piece


See also the San Francisco Bay View Newspapers voices of parent Kim Shree Maufus and Teacher/activist Jeremiah Jeffries as well:

”A win-win for School Supt. Ackerman and our children
by Kim-Shree Maufas
The Wong et al vs. SF Board of Education lawsuit goes to trial on Wednesday morning, Aug. 12, at 9:30 a.m. The Bay View is running articles and op-eds, the Chronicle is running articles and op-eds and the Bay Guardian ran an article in June – along with a terribly unflattering cover page – but yet we still can’t seem to get enough information out about the City’s independent entity known as the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education and its superintendent, Arlene Ackerman. …”

Click here for the full article
And, 2 final articles I think help to frame the political differences and struggles that went on between the Superintendent and the various communities, teachers and workers in the SFUSD. In January 2005 when I became the President of the SF Board of Education – SF Bay Guardian reporter Tali Woodward covered the process I began to work with the Superintendent and others to bring more cohesion, focus and unity within the Board and our stakeholder groups in the District.

SF Bay Guardian – January 19, 2005
“Reform school:

New school board leaders want more openness and community input, but will the power shift lead Ackerman to leave S.F.?
By Tali Woodward
Eric Mar didn't waste any time before trying to set a new tone for the San Francisco Board of Education. Just seconds after his selection as board president Jan. 11, Mar said that because of budget cuts coming from the state, "I believe we have this urgency that requires the board to do everything possible to treat each other with respect and work closely together.... I know I will put differences aside – no bad feelings from the previous year or years."
Mar and allies Mark Sanchez and Sarah Lipson have been in a running battle with the other three board veterans and the district superintendent Arlene Ackerman for the past few years. It's a struggle that long ago outgrew policy disagreements and became a clash of personalities.
Although Mar and his allies often praise Ackerman for her accomplishments, they sometimes take issue with her proposals, or more frequently, with the way she makes major decisions before seeking community input. As a result, they've often been cast by the media and their political opponents as rabid antagonists of the superintendent who want her out of the San Francisco Unified School District.
Lipson, Sanchez, and Mar maintain they've never wanted to force Ackerman out, and it's true that Ackerman has usually been the one to hint at her departure, telling reporters and others that she would rather resign than navigate a contentious relationship with the board.
Now, with a key swing vote from new member Norman Yee, Mar will lead the school board. What does it mean for a body that's seen so much acrimony that its so-called rabble-rousers are now in control?
Mar and company certainly haven't forgotten what they've consistently described as a systematic effort to freeze them out of decision making. But they seem to be making an honest pitch to turn things around. …“


In May, the Bay Guardian also revealed the big business ties to the SF School District and a bigger agenda of conservative and racist forces that were playing politics with the district:

Divide and conquer:
Why are the mayor and school superintendent supporting the right-wing operatives at SFSOS?
By Steven T. Jones

MAYOR GAVIN NEWSOM has preached ideological moderation since his ascension to Room 200, but he and other centrist political leaders continue to associate with scorched-earth political operatives bent on spending big money in stealthy and deceptive ways to demonize those on the left.
A telling display of how downtown forces speak and flex their political muscle took place May 17 when the political advocacy group SFSOS held its third-anniversary luncheon at the headquarters of the Gap, followed by a fiery press conference slamming people who question whether school superintendent Arlene Ackerman's generous pay package was legally approved (see "Cutting the Golden Parachute," May 4).
The ringmaster of this circus was SFSOS head Wade Randlett, who partnered up with Gap founder Don Fisher, financier Warren Hellman, and U.S. senator Dianne Feinstein to start SFSOS.
... Ackerman, on the other hand, warmly embraced a crowd that has been taking shots at the progressive members of the school board. "It's great to be in a room with friends. Sometimes I don't know where my friends are, but they're all here," she began.
Ackerman then told a story about how earlier she had gotten pulled over for speeding and driving without a seat belt, only to have the cop recognize her and say, "You have one of the hardest jobs in the city. This ticket is on me."
The crowd seemed to be eating up her self-martyring approach, so she continued, noting that before moving to San Francisco five years ago, she considered herself a liberal. But now, "I'm definitely to the right of everyone in this city," she said, drawing cheers from many Republicans in the room.
To reinforce the point, she voiced her support for allowing children to attend their neighborhood schools and be subjected to a rigorous testing regime – both strongly pushed by SFSOS, which last year proposed a ballot measure to end school desegregation efforts but backed off in the face of criticism.
Ackerman and her spokesperson Lorna Ho later denied that she used the term "neighborhood schools," insisting that she said only, "Every neighborhood deserves a quality school," but Ho didn't get us the tape by press time as she said she would. "Neighborhood schools" is a loaded term that is essentially the opposite of desegregation, which Ackerman told us she still supports, although she didn't voice that support to SFSOS. In fact, she didn't make any statements that differed from its agenda.
"To be in a room where people care about you is really great," Ackerman enthused at the event, singling out her "partner and friend" Don Fisher for special appreciation. He spoke next, complaining about the political gains that the left was making in San Francisco three years ago.
"So Wade came along and we formed the Committee on Jobs, er, uh, SFSOS," Fisher said, inadvertently referring to the other downtown political group he supports, which is more honest about its business community connections than SFSOS.
… Playing politics
As Ackerman waited inside the building, Randlett and company stepped outside for a full-throated defense of the new contract she was granted late last year by a lame-duck board, which is now being challenged on procedural grounds mostly because of its generous golden parachute.
"They are trying to get rid of Arlene Ackerman," said Randlett who, like most, spoke in terms of an attack on Ackerman and children rather than about the narrower issue of her contract.
… School board president Eric Mar said he was saddened to see school and city officials participating in the event.
"I thought if we ignored them they'd go away, particularly after being discredited in the last election," Mar said of SFSOS. "By going to their luncheon, [Ackerman] is legitimizing them and making them seem like a credible group, as Newsom is as well."
… Ackerman was defensive when we asked about her relationship with SFSOS, saying, "My agenda is to work with everybody." But when pressed on her feelings about SFSOS, its agenda, and why she didn't join the mayor in challenging their approach, she told us, "I don't view this group as you do. I see them as partners in making this a great school district."
Wynns sees the relationship between Ackerman and SFSOS as benign, but Mar is concerned that the group has gotten Ackerman to stop making public statements in support of desegregation in exchange for their support on other issues.
While Mar was restrained in his criticism, Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin blasted the group and the officials who showed up. He called SFSOS "a tattered group of Fisher-funded, disgruntled, mean-spirited, reactionary, ineffective people with an e-mail list...I don't see how any rational human being can even acknowledge their existence."
He continued, "I think it's really sad for elected officials and civic officials to associate with anyone who wants to resegregate the schools and create regressive taxation."
Peskin has differed publicly with Ackerman over her alliance with SFSOS and her refusal to return his phone calls to discuss the matter, a tiff that spilled over into a colorful exchange at a restaurant that made the May 15 Matier and Ross column in the Chronicle.
"Arlene Ackerman is an idiot," Peskin told us. "She is politically naive and enamored with hanging out with rich people, and so she does what they tell her to do, whether it makes sense or not…."

Thanks to the Bay Area Independent Media Center for their great photos used on this blog and for their excellent coverage of Educational Justice struggles and their local and global reporting as well

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