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Breed steps into school fight, proposes ballot initiative to give city more control

Mayor London Breed on Monday proposed a ballot initiative that would use the city’s financial clout to crack down on the San Francisco Board of Education, which has been widely criticized for focusing on divisive political issues and mismanaging the district’s response to the pandemic.

The announcement comes just one day ahead of what’s expected to be a contentious meeting where the school board must decide how to address a $125 million deficit.

The proposed amendment to the city charter would require the Board of Education to “self certify” every year that it has met a set of city requirements, including completing required trainings, pursuing parental engagement, recruiting and hiring a superintendent and general counsel and approving an annual budget in line with district goals.

“No longer will the city give a blank check to the school board unless it demonstrates some level of improvement and accountability to serve our children,” Breed said. 

Called the Children’s First Initiative, the measure would also establish a new city agency dedicated to consolidating resources for kids. It would establish a one-stop shop to access information and programs—everything from recreation opportunities to food services—for San Francisco children. 

Breed plans to formally introduce the ballot initiative at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. She hopes to put it in front of voters on the June 2022 ballot if she can get the needed support of four out of 11 supervisors. 

City control over the school system has been a contentious issue in San Francisco and many other localities. While many school districts across the state and nation operate independently from city and county governments, Breed argues that the SFUSD board has abused its authority by micromanaging decision-making and putting politics ahead of student success.

Breed said she hopes her measure will add a layer of accountability to a board that the city has had little control over. In particular, Breed said she is aiming to get insight into whether city money spent on schools has been effective, including $3.5 million provided in 2019 to help bolster wellness centers in schools.

“I want some accountability for where those dollars are and why haven’t those wellness centers opened in the first place,” Breed said. 

Breed also said she will not forgive the $25 million the district loaned from the city to help plug its budget deficit if the Board fails to approve state-mandated budget cuts at its meeting on Tuesday night. With the school district facing a $125 million deficit and the threat of state takeover, Breed called on the board to adopt the superintendent’s budget plan and cooperate with the state mandates. She dismissed a competing budget plan being promoted by two board members as a waste of time.

“They’re headed down the wrong path with that particular plan,” Breed said. “What they need to do is let the superintendent govern the school board, which is what our charter amendment is set to do so that we don’t have school board members micromanaging what a superintendent is responsible for doing.”

Alongside Breed at a Monday press conference introducing the measure were several former and current members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and Board of Education—including Rachel Norton, Norman Yee and Rafael Mandelman—as well as parents in support of the initiative. 

Norton, who served on the Board of Education for three terms, told the SF Standard she wants to see the initiative help the board prioritize more important decisions and streamline its processes.  

“I hope that it adds some clarity and focus,” Norton said. “Nobody can get any governance done in a 7-hour meeting.”

Meanwhile, the new city agency would be responsible for managing the $200 million budget the city now spreads among various agencies, including the San Francisco Department of Children, Youth and Their Families and the Mayor’s Office of Education. Breed’s goal is to align spending on various student and kids’ programs and agencies to reduce the bureaucratic hurdles that children and families face when looking for help or to enroll in programs.

“There was a real disconnect between all of these agencies and all of this money, and not only how our kids were doing in life, but how they were doing in school,” Breed said.

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