Tuesday's meeting of the San Francisco Board of Education is the first regular meeting since Mayor London Breed officially replaced the trio of commissioners recalled by local voters in February’s special election.
Lisa Weissman-Ward, Ann Hsu and Lainie Motamedi—all women of color—are joining the district at a particularly tumultuous time: SFUSD is currently dealing with a major structural deficit, declining enrollment, teacher attrition and an outgoing superintendent, among other dire issues.
In short, the new commissioners, all of them mothers of children in the district, don’t have time to ease into this job.
“I’m still a little nervous about it, full transparency, but felt like it was a really important moment,” said Weissman-Ward, a biracial Mission District resident and associate director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Stanford Law School. “Public education, in terms of its systemic impact, is a critical foundation of so many other things. This has been an incredibly steep learning curve.”
On their first full weekday on the job, the new commissioners met with union leaders in the midst of an occupation of San Francisco Unified District headquarters. A group of demonstrators set up camp after the botched rollout of a new payroll system led to missing and incomplete paychecks for more than 1,000 SFUSD educators plus erratic tax withholdings, problems with retirement disbursements and abruptly cut-off insurance coverage for an unknown number of staff.
“Nothing about it was okay,” said Motamedi, a program director and ranger at the National Park Service who is Iranian. “This issue was just a glaring example of a breakdown in not only community but partnership. The rebuilding of trust, it’s throughout our district.”
All three commissioners emphasized the need to rebuild trust and to listen to student, teacher and parent voices, especially in the aftermath of the recall. They also each listed their immediate top priorities as selecting a new superintendent as well as addressing the immediate $125 million deficit. Revisiting a special admissions process for Lowell High School is also up there for Hsu and Weissman-Ward.
Seen by many as the crown jewel of San Francisco’s public high schools, Lowell played an outsize role in the recall. Parents like Hsu were motivated to unseat Board President Gabriela López and commissioners Alison Collins and Faauuga Moliga after all three voted to eliminate merit-based admissions at Lowell and place the school in the regular lottery system. All three incoming commissioners support the school being academically rigorous while working to boost programming at other schools. They also seek academic interventions to prepare younger students for such an environment.
SFUSD, which will conduct “stakeholder engagement” for a new policy at Lowell, cites state law as barring a return to academic-based enrollment. Motamedi is in favor of merit-based admissions at Lowell and awaits a legal briefing from district staff. Hsu maintained her position that merit-based admissions should be reinstated, even if it triggers litigation for SFUSD.
“From what I’ve heard, it should be legal,” said Hsu, an entrepreneurial electrical engineer who lives in the Richmond District. “We’ve had many legal challenges on many decisions that were quite ridiculous in my opinion…If we are subject to legal challenge, then go ahead.”
Hsu, a Chinese immigrant, wants to pay special attention to students up to third grade as well as immigrant students to identify critical interventions. Hsu and Motamedi noted that, in the long run, condensing the number of school sites will need to be considered an option to address the deficit. All three new commissioners are in favor of taking a closer look at the central office budget and operations.
Many successful San Francisco politicians have used the Board of Education as a springboard into higher office. Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton and Supervisor Matt Haney, who is running for Assembly District 17, are two recent examples. In the wake of the recall, some progressives worried that Breed was maneuvering to reshape the balance of power in City Hall.
“This can’t be about looking for the next opportunity,” said Weissman-Ward. “I’m committed to the four-year [term] but not a higher office. I’m deeply in love with my job. I have zero—can I go negative?—less than zero intention of changing my career.”
Motamedi and Hsu, likewise, denied that they are eyeing higher office and plan on fulfilling a full four-year term. “I don’t plan on running for supervisor,” said Hsu.
“I’m all in on our public schools,” Motamedi said. “Absolutely no interest in other offices. I’m just trying to get up to speed as quickly as I can, talk to as many folks as I can to understand the issues and to do a good job to restore the trust of our district.”