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School’s out for committees: San Francisco Unified pauses such meetings as part of good governance experiment

Protestors gather regarding admission process at Lowell High School, sit in the School Board meeting at 555 Franklin Street, the SFUSD headquarters in San Francisco, Calif., on June 22, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

For the foreseeable future, San Francisco’s Board of Education will no longer hold committee meetings in a bid to better govern the public school district.

Commissioners voted Tuesday to temporarily suspend committees to allow them time to participate in good-governance workshops and restructure the meetings that help shape the operations of the San Francisco Unified School District. 

In addition to its regular meetings twice a month, the board has a handful of standing committees around facilities, budget, policy, curriculum and labor. 

“It might be a shock, but it’s not common for boards to receive high-quality training,” President Jenny Lam said. “Student outcomes don’t change until adult behaviors change. Research shows highly effective boards can impact student outcomes.”

Since the recall of three commissioners, the board led by Lam has attended a few workshops on governing that prioritizes student outcomes. Through the Council of Great City Schools, commissioners will have joint training with the superintendent and senior staff, coaching, regular self-evaluations and analyze best practices.

Committees will stay paused until October, after an ad hoc group focused on board operating procedures outlines board practices within 60 days. Pausing committee meetings would ostensibly allow commissioners time to engage the public.  

The proposal prompted concerns of transparency and accountability because the public would have less of a window into district operations. 

Some also noted when it was introduced that regular meetings would be even longer—a criticism some had of the former board, particularly recall supporters. Alida Fisher, a special education advocate who is running for the school board, said it should be on central office staff, not volunteer commissioners to engage stakeholders.

“We need more transparency and collaboration, not less,” Fisher said. “We are really, really, really concerned about this. You all should not be doing public outreach, quite frankly … through committees, we should be coming back and talking about it.”

Commissioners acknowledged the concerns and asked for good faith in the intention behind the measure. 

Vice President Kevine Boggess noted that in his decade or so of attending board meetings, they’re often empty and only offer the ability for people with the time and access to lodge complaints that commissioners legally can’t respond to during public comment. Information given at committee meetings would ideally be provided another way.

“There is no democracy,” Boggess, an SFUSD graduate and senior policy director at Coleman Advocates, said of the empty meetings. “This isn’t us attempting to abandon democratic process or accountability or transparency but figure out how to make this work better.”

Lam promised shorter board meetings and more discussion around student outcomes in the short term. And later on, she said, she wants to see transparent reporting on student and board progress, and free orientation for any community members and school board candidates.

SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick said the standing committees on pause include Rules, Policy and Legislation; Curriculum and Program; Budget and Business Services; and Personnel and Labor. 

“While committees are on pause,” Dudnick added, “urgent and important business that would have been handled by the committees will go through the regular Board of Education as a whole, resulting in increased transparency as regular meetings are widely accessible online, KALW radio station and SFGOV TV as well as in person.”

Unlike the standing committees temporarily suspended, Dudnick said the ad hoc group will sunset after providing drafts of the following to the full board by Sept. 1:

    A copy of the resolution can be found here.

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