Insisting that his district does have a plan to reopen some of its schools, San Francisco Unified Superintendent Vincent Matthews says that the lawsuit filed by the city against the district to force it bring students back to school will only serve to divert energy that should be going to make that happen.
A far better strategy, he said, would have been if city attorney Dennis Herrera, who filed the suit, had walked the two blocks from City Hall to district headquarters, or even picked up the phone, and expressed his concerns.
In fact, he said, he has never met Herrera. “My office is literally a hundred yards from his office. I come to work every day. He could have walked a hundred yards. We could have masked up, and sat six feet apart. And he could have said, ‘these are the issues that we have with your plan.’ He did none of those things.”
Matthews said he was not given a heads up on the lawsuit until he read about it in the San Francisco Chronicle, just hours before the suit was filed in nearby Superior Court.
“The way adults solve problems is they sit down with each other, and work through problems,” Matthews said in an interview on EdSource’s podcast This Week in California Education. “If you are trying to solve a complex problem, you get together and say ’these are the issues I have;’ if you’re trying to get headlines, you file a lawsuit.”
To listen to the podcast, which includes an interview with CTA President E. Toby Boyd, go here.
Now, he said, “we’re going to spend time working on this as opposed to actually working on delivering high quality distance learning, as well as implementing plans to bring students back.”
“One of the things that we need to recognize is that this is a fight against a pandemic for all of us,” he said. “We’re trying to defeat a pandemic and, in most cases, people will circle the wagons.”
In San Francisco, the wagons have been circled, but not in a constructive way, he said. “Instead of aiming out at the pandemic, the fight has turned inward and a lawsuit has been filed against us.”
Herrera said that “going to court was not our preferred course of action. We did not take this action lightly.”
However, he rejected the notion that there was anything to discuss with Matthews before going to court. “The school board and the district had 10 months to put together a viable plan as they are required to do under state law,” he said. “They still haven’t done so. A meeting wasn’t necessary to tell them what they’ve known for months that they need to under the law.”
As a “homegrown” superintendent, Matthews has San Francisco in his blood. He was born and raised in the city, attended its public schools and graduated from McAteer High School. He began his 30-year career in education as a teacher and principal in the district. He has been superintendent in some of the most challenged districts in the state, including Oakland Unified and Inglewood Unified, when they were under state trusteeship. He also served as superintendent of San Jose Unified. He returned San Francisco 3 1/2 years ago to the district’s top job.
He is diplomatic about his relations with the teachers union, which some critics accuse of creating unnecessary obstacles in the way of in-person learning. Indirectly drawing a contrast to the fractured relationship with the city leadership, he described Susan Solomon, president of the United Educators of San Francisco, representing teachers and other school employees, as a “partner in this work.”
“You have to think of it first as a partnership, and together do whatever it takes to knock down the barriers to delivering a high-quality education and eventually return our students and families back to safe environments,” he said.
Asked what the biggest obstacle in the way of opening schools in San Francisco has been, Matthews summed it up in a word: the pandemic. That has thwarted the district’s efforts to open the schools, including a plan to bring some students back by January 25. On that date, the county was “at the highest level of the surge” and in “deep purple” on the state’s color-coded chart, which meant schools couldn’t reopen under state regulations. Vaccines were also becoming available, with the prospect of vaccinating teachers on the horizon, further complicating matters. “We are reassessing, and want to make sure that when we do open doors, the conditions are right for both our students and the adults,” he said.
Describing himself as a “terminal optimist,” he said that he believed schools would reopen for in-person instruction. But he also declined to put a date on when that might happen, only saying that he hoped it would be “before the end of the year.”
As for the district’s reopening plan — which the city alleges in its lawsuit that the district lacks — Matthews said it has been on the district’s website since December. The plan, however, has not been agreed to by the union, which Friday spelled out its conditions for returning to school, saying “the majority” of them had been met. Without giving a timeline, it said teachers would be willing to return when the county is in the “red” tier, but only if teachers are vaccinated, and in the “orange” tier without vaccinations.
Given the uncertainties, if not chaos, around the vaccine rollout, those conditions could still postpone reopening, perhaps for months. That’s because the current “adjusted new case rate” in San Francisco (12.5), while still lower than all but seven of California’s 58 counties, is still three times higher than it should be to put the district into the “orange” tier level (under 4) set by the state.
Herrera is hoping his lawsuit will accelerate the timetable. “Just going with the status quo and hoping the district comes up with an effective plan isn’t working,” he said. “Hopefully, the prospect of court scrutiny will focus the district’s attention like nothing would have and get this problem addressed once and for all.”
Other communities are looking closely at what happens next in San Francisco. Within a day of Herrera’s suit, a councilmember in Los Angeles had announced that he’ll file a motion at the council’s meeting next week urging it to file a similar suit against Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest school district.
Like Matthews, LA Unified Austin Beutner weighed in quickly against that possibility. “Grandstanding political stunts like this are precisely why schools in Los Angeles remain closed,” he said. “Elected leaders from Sacramento to Los Angeles City Hall need to put deeds behind their words and take the steps necessary to actually put schools and the children they serve first.”
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Yinlan Zhang 2 years ago2 years ago
Just wondering why you didn’t ask Matthews how come other districts have opened during the pandemic but SF can’t? How can Matthews blame his schools being closed on the pandemic when other districts including NYC and Miami Dade have been open? Why is he unable to deal the pandemic while others have?
sfmom5 2 years ago2 years ago
I understand Superintendent Matthews' frustrations. He has been trying to work with this board and asked back in June for permission from the board to hire a consultant to help with the reopening logistics when it was safe. The board refused to allow it because the consulting company had ties with charters. The city has tried to work with this Board of Education but at every step has been roadblocked. This reminds me of … Read More
I understand Superintendent Matthews’ frustrations. He has been trying to work with this board and asked back in June for permission from the board to hire a consultant to help with the reopening logistics when it was safe. The board refused to allow it because the consulting company had ties with charters.
The city has tried to work with this Board of Education but at every step has been roadblocked. This reminds me of parents yelling “don’t make me stop this car” and finally? You stop the car. This suit has accomplished its goal and has forced the hand of the BoE.
This Board of Education is focused on everything but the urgent needs at hand.
Michael 2 years ago2 years ago
Mr. Freedberg, excellent piece, as usual. In this controversy you could ask the superintendent why he has not responded to hundreds of emails and letters from community members expressing their views on the process, "debate" and decisions made by the two committees dealing with examining both the future of murals at George Washington High School and the renaming committee. Examine those committee membership, process and "deliberations" you might conclude scholarship or rigorous analyses … Read More
Mr. Freedberg, excellent piece, as usual. In this controversy you could ask the superintendent why he has not responded to hundreds of emails and letters from community members expressing their views on the process, “debate” and decisions made by the two committees dealing with examining both the future of murals at George Washington High School and the renaming committee.
Examine those committee membership, process and “deliberations” you might conclude scholarship or rigorous analyses were missing in both. The superintendent, as much as the school board members, bears responsibility for the district’s current fix. Leadership is more than counting to four.
Brenda Lebsack 2 years ago2 years ago
As a public school teacher and former school board member, I understand Superintendent Matthew's frustration with City Attorney Herrera's lack of communication to talk before filing a law suit against the SF school district. Although I think Herrera should have communicated first, I also understand Herrera's frustration with the snail pace of action in re-opening schools. I applaud Herrera's bold action to represent his constituents. He knows parents have been exceptionally patient … Read More
As a public school teacher and former school board member, I understand Superintendent Matthew’s frustration with City Attorney Herrera’s lack of communication to talk before filing a law suit against the SF school district. Although I think Herrera should have communicated first, I also understand Herrera’s frustration with the snail pace of action in re-opening schools. I applaud Herrera’s bold action to represent his constituents. He knows parents have been exceptionally patient in this process. He knows the people in his city are suffering, especially the children. He knows that there is now a year’s worth of data from around the world that supports the reopening of schools. (see links below) Though I don’t like law suits and would rather see conflicts handled peacefully without costly lawsuits, Supt Matthews must realize this red tape slow bureaucratic system (including the bartering with politically fueled teacher unions) is unjust for the parents and especially for the children.
Jennifer Bestor 2 years ago2 years ago
This year Mayor Breed and the City of San Francisco will slurp up over $300 million of ‘excess’ property tax in San Francisco that is earmarked for education. That’s over $5,000 per K-12 student — and up from zero when the LCFF was passed in 2013. Why? Because the LCFF school formula is flat statewide and costs are not. And property values are not. And property tax receipts are not. And the … Read More
This year Mayor Breed and the City of San Francisco will slurp up over $300 million of ‘excess’ property tax in San Francisco that is earmarked for education. That’s over $5,000 per K-12 student — and up from zero when the LCFF was passed in 2013. Why? Because the LCFF school formula is flat statewide and costs are not. And property values are not. And property tax receipts are not. And the Legislature keeps affirming that any local funding not “required” by LCFF in poorer districts, like SFUSD, gets handed off to local governments.
Even before this windfall the city of San Francisco receives twice as much property tax per capita as the statewide average — yes, even after adjusting for its net influx of commuters. San Francisco is by far the wealthiest county/city government in the state. So the rich get richer. Meanwhile, the school district is funded at an average statewide cost equivalent to being located in Sacramento. It’s amazing SF schools open in the best of times. Parcel taxes, city handouts, PTA fund raising, all are pennies in the face of a regional cost deficit of over 25%. (The US Department of Housing and Urban Development, in fact, grants housing vouchers at 57% over California’s statewide average in San Francisco.)
No one in the Legislature, the county, or the education community will lift a finger to address the regional cost issue. After all, starving the public school kids in San Francisco got a 70% vote for Prop 15. Nevertheless, Mayor Breed, Senator Weiner, Assemblymembers Ting and Chiu — you’ve created poster children for impoverished public schools in San Francisco — how dare anyone complain when those schools can’t reopen under pandemic conditions?
Only vaguely aware of this, folks? Know that the city socks over half of that $300 million a year windfall out of sight in SF’s rainy day fund. Out of sight, out of voters’ minds.
Doubt me? Be bold. Be brave. Go to the CDE website and look at the funding returned after all payments, including to Special Education. The CDE link is below. Click on LEA Funding Detail: Funding Exhibits – Second Principal Apportionment. Period: 2019-20 P-2. Entity: SELPA Admin Unit. Program: SELPA Special Education Local Revenue. SELPA: 38-WW00 San Francisco County. Now look at the last line: Unused Excess ERAF: $292,373,902. What does ERAF stand for? “Educational Revenue Augmentation Funding.” Funding to augment education — declared “excess.” Then look at the SF Chronicle articles when this was discovered. And notice how quickly they hushed.
By the way, $292 million was last year — property taxes grew 6.7% this year — while LCFF didn’t even get a cost-of-living increase — so over $310 million.
Curious how much money is being side-armed in your high-cost area? Residents of Santa Clara, San Mateo, Marin and Napa counties: go through the same process, just select a Special Education district in your county instead. Districts in East Palo Alto, San Jose, Novato, Redwood City, Daly City: you starve and struggle and are condemned for closure while the richest counties in the state side-arm a billion dollars of education property tax away from YOUR kids. Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.
Curious about my county comparisons? Check out the LAO’s March 2020 report on Excess ERAF and see how much money is being handed off — and how the obfuscatory accounting required actually cheats kids statewide.
Tomm 2 years ago2 years ago
Wow Jennifer thank you for that information. Have to say public education in CA is a mess from so many angles. I hope Edsource will pick this up and write about it, and it is picked up by social media and the newspapers maybe then vouchers can be put in place so that parents get the money and can choose the schools their kids go to – public, private or charter!