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Parents ask chance to help save
19 schools set to close or merge

Photo(s) by Luke Thomas

By Pat Murphy

January 12, 2006

Parents hope to forestall a School Board decision tonight on proposed closure or merger of 19 San Francisco schools.

They asked yesterday for the decision making process to stop until community input has the opportunity to help close a $5 million budget shortfall which prompted the school administration proposal.

With school district revenues tied to school enrollment figures, the list of schools on the block include those schools most losing student enrollments - heavily affecting disadvantaged neighborhood schools.

Five schools fall in District 5 represented by Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi who yesterday backed parent request to postpone closure decision and criticized Mayor Gavin Newsom as not doing enough to save those schools.

District 5 lost three schools to the budget axe last year, prior to this year's proposal to close or merge five more.

Mirkarimi led a delegation of city supervisors, former Mayor Art Agnos, parents and students in a City Hall rally to block the school administration plan.

From left, School District Commissioner Mark Sanchez
with Supervisors Tom Ammiano and Ross Mirkarimi

Although city government and the school district are two separate governing bodies, the city has allocated $35 million to the school district made possible by Prop H voter approved funding authority authored by Ammiano.

Mirkarimi criticized Newsom as not delivering on city administration stated goal to retain families in San Francisco.

"We support that particular cause," said Mirkarimi.

"But what defies…the conventional wisdom of that cause is that you cannot do that…if you shut down the very institutions which are the means of…delivering on that particular goal.

"What we want is for the school closure process to stop. Halt it completely.

"We understand that there is a budget deficit and as I said we understand that hard decisions have to be made.

"But not at the expense nor at the sacrifice especially of communities who have been disproportionately hit - African American, Latino communities, working class populations.

"We say, one - stop the closure process. Two - that the mayor of San Francisco help us unearth…innovative ways that at least buy us time.

"We also ask for a Task Force…comprised of the people of this community and throughout San Francisco who have been adversely affected by the school closures…

"We can solve this problem, but this problem will not be solved by the unilateral and the insensitive process that is underway," Mirkarimi concluded.

School district decisions should expand beyond revenue considerations, said District 10 Supervisor Sophie Maxwell who represents Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhoods.

Supervisor Sophie Maxwell

"We also need to understand that the San Francisco School District has got to change," Maxwell insisted.

"When we asked them, 'What was your reason, what was your process?' We heard nothing from them other than it was money.

"You do not reorganize a school district just because of money.

"It's not just about a quick fix. It's not just about four or five million dollars that we can give them.

"The School Board needs to go back to the drawing board, and they need to have a better and comprehensive idea of how we are going to proceed.

"And they need to include us. We are the ones who will make this school district work. It's communities, it's businesses, it's neighbors - they need to include all of us," Maxwell stated.

Schools are "the core of living, breathing neighborhoods," said former school teacher, school board member, and now Supervisor Tom Ammiano.

Supervisor Tom Ammiano

"I don't want this to be a rally of false hope," Ammiano began.

"I want this to be a rally of concern that many people were excluded from the process.

"There are so many unintended consequences when you close a school - a school doesn't operate in a vacuum.

He recalled a time when Douglass School was slated for closure, still today operating as the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy.

"When they wanted to close that school years ago…parents and neighbors fought the closure of that school because they knew that when that school died the rest of the neighborhood was at risk.

"It is a living, breathing, more than bricks and mortar, building - any elementary or middle or high school. It really is made up the heart and soul of a community.

"It is not up to us to nip and tuck and rip out a heart here and take off a limb there. That's not how it works. San Francisco is a whole city.

"I don't want an adversarial relationship with the School Board.

"I think we all came together very well for Prop H (city funds transfer to schools). Let's use that energy, let's use that vision, let's save these school and make San Francisco a world class model for public - and I underline 'public' - public education," concluded Ammiano.

Agnos maintained the process for deciding which schools should be closed was based on "pessimism and negativity" rather than San Francisco values.

Art Agnos

"Every mayor has published reports…that state that public education is one of the most fundamental issues for families staying in this city," said the former mayor of San Francisco.

"That's why it is so disconcerting and discouraging to witness a process over the last three or four months that reflects a complete lack of understanding of one of the most fundamental values that we have here in San Francisco - and that is of community participation in the decisions that affect people in our city.

"The current plans reflected in the recommendations of the San Francisco Unified School District treat children as though they were part of San Francisco's past - not an essential part of our future.

"Let me give you an example. You look at the priorities for the Unified School District staff in their budget -- in their top ten priorities none of them include increasing enrollment as a top priority.

"What that tells me is that they have accepted defeat…Now the people of San Francisco…have not accepted defeat.

"The decline in enrollment is almost entirely in our elementary schools, yet my personal experience on Potrero Hill tells me there are dozens and dozens and dozens of children who could fill every one of our neighborhood schools.

"Indeed, today you will hear…from parents who want (their children) to go the public schools and who want to keep it open."

"The flight of families is not about just from the 49 square miles of San Francisco. It is the families who remain inside San Francisco who have taken from flight from the schools by putting too many of their children in private schools…

"We've got to reverse that trend and we would fill our schools especially at the elementary level."

Joan Livingston, mother of a San Francisco public school first grade pupil, reported lost enrollment translates to a fraction of school district revenue.

Joan Livingston

"We know that there is an anticipated $5 million shortfall in the school district budget…but did you know that represents less than two percent of the annual school budget in this city?

"We want to help close that $5 million gap - we just don't think it should be done on the back of 5,000 students in San Francisco.

"Did you know that every student in the San Francisco School District generates about $5,000 annually in funds from the state and federal governments?

"I think that working together with the School Board, with the district staff, and using the intelligent, committed, passionate families in San Francisco we can gain another 1,000 students, and there goes the shortfall.

"The overall (city) budget is $5.3 billion…our $5 million shortfall represents 0.1% of that annual budget.

"We're not asking the mayor to solve the problem, but we do think somewhere in that $5.3 billion there might be a little to help us stop this process temporarily and figure out a more creative approach."

Livingston led other parents and children to the Mayor's Office delivering a letter of suggested solutions and recommendation for heightened community involvement.

School Board Vice President Sarah Lipson and School Commissioner Mark Sanchez attended the rally, as did School Board immediate past President Eric Mar.

For the Newsom administration's part, mayoral press secretary Peter Ragone said parents misunderstand the mayor's position on saving schools.

Peter Ragone

"The mayor has said that what we need to do is have a non-political process for deciding which schools need to be closed, because the simple fact is that we have almost half the enrollment that we did forty years ago," Ragone told the Sentinel.

"The mayor has said that he will do everything that he can do to support that process.

"We've already offered resources. We've offered planning assistance and we're ready to help in any way that we can.

"What we would do is urge the supervisors to join with us in asking that the Board of Education approach this in a non-political way and to find a way to get political pressures out of this process altogether.

"What Supervisor Mirkarimi is doing is adding more politics into the process that is not going to help.

"Our education advisor to the mayor has met with the (school) board, with parents groups, with supervisors again and again and again on this matter.

"And it seems strange to me that only in the last few hours does Supervisor Mirkarimi decide that he needs to weigh in on this. It just reiterates the need, the desperate need, that we have to get politics out of this process and to let people help the board make decisions based on what's best for our children," Ragone concluded.

The School Board meets tonight at 6:00 p.m. in the auditorium of Everett Middle High School located at 450 Church Street.




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