Unexcused Absence

School leaders snub supervisors, refuse to show at parleys

Once again, the very problem that teachers and parents struggle daily to help their children overcome has afflicted the elected officials who govern San Francisco: not playing well with others.

This particular episode began sometime last year, when San Francisco Supervisors Leland Yee and Tom Ammiano successfully pushed to create a Joint School Board and Board of Supervisors Committee. The committee, designed to be purely advisory, is supposed to help the elected officials who run the schools talk with the elected officials who run the city about kids and kid-related issues. Its creation was the first such effort to build a formal bridge between the two bodies.

Each board president appointed himself or herself and one other person to the committee -- Ammiano, president of the Board of Supervisors, appointed Yee; and Juanita Owens, who was then president of the Board of Education, appointed school board member Frank Chong.

Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano appointed himself and Leland Yee to meet with school district officials.
Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano appointed himself and Leland Yee to meet with school district officials.

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An organizational meeting was held last fall to get the ball rolling.

The point, officially anyway, was that the two public bodies have a number of crossover issues regarding youth in San Francisco, and need to better coordinate their resources and plans.

Behind that, of course, are plenty of other issues. The San Francisco Unified School District has been in turmoil for months, following the exit of former Superintendent Waldemar "Bill" Rojas, who left behind a bevy of auditors trying to sort through the fiscal carnage of Rojas' tenure. There's growing angst among teachers unhappy with low salaries and strained resources. Supervisors Ammiano and Yee have gotten an earful from constituents about the school district they used to help govern. Meanwhile, the district needs the city's help to pay for programs that lagging state funds don't cover.

The two agencies have a bizarre relationship, to be sure. Technically, the school district is a state agency, over which the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has exactly no authority. However, the City Attorney's Office handles the school district's legal affairs, and the city funds programs administered by the school district. Suffice it to say that the supervisors wanted a closer look.

"The Board of Education seems to be continually asking the city to bail them out on their athletic program, on their music program, on their art programs," Yee says. "If they're going to do that, the Board of Supervisors ought to exercise some responsibility. I felt that ... I need to have a handle on their finances before I can ask the taxpayers to support them.

"They have a runaway overtime budget, they have enough money to buy buildings," he adds. "It seems curious that in these flush times they don't have enough money for our children."

Following the joint committee's first meeting, Yee put the subject of school district finances on the agenda for the second meeting. Ammiano was interested in San Francisco Unified space that the city might rent for district offices, which will be needed with the advent of district elections for the Board of Supervisors in November. The Board of Education apparently wanted no part of either. Things got ugly. There has yet to be a second meeting of the Joint Committee.

Neither Owens nor current board president Mary Hernandez returned phone calls for this story. But Supervisors Yee and Ammiano describe the situation this way:

Owens, they say, wanted to remove the finance issue from the agenda, and replace it with an item establishing procedure for putting something on the agenda. The change was not possible because the agenda was already posted, and it's illegal to remove something once the agenda has been set for a public body. So, the school board contingent simply didn't show up, effectively canceling the meeting, since it could not proceed without a quorum. No date was set for another meeting, and things hit a standstill.

"Apparently Juanita Owens didn't understand what government is all about," says Ammiano. "She decided that she could disband the committee [because she didn't like what was on the agenda]."

It's not hard to imagine the exasperation on the school district side of things. At this point, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is just about the only agency not pawing through the district's muddled finances. William Coleman, former chief financial officer at San Francisco Unified, left the district last summer with Rojas. In Coleman's absence, the district couldn't seem to get its books closed for at least six months after the fiscal year ended in 1999. Assemblywoman Carole Migden called for an audit of the district after Rojas demanded that the state pay desegregation money Rojas insisted was owed to the district. State Superintendent of Schools Delaine Eastin sent in her department's fiscal and management experts to help, and report back.

But private auditors hired by the district could not complete their annual review until the district's books were closed, and state auditors couldn't complete their job until the private audit was done. Of course, all the while employees and the public were demanding answers as well.

So, the school board basically blew off the supervisors. Months passed with no meeting.

In January, after Hernandez took over as school board president, peace talks opened up again, according to Ammiano. Yee agreed to take the finance issue off the table at the Joint Committee and, instead, call for a hearing on the issue at the Board of Supervisors' Finance Committee (again, this is possible because the city funds programs of the district). Oddly, this path seems likely to result in a much bigger spotlight shining into the school district office. The Finance Committee, which Yee chairs, will likely question school administrators at a public hearing in City Hall.

Nonetheless, it may remove the roadblock at the Joint Committee.

"Mary Hernandez has said that she's willing to move forward," Ammiano says. "I thought their reaction was hostile and certainly not understanding of what this committee was supposed to be. I hope that it does accomplish what it was supposed to do."

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