The Ackerman Election

The school board races focus on a superintendent's future and progressive versus downtown political infighting. Kids aren't much mentioned.

On a Tuesday night two weeks ago, Arlene Ackerman, San Francisco's superintendent of schools, parked herself squarely in the middle of a horseshoe-shaped table, peered over her sunglasses, and launched into a lifeless recitation of a Pablo Neruda poem. Around her on all sides, the city's seven school board members looked as if they were revisiting the tedium of their own school days. They doodled. They rolled their eyes. They twirled their hair and stared into space. And by the time Ackerman had finished her reading, the poem -- an intended homage to Hispanic Heritage Month -- seemed just as much a comment on the sharply divided board she was addressing. The poem's title: "Ode to Broken Things."

In the months leading up to the November vote, the dispute over Ackerman's administration has mired the board in petty politics. Now, with four of the board up for re-election next week, the clash has become a nasty microcosm of San Francisco politicking -- and the most expensive school board race in city history. As of Oct. 5, the top six candidates for school board had taken in over $320,000 for their campaigns. The biggest fund-raiser, Heather Hiles, raised $162,000 alone. And the spending isn't the only thing that has made the race one of the weirder contests outside of the District 5 supervisor's brouhaha. There's a candidate who insists on calling himself Coach, and another, named Starchild, who is an exotic male dancer.

Most of the campaign's peculiar intensity can be attributed to Ackerman, a lightning-rod figure who has earned broad community support for cleaning up the district's dubious financial situation, boosting standardized test scores, and initiating the Dream Schools program, which has introduced more rigorous academic standards to three of the district's lowest-performing schools. But critics find fault with her iron-fisted leadership, including a "gag order" that channels teachers through the Orwellian Office of Public Engagement & Information; her frosty relationship with the public; and her uncomfortably close connections to downtown business interests. Since the results of the Nov. 2 election have the potential to oust the contentious leader, the dynamics and the dollars behind the race have become exaggerated.

"The central question of the race is, 'Do you support Arlene Ackerman?'" says Wade Randlett, head of the conservative lobbying group SFSOS, which has gotten behind a number of candidates. "Do you support standardized testing? Do you support the Dream Schools making teachers and students re-up with higher expectations? Or, are you on the other side?"

"Its an ideological war," says Jill Wynns, a 12-year school board incumbent who is up for re-election, and who supports Ackerman. "The attacks in the race have gotten ridiculous."

The divide between Ackerman's supporters and her antagonists, who style themselves as progressives, is almost as deep as it sometimes is silly.

Ackerman's detractors on the board -- Eric Mar, Mark Sanchez, and Sarah Lipson -- make it a point to announce positive votes before the board with a "yes," while the rest of the body -- Heather Hiles, Jill Wynns, Eddie Chin, and Dan Kelly -- answer with "aye." The same linguistic battle for inches rages on negative votes, pitting "no" against "nay." Similarly, during roll call Mar, Sanchez, and Lipson are "here," while the other board members are "present."

Outside of meetings, the split over Ackerman is declaimed in less subtle language. Of the four incumbents up for re-election, two hail from the "yes" camp, two from the "aye."

To Sanchez, Ackerman's leadership style is a "nightmare"; to Hiles she's "among the best urban superintendents in the United States."

If voters re-elect the "progressives" Sanchez and Mar, and replace one of the other two incumbents with a like-minded candidate -- someone such as 27-year-old political neophyte Jane Kim -- Ackerman's days may be numbered.

But Hiles is spending a lot of money to make sure Ackerman stays put. And even though the race has a focus on approval of Ackerman, in recent weeks Hiles has come under fire because of the price tag on her campaign -- roughly 10 times the average of her opponents'.

"Raising the amount of money I've raised to communicate with a city full of voters in a presidential, high-turnout race is nothing," Hiles says flatly. "It really isn't. Everybody has their own race to run. Some are going to rely on endorsements from the papers, some are going to rely on the fact that they've been elected three times, whatever. I don't have those relationships to run on."

But with more than a thousand contributors and Mayor Newsom's endorsement, she is clearly counting on some relationships in her race. By the time voters take to the polls, Hiles is projected to have spent $200,000 in an effort to hold her seat.

Sanchez, for one, calls the sum "outrageous" and held a press conference last month with Mar to bring attention to the finances of Hiles' race. "I used to say when Heather broke the $90,000 amount it was mind-boggling," says Mar. "It has never been done since we set and approved a voluntary spending cap. I think it is obscene. And we haven't even seen the full amount of it."

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