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.”

Mar claims that Hiles' spending has changed the way he is running. “It even changes the way that I have to campaign,” he says. “And it forces me to stop visiting school sites and stop meeting with regular parents and spend more time fund-raising to even have a fraction of the money that the big-business candidates have.”

Hiles is unfazed by the criticism, saying Mar and Sanchez are playing politics instead of focusing on the Ackerman issue. “I think it's mostly sour grapes,” she says. “A few of the people who are complaining the loudest told me off the record that if they could raise that much money they would, too.”

Beyond the amount, the sources of some of Hiles' campaign dollars have been brought into question, inspiring Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez to introduce legislation that would amend the rules governing school board campaign finance. Under the current city law, no person who contracts with the city can contribute to the political campaign of someone who might govern the approval of a contract with that donor. The legislation that Gonzalez introduced last week would extend these rules to include the San Francisco Unified School District and the Community College District.

The “closing of this loophole,” as Gonzalez puts it, would prevent contributions like the relatively insignificant $250 from Nibbi Investments, a construction firm that nabbed the $14 million contract to build Dianne Feinstein Elementary in the Sunset District, set to open in December 2005.

“There is no loophole,” Hiles says when asked about the Nibbi contribution. “I have contributions from people of all walks of life — community leaders, big and small business — and that's something I'm proud of. If they're trying to say that I have a disproportionate number of contributions from contractors, that's simply not the case.”

Heather Hiles' supporters claim that the clamor about her contributions is an attempt to direct attention in the race away from the central issue facing the board — Ackerman's future.

Lobbyist Wade Randlett calls the move “a classic example of political gamesmanship” by Gonzalez, who has endorsed Jane Kim. “Extremists in town want to divert people with things like this,” says Randlett. “They don't want to have this election be about a referendum on Arlene or Arlene's issues.”

Randlett says there is a real difference between people who want to replace Ackerman and those who want to keep her, and it is getting lost in the run-up to the election. “If you want to get rid of Arlene Ackerman and roll back the changes that she has implemented, you should vote for Mar and Sanchez and Jane Kim. If you believe in what she is doing, you should vote for the people that support her.”

“I think that is a bogus way of framing a school board race,” Mar responds. “The race is about getting more accountability into the system and not letting downtown business interests influence the schools.” Though the scarlet “D” has been thrown around a lot, no one makes it clear how a “downtown” element would corrupt the comparatively small budget of the Board of Education. “It's not like [the school board is] deciding on putting up high-rises in the Presidio,” snarks Randlett.

When Mar speaks about such interests, he levels the accusation at not only Hiles, but also two of the race's well-branded candidates — “Principal” David Weiner and “Coach” Larry Kane — and incumbent Jill Wynns. Kane, a lawyer at Orrick, Herrington, and Sutcliffe, has marked his campaign with his 11 years of volunteering as Galileo High's wrestling coach. He is also the second highest spender in the race, at $70,000. Kane (who answers the phone with a chipper, “Coach here!”) decided to run after he “got totally upset” about the diminishing sports budgets at Galileo. He's unapologetic about his relationships with downtown business leaders.

“There are a lot of business-related issues that need to be examined,” Kane says, contending that state and federal resources are simply not enough. “I think I can leverage my relationship with the business community to help bring additional resources to our schools.”

When Wynns gets accused of being a downtown candidate, she scoffs it off, citing her long record of battling for-profit privatization in the schools and her progressive voting record. “The political divide on the school board is not along the normal political spectrum,” she says. “It's not left and right. It's left and so far on the left you go around and meet the right.”

And somehow, Wynns — who would be considered extremely progressive in almost any other district in the country — is in the center of the race's political spectrum. She says she isn't worried that she's trailing in the money race and has been targeted by progressives because of her approval of Ackerman. She's counting on her past record to earn voter approval.

“We have a real divide here between angry ideologues and people who think about the effect of the way they vote before they vote,” she says. “It all comes back to what I think we should think about — fixing the problems that exist in our schools that prevent kids learning in the classroom.”

The kids: It's telling that the candidates' messages in the race have strayed away from the group with the most at stake, more even than Ackerman. But in this contest, as in Neruda's poem, things have gotten broken.

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