Bail out the schools – once

Pub date January 17, 2006
SectionNews & OpinionSectionOpinion

The San Francisco school-closure process has been about as bad as it possibly could be. Information about the potential closings came late out of the district office. The criteria for inclusion on the closure list were hard to understand – and harder to comprehend. The district kept parents out of the process until the very end and then restricted community input to a few moments at a series of crammed hearings. In many instances, representatives from the endangered schools had only 10 minutes to make their cases at last-minute hearings attended by only a few of the school board members.

And in the end, all that came out was a short-term solution to a very long-term, pressing problem.

It’s no surprise that the proposed closure list has very real problems – and that community leaders in the Western Addition and Bayview-Hunters Point, which would be the hardest hit neighborhoods, are outraged. Now the board, which, on Jan. 12, decided to put off making the decision, is scrambling to find a way to restore some degree of fairness and credibility to the process.

It’s an impossible task: After the mess of the past month, there’s simply no way to make a fair decision about school closures right now. And the way things are going in the district these days, it’s likely the exact same ugly and poorly thought-out process will take place next fall, and the year after, and the year after that.

It’s time to put a halt to the madness, for good. Mayor Gavin Newsom should drop his opposition to bailing out the schools; the city needs to step in and give the district the cash to stave off most of the closures for a year. But there has to be a condition: The school board and administration must undertake a real, credible, effective long-term planning effort, starting now, to determine how to handle declining enrollment in a fair and comprehensive fashion.

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Just about everyone agrees that some San Francisco public schools have to close. The district is losing roughly 1,000 students a year, and has been since the early 1980s. But schools aren’t just buildings; they’re communities, they’re part of their neighborhoods – and closing them down is by definition going to be traumatic.

So at the very least, there needs to be some overall logic and educational policy behind the decisions. And right now that’s badly lacking. The main criteria for closures – declining enrollment and low test scores – virtually guarantee that low-income neighborhoods will be the hardest hit. And the proposed mergers would bring together two small, low-performing schools to make one larger school that will still have the same (or worse) issues.

There are all sorts of other alternatives. Could some of the most popular schools, the ones with huge waiting lists and stellar test scores, be expanded to take over empty space in under-enrolled schools? Would mergers between top schools and low-performing schools give low-income kids a better chance?

More important, how many schools will San Francisco need in 10 years, and where should they be located? Is there a way to phase some schools out without shutting them down altogether? Is there a way to promise parents who want their children to stay in the public schools that their schools – their communities – won’t be destroyed next year, or the year after?

If – and only if – the district is willing to commit to a credible planning process, with parents, teachers, community leaders, and someone from City Hall (perhaps a member of the Board of Supervisors) involved from the start, to create a facilities plan for the next decade, the supervisors and the mayor should look for the $5 million it would take to stave off most closures for this year. And if the city won’t do that, the District should look into using reserve funds to cover the gap. Sup. Ross Mirkarimi had the right line when he testified at the Jan. 12 school board meeting: The city should help the schools out – as long as the district can promise that this utter disaster of a process will never happen again.