A full-time school board

Pub date June 6, 2006
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL The San Francisco Board of Education oversees a budget of more than $400 million. Its seven members attend regular board and committee meetings, analyze complex financial documents, visit school sites, meet with parents and administrators, attend conferences and trainings … and try to find a little bit of time to think about the future of public education in a very difficult urban situation. It’s one of the most important jobs in the city. And the board members get paid about $500 a month.

The members have no staff, just a secretary who handles messages and administrative duties for the entire board.

And you wonder why superintendents can run amok without proper oversight, why the budgets get passed with very little scrutiny, why the board members aren’t more actively involved in dealing with complex community issues like school closures. They just don’t have the time. Most of the board members have actual jobs; some, like Mark Sanchez (who teaches at a public school on the peninsula), have to use their vacation time to visit San Francisco schools.

It’s time to recognize what almost everyone in town concluded about the Board of Supervisors several years ago: This is a full-time job and ought to be treated as one.

Sure, paying the seven board members full-time salaries would cost some money, and the district is pinching every penny it has these days. But when you consider the benefits, the price tag is insignificant:

Full-time board members would be able to carefully manage district finances. Right now, the members get a budget document of more than 1,000 pages just days before they have to vote on it. There are almost certainly millions of dollars in that document that could be better spent, but only the administration the superintendent and his or her staff has the time to figure out what’s really going on.

The opportunity for public input would increase dramatically. School board meetings are once every two weeks, which is about all a part-time board can handle. Committee meetings are less frequent, and even when there are huge issues (like school closures) on the agenda, not all the members manage to show up. A full-time board could meet every week, hold regular committee meetings, and hold plenty of public hearings to get input on decisions.

Oversight would be transformed. When there are issues or problems involving San Francisco city departments, the supervisors can hold hearings, bring in the relevant parties, and get to the bottom of what’s going on. That never happens with the school board but it could, and with full-time board members, it would.

The city would get better candidates for the job. Right now it’s really hard for anyone who has a full-time job and kids in the public schools to sit on the school board. There are hundreds of people who would make excellent school board members who won’t even consider running because they just can’t afford to serve.

Full-time board members could actually market the schools. The SF schools badly need some goodwill ambassadors to show more parents the value of public education (and thus increase enrollment). That’s a perfect job for board members and a more functional board would present a much better image for the schools.

If the school board members were paid as much as San Francisco supervisors (roughly $80,000 a year), and if they each had one full-time staff aide, the total tab would run to around $1 million a year. We’re convinced that the resulting improved oversight and public input would allow the board to find far more than $1 million a year in savings elsewhere in the budget.

Giving the board members a huge raise is a tough sell when schools are closing and teachers are getting laid off. But it would transform the public schools and parents, teachers, and students would all be much better off. SFBG