School board race shouldn’t be personal

Pub date August 31, 2010
SectionBruce Blog

The backroom anti-Brodkin campaign has to stop

EDITORIAL There are plenty of issues to talk about in the San Francisco School Board race. The new student assignment process marks a dramatic shift in the way parents and kids get to choose schools. The district’s decision to pursue federal Race to the Top money was a mistake. There are too many charter schools, and not enough money for basic programs. The district has made great strides in closing the achievement gap, but there’s more to do. Many school facilities still need upgrades, meaning — potentially — more bond acts. The austerity budget has meant teacher layoffs. Overall, the district is in better shape than it was five years ago, but the goal of quality education for all kids is still a long way off.

This is what candidates and interest groups ought to be talking about. Instead, it seems as if the entire race is about one candidate: Margaret Brodkin.

Brodkin, the former director of Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth and former head of the Mayor’s Office of Children, Youth, and Families is by all accounts among the most experienced people ever to run for the office. She’s also strong-willed, forceful, and sometimes difficult. That’s what’s made her such a successful advocate. Over the past 30 years, she’s been involved in almost every progressive cause involving children and youth in the city, from the creation of the Children’s Fund to the battle against privatization in the public schools.

You think she’d at least be considered a serious candidate and that elected officials and political groups would give her the respect she deserves as someone who has devoted her life to activism on behalf of children.

But some incumbent board members have been engaged in a full-scale, anti-Brodkin campaign the likes of which we’ve rarely seen, even in the rough and sometimes brutal politics of this city. It’s mostly quiet, backroom stuff — and as far as we can tell, it’s not about issues. But they’ve approached just about everyone in local politics to badmouth Brodkin.

Let us stipulate: there are issues, real issues, progressives can disagree on with Brodkin. We’ve fought with her ourselves over some of the programs she implemented when she worked in the Newsom administration. Brodkin was far too supportive of former school superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who was secretive and imperious, for far too long. She’s also a close ally of board member Jill Wynns, who was wrong on a lot of issues over the past few years.

Brodkin has extensive proposals about education reform that she has discussed over and over; if you don’t like them, then don’t vote for her. If you think her proposals would be bad for the kids in the public schools — and in the end, that’s what this is all about — then work to elect somebody else. That’s how politics works.

But the misleading whisper campaign annoys us, and is often based on inaccurate information. Brodkin, we’ve been told, opposed voting rights for noncitizens back in 2004. Not true — she personally wrote a ballot argument in favor of the law. She told us, for the record, on tape, that she disagrees with Wynns and opposes JROTC in the public schools.

There’s also the line (and it’s somewhat reminiscent of some of things that were said about Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign) that she’s hard to get along with, that she won’t be collegial on the board. At her campaign kickoff, incumbent Hydra Mendoza praised the lack of conflict on the current board and said she wanted to preserve that — the implication being that Brodkin would bring disunity.

But unanimity and lack of conflict isn’t always good for a public board. Too much consensus leads to complacency — and that’s always a big problem, particularly when it comes to oversight.

We’ll issue our endorsements Oct. 6, when we’ve had a chance to talk to all the candidates — and right now we’re not ready to give the nod to Brodkin or anyone else. And we’d be the first to say that she has made mistakes and they ought to be taken into account in any endorsement process.

But we don’t like personal attacks, and we don’t like the politics of personal destruction. It’s not good for the schools, not good for democracy, not good for San Francisco. Argue issues, debate public problems — but this nasty whisper campaign has to stop.