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I never expected that I would get involved in politics

Supervisor Matt Gonzalez interviews Board of Education Commissioner Mark Sanchez

January 19, 2002

MG: Perhaps we could start by talking about how you were elected to the Board of Education, and about your decision to join the Green Party?

MS: I never expected that I would get involved in politics, and I keep saying to myself that Iím not a politician. Basically, I see myself as a schoolteacher. I taught fourth and fifth grade for seven years at several schools in the district. The last one was Paul Revere, on the southeast side of Bernal Heights, a school that serves primarily poor African-American, Latino, and Filipino students. I was beside myself with grief and frustration at the lack of real educational opportunity for these kids. We had no resources, students werenít getting their needs met, and neither were the teachers. It was as if the entire learning community was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. What was particularly saddening was feeling that even though I knew I was a great teacher, I still felt that I failed my students on a daily basis.

So, with a number of like-minded Revere teachers, we decided to form Teachers4Change. Basically, we enumerated our concerns and chose to use direct-action tactics to ensure that the public understood the nature of these concerns: We begged for classroom supplies and picketed on the Van Ness median strip in front of City Hall. That was a couple of years ago. We were able to get national coverage, as well as a lot of donations, because the public hadnít realized up to that point that teachers buy their own classroom supplies and that in this housing market, they could barely afford their own housing.

We quickly realized that our activism did not mesh well with the entrenched and bureaucratic machinations of the teacher local. We were just as quickly labeled anti-union, even though all of our actions were overtly pro-teacher. Tom Ammiano asked me about running for school board, which I took seriously. We needed to get someone on the board who understood firsthand what life was like in the classroom.

During the campaign I was tagged as anti-labor and got only one democratic club endorsement, the Latino Democratic Club. The anti-labor label really stuck too; the Harvey Milk Club would not endorse me because of it, even though I am gay, which resulted in no endorsement for a gay candidate for school board that year. The Greens endorsed me even though I wasnít a member, which really impressed me.

I was elected to the Board of Education in November 2000 and joined the Green Party before I took office. Iíve always been progressive and I felt that the Greens more closely reflected my politics. In fact, I think that most progressive Democrats at some point think seriously about going Green. Itís a difficult proposition, though, especially for people of color, because the Democrats have in a sense cornered the market. At the same time, the Democrats are so in bed with corporate America and particularly reluctant to buck big money, and this directly and adversely affects communities of color. Itís a paradox, but itís not an unsolvable situation.

MG: The Greens often get criticized by Democrats for not being diverse enough ó but the irony is that the Democrats have been taking people of color for granted for years. So I donít find the point compelling, particularly as the Greens actively seek wider diversity and are increasingly addressing issues that affect minority communities. And, as someone pointed out to me recently, 100 percent of the Greens holding office in San Francisco are Latino.

MS: Yeah, the Greens need to diversify their membership, but itís also true that the party is in its nascent stages of development, and so I think itís still to early to tell. I think what you mention is true, the Democrats have long held people of color as a sure-bet voting block, but they havenít been able to deliver to communities of color in major ways, especially when you look at the daily concerns of these communities, in terms of juvenile justice, incarceration rates, education achievement gaps, environmental racism ó the list goes on and on.

MG: How has your experience as a teacher influenced the work you do on the Board of Education?

MS: In large part I was voted onto the board because people really wanted a public schoolteacher on it. Iím the first teacher since Tom Ammiano served more than eight years ago. I taught for seven years in San Francisco public elementary schools and as a result of that, everything I do on the board is informed by my experience with students. It really is about practicing the politics of urgency, which means that it must be continually acknowledged that our school system is in crisis and that we as elected officials must behave like we know this. It simply isnít acceptable that certain children are allowed and even expected to perform below their potential. If we subtract the poor kids of color, our district outperforms nearly every other in the state. But the fact is, we havenít been able to do right by a huge segment of our students, and I am committed to righting that wrong.

MG: Tell me about the Small Schools Initiative you are working on with Commissioner Eric Mar.

MS: For more than a year, weíve been working with a large, multi-ethnic group of parents, students, and school reform educators in the Excelsior neighborhood, who are looking at radical structural changes in high schools through ďsmall autonomous schools.Ē Itís actually a movement that is riding a wave across the country, but until now had missed our own district.

Basically, these schools structure their academic day in a way that personalizes the education for each student. At these schools, most of which serve poor kids of color, the students feel a great sense of responsibility not only to themselves but to the entire school community. All the students know one another and know each teacher. Each student is advised by a teacher throughout his or her entire high school career. These schools are safe, and even better than that, the students graduate and most go on to college. Hopefully, weíll have some pilots off the ground by next year.

MG: I understand Superintendent Arlene Ackerman is opposed to opening a Small School in the fall and has been rallying folks like Amos Brown to come out and call you a racist.

MS: Yeah, Matt, thatís been a low point in my term so far on the board, being attacked because I am seen as trying to subvert the authority of the superintendentóbecause she is an African-American woman. This type of race-baiting, aimed at me, a gay Latino school board member, is below the dignity of the superintendent and I am very disappointed in her. She should have a greater sense of urgency about improving schools for poor kids of coloróthis needs to happen now.

MG: I understand Governor Gray Davis is cutting $843 million from this yearís school budget?

MS: You mean Gray Wilson, right? The Education Governor. I am trying to organize a town hall-like meeting to get community input about how we should tackle these cuts. Ideas Iíve heard already include shutting down our schools for a day of lobbying in Sacramento. Students, teachers, staff, school board members, the superintendent ó we should all be yelling at Davis, demanding more education dollars, not a cut in funding for our kids. Our students need to know that Davis is increasing the pay for prison guards. They will be getting $73,000 a year in their seventh year of service. Teachers, on the other hand, get about $63,000 a year after 25 years of service. This is asinine and we need to demand a cut in prison spending and put the savings into teacher pay and improved education programs.

Public education has been reeling for the past 25 years, since the passage of Proposition 13. In the 1970s, California was among the leaders in per pupil spending. We are now 31st. New Jersey spends $10,000 per student. We spend $6,000. We have a turnover rate of one third of all teachers in our big cities every five years. We have very few teachers of color, especially where they are needed most. The average beginning teacherís salary is $32,000 a year. We canít keep a diverse, excellent teaching force to save our lives, because we, as a state, refuse to compensate teachers appropriately.

MG: You know, the reason Prop. 13 passed was because the law allowed reassessments on property whenever a local city council voted to increases property taxes or whenever the tax assessor decided the value of someoneís home had gone up. Many elderly home owners had their property reassessed merely because a neighbor decided to move and the new sale price attracted the attention of the tax assessor and served as the primary argument that the neighboring property was now worth more. Folks on fixed incomes in particular were suddenly priced out of their homes because they could not afford the reassessed taxes. So I donít begrudge the voters who wanted to change the law to stop these capricious reassessments.

The problem I have is that corporate property should never have been included in Prop. 13 because it simply doesnít change hands as often. The life span of a corporation is simply not equal to the life of an individual. Look downtown ó most of the companies owning property will still be there after weíre all gone.

MS: It would be interesting to know how much revenue for our schools could be garnered if corporate interests ó in San Francisco alone ó were paying a fair tax on their properties.

MG: Mary Hernandez left the Board of Education recently and Mayor Brown appointed [former Muni director] Emilio Cruz to the fill her vacancy. What do you make of this? I guess operating a public school is just like operating Muni? Iím being facetious, of course.

MS: Classic Brown, and not surprising to see him take a last-ditch effort at subverting the democratic process. That said, I donít have anything personally against Emilio Cruz. He is progressively inclined on some issues. So Iím trying to be optimistic about this.

MG: Could you say something about the Resolution Leland Yee introduced at the Board of Supervisors calling for city oversight of how the school district administers bond monies?

MS: While it is true that this district has suffered for years because of the outright dishonest dealings of those in charge during the 1990s, the last person who should be leading the charge to oversee the districtís facilities bond monies is Leland Yee, who for virtually all of his eight years on the Board of Education chaired the Facilities Committee and had oversight of the department that misappropriated over $100 million. And now, as a supervisor, heís calling for oversight?

The board is working with Superintendent Ackerman to clean up the toxic spill of the Bill Rojas years. The truth is that we are dealing with a facilities department that was so mismanaged and/or corrupt on every level that weíve had to replace virtually every major player. But we need to be making the changes.

I think Leland should be spending more of his time cleaning up failed city programs before he tries to be the savior of a school district in trouble partly because of his own dirty hands. But I donít think he is able to resist the temptation of playing the fiscal conservative since he is running for what many see as the conservative 12th Assembly District.

MG: How much money, and I suppose I should already know this, does our city contribute to the school districtís budget?

MS: The public needs to understand that out of a $600 million school district budget the city only contributes about $3 million out of its own $5.2 billion budget. So the city provides less than 1 percent of our school money. I wish that the discourse regarding our schools would center on how the city can better provide for its children by monetarily supporting adequate education programs rather than engage in what is essentially political grandstanding.

MG: So I take it you wonít be supporting him in the Assembly race?

MS: Who, Yee?

MG: Yeah.

MS: No, Iíve endorsed Dan Kelly.

MG: A number of Latinos including both of us, Gerardo Sandoval, and Julio Ramos, won our races with the support of Tom Ammiano and with the strong opposition of Mayor Brown. Could you say something about your relationship with Tom and the role heís played in local progressive politics?

MS: Yeah, Tom has been extremely committed not only to my particular struggle to gain what is due for all of our children, but to issues in general that affect the daily lives of those who reside in his district. I think itís safe to say that the hard work of Teachers4Change would not have resulted in the election of an activist teacher to the school board without his constant support.

MG: I certainly concur in your remarks. I give the guy a lot of grief at the Board of Supervisors but it is not lost on me Ė the instrumental role Tomís played in helping to combat what is a very repressive political machine in this town.

MS: Tom deserves an incredible amount of recognition and respect for leading the way in the virtual dismantling of the Brown machine. He was able to do this because he garnered the support of a wide array of grassroots organizers and kept community issues dead center.

MG: I visited Gateway Charter Public High School in the Inner Sunset recently and was rather impressed with the diversity of students and the experimentation in the curriculum. I know that there is widespread criticism among progressives over for-profit charter schools (Edison, for example), and I support that criticism ó but I wanted to ask you about your thoughts on non-profit charter schools such as Gateway?

MS: Iím not totally against charter schools; in fact, I support a lot of their innovation and I just this week passed the resolution that is creating our sixth charter, Urban Pioneer. But my main criticism is the fact that by state law charter schools can only accept students who apply to get in. This self-selection process is highly unsettling to me because it automatically cuts out of the equation a rather large subset of our public school students who come from the most marginalized communities. That doesnít mean that charter schools like Gateway donít serve minority and poor students ó it means that it canít choose poor, minority students who donít choose to apply; for whatever reason, we find that poor minority students donít select what school they want to go to.

Another negative about charters is that the state currently allows them to virtually clone themselves without adequate oversight. Thatís why we are finding that some charters have been charging tuition or teaching religion.

MG: Well, the cloning phenomenon obviously has to stop. But I have to say that I am attracted by the opportunity charter schools offer to experiment with curriculums. What would it take to change the self-selection component of charter schools so that kids who donít make a selection to attend these alternative schools could still end up in one?

MS: The degree of my support for charter schools will increase when they serve what would essentially be a random selection from the general pool of student candidates. In other words, charter schools would serve a portion of students who normally default into a school that typically fails to do well by the students who attend. If state charter law had that mechanism of ďdefaultĒ for a certain percentage (perhaps 20-30 percent) of the student body, we would know that the cultural capital, or social capital of the student (and the studentís family) isnít the determinant variable that contributes to the success of a school such as Gateway.

MG: How does our school district compare with ó say, Oakland ó on the number of charter schools in the district?

MS: Oakland, as I recall, has more than 20 charter schools and actually would have had a lot more had they not brought into their fold a number of new small autonomous schools that otherwise would have gone the charter route. In San Francisco, we have six charters and we would be wise to emulate Oaklandís small schools policies, which essentially allow some schools to have incredible latitude in staffing and curricular decisions. As I said before, small schools are where I feel we need to head, not simply because we can get charter school-like innovation, but because we will finally be able to serve students who have had the schoolroom door shut on their faces.

MG: I was asked recently to be a judge for a poetry slam team competition among third, fourth, and 5fifth graders sponsored by Bay Area Scores. It included students from El Dorado, 21st Century, Bret Harte, and Carver elementary schools ó over at the Bay View Opera House. Let me tell you ó it was really a lot of fun and only reinforced my belief that poetry is more interesting than politics. Anyway, Iím wondering if you could say something about the various programs like this that the Board of Education tries to encourage.

MS: For all the bad that our students and teachers have to put up with on a daily basis, there are also extremely promising signs, signs that certainly show the resiliency of our most adversely affected students. We have a wonderful ďPoets-in-the-Schools Programď; we have artists who are basically itinerant, going from school to school to help students reach their creative center. There is no doubt that we need more of this going on in our schools, because research has shown that the arts help students develop cognitively. Itís no mystery as to why students succeed when they are afforded an education embedded with developmentally appropriate art programs.

MG: Can you to say something about your own upbringing? Where are you from and what kind of schools did you attend?

MS: I grew up in Santa Monica. My parents like to think they escaped East L.A., escaped from their poor neighborhood. I like to think I escaped L.A., period. But really, I was fortunate to get a decent education in Santa Monica public schools that were actually pretty ho-hum when I look back at them. I did have some incredible middle school teachers who taught with an emphasis on social justice issues. I guess they had an influence on me. I left L.A. for Santa Cruz, where I studied English Literature and where I went back to get my teaching credential. Then I came to San Francisco in 1992.

MG: One last question, any candidates you like for Novemberís Board of Education races?

MS: I like Sarah Lipson, a resource teacher at West Portal Elementary School, and community activist Giulio Sorro, who does a lot of work at City College. Another is Deborah Gallegos, a recent graduate from Balboa High School and a real advocate for education opportunities for all students. I havenít met him but I hear good things about Whitney Leigh, an African-American attorney and former Colemanís board member, who used to work as a public defender at Youth Guidance Center. So I think there will be plenty of good candidates to choose from.

MG: Okay, I think thatís it. I canít drink anymore coffee.

MS: Letís get out of here.