MONDAY, JANUARY 28, 2002
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
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
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
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
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
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
MS: Who, Yee?
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
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
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
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
MG: Okay, I think thatís it. I canít drink anymore
MS: Letís get out of here.