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Since the beginning of the year, French anthropologist Anne-Marie Arnaqueuse has been traveling throughout the United States, studying the political culture of American cities and towns and publishing regular reports in the left-leaning literary magazine La bętise. The SF Call has obtained a translation of the article she wrote following her visit to San Francisco:

When Prices Are High and Talk Is Cheap

Decision-Making at the San Francisco School Board

By Anne-Marie Arnaqueuse

It is a truism that we French are a logical people, but the first thing that one notices about any American city is the chaotic nature of its public institutions. San Francisco is no exception.

In geography and population, the City and County of San Francisco are one and the same, and often referred to as one entity, “the Siddy n Cowny uh Sampencisco.” In theory, it consists of two overlapping jurisdictions, governed by an archaic collection of agencies — elected officials, bureaucrats, and citizen commissions — that follow an arcane collection of rules. In practice, its operating procedures are simple: most activity takes place in public meetings where decisions are reached through a ritualized and often orchestrated interchange among a limited group of actors.

Therefore, in order to learn how power is actually distributed in San Francisco, I decided to sit in on several public meetings and watch the interaction among the various participants. My first stop was the Board of Education.

The operating principles of the San Francisco Unified School District are particularly opaque, because its superior governing body is neither the city nor the county, but the office of the state superintendent of public instruction. Schools receive their financing from a mixture of sources, with state contributing the lion’s share of 55%. Per capita spending on students is low — it was 25th in the country in 2004 — and so are students’ scores on standardized tests. In many districts, there has been an exodus from the public school system: San Francisco has a school-age population of more than 100,000, but less than 60,000 children attend public school. Occasionally local calls for reform are heard, ever so faintly, but they tend to get lost in the multitude of regulations and entrenched interests.

There seems to be no way to get a handle on the system. The websites of both the state Department of Education and the San Francisco Unified School District are bursting with “standards” and “policies” and “missions.” But they lack the straightforward explanations that citizens need if they are to understand how these organizations work and who is responsible for their success or failure. Has no one here heard of organizational charts? Or simple declarative sentences?

Recently, the federal government has added its own level of confusion, an equally mysterious national testing program called No Child Left Behind, which affects schools’ funding and accreditation. Even conscientious parents must be frustrated when they try to learn what’s happening to their children’s schools and they encounter explanations of NCLB like this one, the whole story that the SFUSD presents on its website: “In 2001, Congress reauthorized ESEA as the ‘No Child Left Behind Act’ (NCLB). Under NCLB, teachers and paraprofessionals must be certified as ‘highly qualified.’" Imagine how they feel when they read the introduction to the program offered by the California Department of Education, which is followed by an entire page of links to technical reports, regulations, and power point presentations: “Each state is required to develop and implement a statewide accountability system that will ensure that all schools and districts make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) as defined by NCLB.” Even the very source of the new program, the U.S. Department of Education, provides an example of public relations run amok. DOE’s “Introduction” buries visitors in the details of a Guide to Education & NCLB, the Four Pillars of NCLB, an Executive Summary of NCLB, and a Fact Sheet on NCLB Act.

Oh, how I long for the rationality of France’s organization and the clarity of French expression! Because of Americans’ renowned linguistic limitations, it is doubtful that they would appreciate the simplicity of the system outlined on the French Ministry of Education’s website. But they would surely envy the down-to-earth language in the description offered by the French embassy to the United States.

Putting nostalgia aside, I remind myself that I am not here as an ambassador. I am here to observe. Last week I entered the SFUSD building at 555 Franklin, wondering how this bureaucratic muddle would play out in an actual meeting.

The windowless room where the School Board meets is long, probably twice as long as it is wide. When I came in, the Board members were sitting, facing the audience, behind a brightly lit almond-shaped table that covered the front of the room. President Eric Mar was in the middle, evoking tough chic in a black shirt, black leather jacket, and bright tie. Throughout the meeting, he was unfailingly polite; his mantra was the phrase “Thank you so much.” The other members, dressed more unobtrusively, arranged themselves to his right and his left, along with several advisers and clerks. Board member Eddie Chin and Superintendent Arlene Ackerman were absent. During the meeting, most of the members confined their remarks to questions and brief statements, with longtime members Jill Wynns and Dan Kelly more inclined to indulge in reminiscences and extended commentary.

According to an assessment made in 2002, “San Francisco public schools are currently 89% students of color, including 30% Chinese, 22% Latino, 16% African American, and 7% Pilipino. Almost one third of SFUSD students are English- language learners of many different ethnicities, with the top primary languages being Chinese (over 7,300 students), Spanish (about 6,900 students), Pilipino or Tagalog (over 700 students), Vietnamese (over 500 students), and Russian (over 400 students). The School Board, whose members are elected, does not represent this distribution: Chin, Mar, and Norman Yee are Asian; Kelly, Wynns, and Sarah Lipson are Caucasian; and Mark Sanchez is Latino. Although Superintendent Ackerman is African American, there are no African Americans on the Board.

At last week’s meeting a succession of SFUSD representatives sat on the other side of the table, facing the Board. Their voices were audible, amplified by tiny microphones, but their faces were not visible to the audience, any more than their names appeared on the SFUSD’s website. To their left — far off to the side — stood a lectern reserved for members of the public, also equipped with a mike. The rest of the area was filled with space-age chairs, some padded, some constructed of clear acrylic. Members of the audience chattered freely among themselves during the meeting.

Most agenda items included time for public comment, but I was told that this is one of the public’s sore points because speakers are often bumped from one time slot to another. While I was there, this did indeed occur. Although one member of the audience near me had filed a card indicating that she would like to speak, her name wasn’t called at the appropriate moment. When she asked why, she was told that she had been rescheduled for another comment period, at the end of the meeting. Four hours later, she rose to speak.

The meeting began half an hour late, at about 7:30. When the first general comment period was announced an hour later, a group of advanced placement teachers lined up to speak. Yes, teachers were considered part of the public here, even though their appearance was backed by the teachers’ union, the United Educators of San Francisco. No members of the general public joined them, and no students.

The teachers had come to protest proposed cuts in their class schedule. Their contracts are up for renewal, and the trigger for their appearance was a cost-saving measure proposed by the school district to eliminate the additional conference/preparation periods that AP teachers say they need to do their job effectively. They portrayed themselves as dedicated teachers, concerned with the challenges and rewards of making college-level material comprehensible to high school students. They described their less-than-ideal working conditions, with limited supplies and crowded classrooms — one AP science teacher said he teaches more than 35 students in courses designed for less than 20.

In San Francisco’s public meetings, comments like these do not usually begin a dialogue. They generally fall into a great black hole, unanswered. At the end of these comments, however, a disembodied administrator’s voice arose from the table in response, stating that the suggested change was part of ongoing contract negotiations and therefore should not be discussed in public.

It was difficult to assess the distribution of power in this situation, especially because the superintendent was absent. The Board members did not enter the discussion at all. I found out later that their hands were tied — or at least their mouths were muzzled because the topic was not on the agenda. And the administration refused to engage. But at the same time it could not silence the teachers by controlling access to information, because the contract proposed by the SFUSD — along with the teachers’ own proposals — was already available on the UESF website with AP prep periods clearly marked for elimination:

7.2.8. The District shall provide two (2) additional conference/preparation periods to each regular high school for Advanced Placement (AP) classes, plus an additional conference period for each twenty (20) AP exams above forty (40) taken at said school the prior year. Teachers of AP classes may make recommendations to the principal for allocating AP additional conference/preparation periods.

In effect, there was a three-way standoff between the Board, the administration, and the teachers, presumably to be resolved at a later date. Other constituent groups — parents, students, and the general public  — were noticeably silent.

The meeting lasted until nearly midnight, and this was by no means the only issue discussed. But it became the most significant.

Earlier, members of the administration reported on the distribution of funds from two bonds passed in 1997 and 2003, delivering a chronology of events in the bland, watered-down phraseology of a fourth grade history textbook. Passive verbs were used. Faulty procedures were changed. Funds were disbursed. At the end of the presentation, UESF president Dennis Kelly, a large man with the weighty walk of a labor leader, approached the public’s lectern. Then and only then were listeners reminded that the handling of the 1997 bonds had been embarrassingly lax, marked by “no fraud, but incompetence.”

The lackluster bond presentation was followed by an almost giddy report from the Proposition H Citizens Advisory Committee. In March 2004 the voters of San Francisco overwhelmingly passed Prop H; the measure, sponsored by Supervisor Tom Ammiano, instituted an 11-year program to give the school district more money, beginning with $10 million and working up to $60 million a year. The CAC presented its wish list. As required by the law, one third of the funding is earmarked for preschools; the SF Examiner, which has been following Prop H closely, carried an article on the preschool funding on the day before the meeting. In addition, one third is allocated for general educational needs, including additional counselors and nurses; and one third is for SLAM — sports, libraries, arts, and music. CAC member Novella Smith said happily, “It’s an amazing amount of money… to bring back things that we have lost over time.”

But the committee’s joy may be short-lived. Under the terms of the proposition, the city may defer a quarter of the funding in any year, like this year, when it anticipates a budget shortfall of $100 million. That would leave $7.5 million to start the ball rolling.

Despite agenda items like these, the AP teachers’ appearance served its purpose, which was not to secure a resolution of the issue but simply to draw attention to it. The SF Chronicle devoted its entire initial coverage of the meeting to their plight (with a small additional item a day later about the school calendar). The next step will be public pressure — faxes, phone calls, and emails — on the School Board and the SFUSD. That, and not a dispassionate discussion of policy, is likely to sway the outcome.

In this land of obfuscating bureaucrats and fuzzy-minded commentators, it may be too much to ask that children’s future be decided by dispassionate policy discussions. When, I wonder, will the Americans realize they need another visit from Lafayette?