One builds consensus. Another builds infrastructure. The third builds academics.
The careers of the three finalists for San Francisco schools chief have been shaped by persistence in a particular area. Those strengths, which are different for each candidate, will be held up against the immediate needs of The City’s schools.
In the coming week, the Board of Education will be asked to decide which candidate is best for the district at this time.
Is it Henry Der, a deputy superintendent with the California Department of Education, who uses accord to advance his defense of civil rights? Or is it Jack McLaughlin, head of Berkeley Unified, who has a reputation for smoothly managing the everyday details of a school system? Or is it Arlene Ackerman, whose management of the Washington, D.C., public school district has been defined by her push for academic gains?
The names of the three finalists were released Thursday, following a late-night, closed-session school board meeting Wednesday. They were chosen from a field of seven semifinalists and 72 applicants screened by the California School Boards Association, hired by the district in November. The district has been without a superintendent since last June, when Bill Rojas left for Dallas.
“When you look at the candidates, you look at every aspect,” said San Francisco board member Dan Kelly. “But, we know that each candidate brings a different set of strengths and weaknesses, advantages and disadvantages.”
Supervisor Leland Yee said it’s important for school board members to compare the district’s weaknesses to the candidates’ strengths.
“The district is hemorrhaging financially,” Yee, a former school board member, said Thursday. “You need an individual who will go in there and fix the financial operation of that district. We need a nuts-and-bolts type of superintendent who will relate to everyone from teachers to site administrators to a downtown administrator.”
San Francisco Unified, the fifth largest district in California, with 64,000 kids, has undergone two re
cent audits. The district had not balanced its books in two years and failed to monitor overtime or keep coherent payroll records, the audits found.
While grappling with those issues, the next superintendent also will be faced with either supporting or reversing politically controversial positions taken by the district. San Francisco Unified is one of three districts in California that refuses to test children who lack English skills. The district also has ignored a voter-approved mandate ending bilingual education.
Hard to find all skills
President of the teachers union, Kent Mitchell said the reality of finding “one person with all of those skills is going to be difficult.”
The school board’s task, Mitchell said, will be “knowing those requirements and making the best choice of the candidates.”
Each finalist has extensive experience in education. However, the types of experiences are varied.
McLaughlin, who has been superintendent of the Berkeley district since October 1994, was named superintendent of the year in 1999 by the Association of California School Administrators. During his tenure, the number of students in Berkeley public schools increased to 9,600 from 7,700. He also managed a $158 million rebuilding project financed with a bond passed in 1992.
“When we hired Jack, we were coming out of the state recession, we’d made budget cuts, we’d approved a new desegregation plan, but none of it had been implemented,” said former Berkeley board member Miriam Topel. “Jack loves to tackle messy problems.”
McLaughlin said, “I’m always worried something will fall through the cracks and won’t get done. I am organized. I use a day timer. I write everything down and keep lists. I also confess I’m a closet architect and project manager. I want to make sure there’s money to cover things, and then I want to make sure we have the best project and design.”
Soft-spoken, but steely
Schools Superintendent Ackerman, who was unavailable for comment Thursday, has developed a reputation as a soft-spoken but steely educator whose particular
interest is in encouraging achievement among minority students. The District of Columbia has 77,000 students. Nearly 90 percent are black and more than 70 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
When Ackerman arrived in the district in 1997 as chief academic officer – she became superintendent in 1998 – she created a new curriculum, tougher graduation standards and an accountability program for principals.
“Arlene is an academic person, not a facilities person,” said Mary Levy, who has studied District of Columbia schools for 20 years as a lawyer with the Public Education Project of the Washington Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights. “She’s a visionary when it comes to school reform.”
Der, a deputy with the Department of Education and former director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, is a longtime San Francisco activist.
Responsible for alternative education programs statewide, Der’s strength lies in his ability to push for change, by gaining the cooperation of those around him.
As he says, “I feel I can make a difference in this job. I have a very deep, passionate feeling about public education in San Francisco.”