‘The fight has been turned inward,’ laments San Francisco school superintendent

Feb 7, 2021 by

Supt. Vincent Matthews, in EdSource’s podcast, says city attorney in San Francisco should have given him a heads-up before filing suit against the district.

Photo courtesy of SFUSE

San Francisco Unified Superintendent Vincent Matthews in a pre-pandemic classroom in what now seem like Halcyon days

Insisting that his district does have a plan to reopen some of its schools, San Francisco Unified Superintendent Vincent Matthews says that the lawsuit filed by the city against the district to force it bring students back to school will only serve to divert energy that should be going to make that happen.

A far better strategy, he said, would have been if city attorney Dennis Herrera, who filed the suit, had walked the two blocks from City Hall to district headquarters, or even picked up the phone, and expressed his concerns.

In fact, he said, he has never met Herrera. “My office is literally a hundred yards from his office. I come to work every day. He could have walked a hundred yards. We could have masked up, and sat six feet apart. And he could have said, ‘these are the issues that we have with your plan.’ He did none of those things.”

Matthews said he was not given a heads up on the lawsuit until he read about it in the San Francisco Chronicle, just hours before the suit was filed in nearby Superior Court.

“The way adults solve problems is they sit down with each other, and work through problems,” Matthews said in an interview on EdSource’s podcast This Week in California Education. “If you are trying to solve a complex problem, you get together and say ‘these are the issues I have;’ if you’re trying to get headlines, you file a lawsuit.”

To listen to the podcast, which includes an interview with CTA President E. Toby Boyd, go here.

Now, he said, “we’re going to spend time working on this as opposed to actually working on delivering high quality distance learning, as well as implementing plans to bring students back.”

“One of the things that we need to recognize is that this is a fight against a pandemic for all of us,” he said. “We’re trying to defeat a pandemic and, in most cases, people will circle the wagons.”

In San Francisco, the wagons have been circled, but not in a constructive way, he said. “Instead of aiming out at the pandemic, the fight has turned inward and a lawsuit has been filed against us.”

Herrera said that “going to court was not our preferred course of action. We did not take this action lightly.”

However, he rejected the notion that there was anything to discuss with Matthews before going to court. “The school board and the district had 10 months to put together a viable plan as they are required to do under state law,” he said. “They still haven’t done so. A meeting wasn’t necessary to tell them what they’ve known for months that they need to under the law.”

As a “homegrown” superintendent, Matthews has San Francisco in his blood. He was born and raised in the city, attended its public schools, and graduated from McAteer High School. He began his 30-year career in education as a teacher and principal in the district. He has been superintendent in some of the most challenged districts in the state, including Oakland Unified and Inglewood Unified, when they were under state trusteeship. He also served as superintendent of San Jose Unified. He returned San Francisco 3 1/2 years ago to the district’s top job.

He is diplomatic about his relations with the teachers union, which some critics accuse of creating unnecessary obstacles in the way of in-person learning. Indirectly drawing a contrast to the fractured relationship with the city leadership, he described Susan Solomon, president of the United Educators of San Francisco, representing teachers and other school employees, as a “partner in this work.”

“You have to think of it first as a partnership, and together do whatever it takes to knock down the barriers to delivering a high-quality education and eventually return our students and families back to safe environments,” he said.

Asked what the biggest obstacle in the way of opening schools in San Francisco has been, Matthews summed it up in a word: the pandemic. That has thwarted the district’s efforts to open the schools, including a plan to bring some students back by January 25. On that date, the county was “at the highest level of the surge” and in “deep purple” on the state’s color-coded chart, which meant schools couldn’t reopen under state regulations. Vaccines were also becoming available, with the prospect of vaccinating teachers on the horizon, further complicating matters. “We are reassessing, and want to make sure that when we do open doors, the conditions are right for both our students and the adults,” he said.

Describing himself as a “terminal optimist,” he said that he believed schools would reopen for in-person instruction. But he also declined to put a date on when that might happen, only saying that he hoped it would be “before the end of the year.”

As for the district’s reopening plan — which the city alleges in its lawsuit that the district lacks — Matthews said it has been on the district’s website since December.  The plan, however, has not been agreed to by the union, which Friday spelled out its conditions for returning to school, saying “the majority” of them had been met.  Without giving a timeline, it said teachers would be willing to return when the county is in the “red” tier, but only if teachers are vaccinated, and in the “orange” tier without vaccinations.

Given the uncertainties, if not chaos, around the vaccine rollout, those conditions could still postpone reopening, perhaps for months.  That’s because the current “adjusted new case rate” in San Francisco (12.5), while still lower than all but seven of California’s 58 counties, is still three times higher than it should be to put the district into the “orange” tier level (under 4) set by the state.

Herrera is hoping his lawsuit will accelerate the timetable. “Just going with the status quo and hoping the district comes up with an effective plan isn’t working,” he said. “Hopefully, the prospect of court scrutiny will focus the district’s attention like nothing would have and get this problem addressed once and for all.”

Other communities are looking closely at what happens next in San Francisco.  Within a day of Herrera’s suit, a councilmember in Los Angeles had announced that he’ll file a motion at the council’s meeting next week urging it to file a similar suit against Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest school district.

Like Matthews, LA Unified Austin Beutner weighed in quickly against that possibility. “Grandstanding political stunts like this are precisely why schools in Los Angeles remain closed,” he said said. “Elected leaders from Sacramento to Los Angeles City Hall need to put deeds behind their words and take the steps necessary to actually put schools and the children they serve first.”

Source: ‘The fight has been turned inward,’ laments San Francisco school superintendent | EdSource

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