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Leadership Deficits in a District Without a Plan?

The city of San Francisco sued the San Francisco Unified School District last week. Hold on, isn't that downright incestual; aren't their interests one in the same, or at least, shouldn't they be? Perhaps, but one's initial dismissal of this as just another litigious last gasp from the city warrants a second look.

The last couple of weeks I have posted together with my doctoral colleagues regarding various topics surrounding learning technology in education post-Covid. My initial post dealt with the huge topic of ensuring digital security for students and teachers within distance learning meeting platforms. The city of San Francisco's disgruntlement with the largest San Francisco public school district reflects a parallel, but aligned question. What are the daily impediments public school districts face which are preventing them from providing in-person instruction, and how can they most safely and efficiently be resolved? How many of them are self-inflicted? Poor connectivity, cybersecurity concerns and lack of accountability on the part of school district leadership all contribute to the morass in which SFUSD currently finds itself.

Our public schools in San Francisco are overwhelmed, but one does not feel a sense of clear leadership or transparency. We all know that low-income public school students are suffering the most, but having them go back into schools which have not taken adequate safety precautions is a solution no level-headed individual wants. It is true that many private schools have bitten the bullet in San Francisco, and given their students a choice regarding whether to attend school with precautions in place, or continue to learn from home. SFUSD is nowhere close to such an offer, and with the current lawsuit, probably will not be for some time.

As a part-time special education RSP, my steadfast belief is that all schools have an ethical obligation to place the best interests of their students above all else. Teachers are rightfully concerned about their safety due to the lack of cohesive planning and transparency within SFUSD. They do not feel the district has their backs.

Each school is essentially its own fiefdom, with the principal in residence executing an absolute grip on decision-making and implementation with her/his school staff, but only up to a point. The principals are middle managers who are often undercut by SFUSD senior staff and thus may appear powerful, but don't really have any. Ultimately, the top leadership of SFUSD must set the tone for appropriate conduct and accountability.

There does not exist a possibility for teachers and stakeholders within SFUSD to reliably communicate with senior power brokers in the district. The recourse for staff experiencing issues now, during distance learning, whether they be issues related to FAPE, cybersecurity or other crucial concerns, is to report the problem(s) to the principal of an individual school, who is the person least incentivized to escalate issues which could reflect poorly upon them and their individual school.

Such a management structure not only dooms any hope for public transparency and real information flow from those performing actual teaching and engagement with students, it perpetuates a cycle of dysfunction which makes for lively turf wars and provocative infighting amongst frustrated principals and admins who feel threatened, but very little in terms of determined, systemic problem-solving for the students who need SFUSD most. This has to change.

Technology, safety and health issues can be resolved, but not if they are not faced openly and willingly in a district-wide culture which promotes honest self-assessment. Will yet another lawsuit bring change to SFUSD?

The best one who cares about public education could hope for is for it to bring some transparency to the citizens it is funded to serve.

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