Political Notebook: Affordability tops agenda of SF gayschool trustee
by Matthew S. Bajko
With teachers increasingly unable to afford to live in San Francisco, affordability issues are at the top of school board member Mark Sanchez's agenda this year.
"We have to have a laser-like focus on that," said Sanchez in a recent interview with the Bay Area Reporter. "I want the people working day-to-day with kids to stay in those jobs and provide them the necessary salary to do that and live here. Everything else to me is a sideshow."
The school board also has embraced the issue, updating one of its ad hoc committees to focus on affordability in addition to personnel matters and labor relations.
"We added the word 'affordability' to the committee name to be really explicit that we need to look at how we can make this city more affordable to our teachers and others," said Sanchez.
Elected in November to a seat on the San Francisco Board of Education, Sanchez, who is gay, is the lone board member from the city's LGBT community. It is a return for him to the oversight body on which he served for eight years, including a stint as president, until stepping down in early 2009.
Due to his being back on the board, Sanchez, 53, resigned last month as the principal of Cleveland Elementary School in the city's Excelsior district, where he had been for nearly six years. He expects to look for a new job come March in a nearby school district, similar to what he did the last time he served on the school board.
"I am going to take a month or two to work it out," said Sanchez, adding he is interested in either being hired as "a teacher, principal, or central office person in another district."
As for the San Francisco Unified School District, Sanchez said he wants to see teachers and staff be paid a living wage.
"We can't keep people at schools, particularly in the southwest section of town. We are at a crisis right now," he said. "We need to prioritize the workforce so they can continue working for us."
Sanchez is a vocal promoter of having the district build teacher housing on surplus land it owns in the city. Gay former state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) successfully carried legislation last year that exempts school districts in the state from fair housing laws so they can offer housing solely to their employees.
One site Sanchez is eying for such housing is the current campus of the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts on land atop Glen Canyon near Diamond Heights. The district is pursuing plans to relocate the arts high school to the city's Civic Center, opening up the possibility of turning the centrally located property into teacher housing.
"I am pushing people to understand it is not just about SOTA moving downtown," said Sanchez, referring to those who question spending millions of dollars to relocate the exclusive school. "It is much more attractive to attach housing to where SOTA is when they leave. I think people get much more excited about it."
School board President Shamann Walton told the B.A.R. in an interview last week that he "definitely supports providing teacher housing on school property." He said the district is "working with the teachers union and the city to find ways to develop on our land. We don't have an actual site yet."
At a January 30 committee hearing gay interim Superintendent Myong Leigh said the district this summer would likely start looking for a nonprofit developer to team with in order to build upwards of 150 units of affordable housing. But as the San Francisco Examiner reported, no site for the development has been selected, and the district is still determining what eligibility rules it could impose on the units.
The high cost of housing in the city, for years, has been a problem for the school district, impeding its ability to retain and recruit teachers. Sanchez pointed to reports that San Francisco teachers spend 65 percent of their salaries on housing, the highest of any school district in the Bay Area.
"We are quite an outlier and need to be very aggressive in doing everything we can," said Sanchez. "We probably will go back to voters to ask for a special tax or some measure because we just don't have the resources to pay teachers and others the pay they need to live here."
It will be an issue Sanchez is sure to address with the candidates seeking to become the school district's new superintendent. The board will soon begin interviewing applicants and expects to announce its choice by the end of the school year this summer.
"We want someone really inclusive who is culturally competent and understands schools, and urban schools particularly," said Sanchez.
As for the narrative that families in the city are moving to the suburbs once their children become school age in search of better education options, most recently splashed across the front page of the New York Times, Sanchez pushed back against such reasoning. He argued that it is not the city's public schools but the lack of affordable housing causing middle-class families, in particular, to move.
"We feel very strongly our schools are great," he said. "If you go to any elementary school in the city not only are they well run, there are great teachers and principals and families who want to be there."
While he hopes to have a constructive relationship with the school district, newly appointed gay District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy has already voiced frustration with school leaders' handling of a teacher hiring issue at a Glen Park school.
"I just know there are parents not happy with the district. For many parents, it is hard to get heard," said Sheehy, whose daughter attends public school.
He agrees with Sanchez that affordable housing "is a huge need" confronting the district.
"We need workforce housing for our teachers," said Sheehy.
Sanctuary policies for schools
Another issue confronting the school board this month is strengthening its sanctuary schools policy in response to President Donald Trump's targeting undocumented immigrants in the country.
The district already has a policy in place restricting its schools from asking for students' immigration status when they enroll. If staff does become aware of a student's immigration status, they are directed not to share that information with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services or Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The board is expected to soon adopt additional protections for its families with undocumented members, whether it is students or parents. Under the proposal, federal immigration agents would need to notify the district central office in advance of their entering onto a school campus or remain in a school's main office while district officials review their request to enter the campus.
The district would also not require a parent's proof of residency within the school district for an unaccompanied youth, but rather accept such youth's declaration of residency. Nor would a student's birthplace be included any longer in the district's school directory.
"We have a history in the school district of countering these types of efforts" to target immigrants, said Sanchez, who is supportive of the district's proposed policy.
Leigh declined the B.A.R.'s interview request through the district's spokeswoman. In a statement released after Trump threatened the federal funding of sanctuary cities last month, Leigh vowed that, "We are a community that believes – fundamentally – that each child and each person is the equal of every other. First and foremost, our priority is ensuring all students have access to a quality education in a safe and supportive environment. We put students' needs first, and we will protect them now."
While the district has yet to declare itself a sanctuary district, Walton said that the policy under consideration advances the district's commitment not to tolerate hate or discrimination of any type in its schools.
"We want to make sure all teachers, counselors, and principals are trained in working with undocumented students and their families. I don't think we have had training district-wide," said Walton. "It may be costly but something we have to do to protect against some of the things being proposed by the administration."
He added that many students in the district are living in fear that their families will be broken up due to the president's policy proposals.
"It is really a sad time for a lot of our families," said Walton.
Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings at noon for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column reported on state Senator Scott Wiener's bill to amend HIV criminal statutes. Keep abreast of the latest LGBT political news by following the Political Notebook on Twitter @ http://twitter.com/politicalnotes.
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