Editor's Notes

Advice for almost-new school district superintendent Carlos Garcia


It's too bad that acting superintendent Gwen Chan didn't want to stick around a bit longer at the helm of the San Francisco public schools. She brought a lot of stability to the district after the insanely acrimonious final years under Arlene Ackerman (who won't go away and is still suing the district for back pay, which is disgusting considering all the money she took out of the district).

But I ran into school board president Mark Sanchez at the Progressive Convention June 2, and he was all smiles about the guy the board seems ready to hire for the job. The almost-new superintendent is Carlos Garcia, who was the principal of Horace Mann Middle School from 1988 to 1991 and most recently was the head of the Las Vegas school district.

I have a son going into third grade and a daughter going into kindergarten, and I'm an unabashed fan of and advocate for public education in San Francisco. So I hope he's everything the board members say he is.

But since he's not taking press calls right now, I'm going to give him a little free, and public, advice.

There are real, lingering problems in the local schools, the biggest of which is the achievement gap. White kids and Asian kids and kids from wealthier families do far better than black kids and Latino kids and kids whose families don't have much money. That's unacceptable, and the new superintendent needs to make resolving that problem a priority.

He also needs to understand some facts of San Francisco life.

For starters, this city doesn't like or tolerate arrogance or secrecy. The schools chief needs to be accessible, approachable, willing to listen, and willing to admit mistakes. Not everything you try will work, Mr. Superintendent; when you screw up, you can't get your pants in a wad and refuse to say you're sorry.

You've got some tough decisions to make, and they won't all be popular. People are going to shout and protest and complain. Some of those people will be your own school board members. We like to air our disputes in public around here; it's a political town, and we expect the people who run community institutions to work with their critics and their friends alike. It's hot in the kitchen; get used to it before you arrive or this isn't going to work.

And do not — do not — continue the previous superintendent's policy of building a wall between the press and the district. Ackerman had a gag order in place and wouldn't allow staffers to talk to reporters without her prior consent. Scrap that — publicly — your first day. Make it clear you have nothing to hide: records are open, your door is open, and your public relations staff exists to promote the schools, not your personal career.

Remember when you walk in the door: There's a lot wrong with the district, but there's also a lot right. There are some brilliant principals and a lot of wonderful, devoted teachers. Don't make their lives any harder than they already are.

And please: for the sake of all of us, don't make the San Francisco schoolkids lab rats for your pet educational theories. This isn't a social-science experiment or a doctoral thesis you're taking on. These are people's lives. Have a little respect for that, and we'll get along fine. *