Ending the SFUSD's gag order

A terrible stabdard for district communication

EDITORIAL San Francisco's new school superintendent officially started work last week, taking over a district with a long list of serious problems. Carlos Garcia knows exactly what he's getting into: he was a high school principal in this city before moving on to the top jobs in Fresno and later Las Vegas. He announced that his top priority will be addressing the achievement gap — the glaring fact that black and Latino students don't do nearly as well as white and Asian students at any level of the San Francisco Unified School District. And he insisted that he wants to listen to the concerns of the community.

There are plenty of tough assignments on his immediate agenda, including the fact that enrollment is declining and the district so far has addressed that by closing schools. There should be a coherent, effective central plan to try to raise enrollment instead. Closing schools is always an ugly process, and Garcia should try to avoid wading into it this year, until he's been able to put together, with input from the community, a long-term enrollment and facilities-use plan.

It's going to take months, even years, to begin to come to terms with and work on the district's most serious problems, but there's one simple step Garcia could take — today — that would demonstrate his willingness to work with the community, show his faith in the teachers and administrators, and set a new and very different direction from that of his predecessor.

Garcia should publicly revoke the district's gag order.

Under former superintendent Arlene Ackerman, no SFUSD employee was allowed to talk to the media or make statements about the district in a public forum without clearing it, in advance, with the district's public relations staff. That put a serious chill on open discussion within the district, left teachers, principals, and other staff fearful of pointing out problems to reporters, and left the distinct impression that Ackerman would not allow any negative information to leak out of district headquarters.

It also set a terrible standard for district communications and ensured that the public relations office, with a yearly budget of $250,000, was doing little more than buffing the superintendent's image and hiding data from the media.

Garcia can turn things around in two minutes with a quick memo to all staff. It ought to say:

"While we would appreciate it if district staff didn't make statements or comments on behalf of the administration unless they're authorized to do so, any employee of the San Francisco Unified School District is free to express personal opinions, provide information that is in their purview, discuss issues they face in their workplace, and otherwise freely communicate with the press and public without prior notification or approval from district headquarters."

That's not so hard, is it? *