"You thought you felt an earthquake Sunday night. Actually, that was me."
Assemblymember Tom Ammiano was on the phone, talking to me about Mayor Ed Lee's plan to demand some changes in the way the San Francisco Unified School District manages its property -- and to hold up the $6 million the city owes the district until that happens. The mayor says there will be "strings attached" to the rainy-day fund money that would normally go to help SFUSD avoid teacher layoffs -- and while it's not exactly clear what those strings are, except that the mayor wants surplus property to be developed or sold, it's not what Ammiano had in mind when he created the fund as a supervisor.
"The mayor is trying to hold the school district hostage," Ammiano said. "And it's not well advised."
It's also really odd: For one thing, as School Superintendent Carlos Garcia told me in a phone interview, any money the district got from selling off surplus property would be earmarked for use in facilities development and couldn't go to pay teachers or prevent program cuts. "He wants to see how we're using the property, and that's fine, I'm happy to share that with him," Garcia said. "But selling property doesn't help. Even if we sold everything, we'd still need the money from the Rainy Day Fund."
The district is constantly looking at ways to use its surplus property, and does a study on the topic every two years. But it's not simple -- for one thing, enrollment is growing, and it's entirely possible that some sites that are now surplus will be needed in the next few years. And Garcia is properly cautious about getting rid of public property without a very good reason.
He's a little curious, too, about what the mayor has in mind. "This did come a little bit out of the blue," he told me.
The whole situation creates another disturbing conflict, one I've been worried about for years. The mayor's education advisor, Hydra Mendoza, also sits on the School Board. What happens when the guy who pays her salary at her day job -- Mayor Lee -- takes a position that's directly at odds with the interests of the job the voters gave her, as a board member? I see that happening right now, and I don't know how it's going to play out.
With any luck, the mayor will come to his senses, cut the check and stop trying to tell the school district how to manage its property. If not, his education advisor is going to be in a bit of a pickle.
Mendoza told me she doesn't see it that way -- in fact, she said she doesn't think the mayor will really hold up the $6 million. "It's part of an ongoing conversation," she told me. "People keep telling the mayor that the school district has all this surplus property and needs to sell it before they get any city money. The mayor is just responding to that, saying 'is there another source of revenue?' Because the rainy day fund is going to dry up.
"How that got portrayed as 'strings' I don't know."
She did say, however, that the mayor "has been very clear that he wants to look at other revenue streams" and wants to see a plan in place to use the surplus property. Even though, of course, it's not that simple and Mendoza was quick to agree that you can't just put a tech company in a building that's part of a school site.
She also insisted that there's no conflict here. "It works well for me and the district," she said. "If I wasn't here, the perception of the district at City Hall would be different."
But still: We're very close to a situation where the mayor is on one side of an issue and the school district is on the other, and there's critical money involved, and Mendoza is in the middle. "We haven't come to those crossroads," she said. "I haven't been put in that situation. We've had a lot of civil conversations."
But it's out there, and it's a potential problem.