By MADELEINE BAIR
As Mark Sanchez, president of the San Francisco Board of Education and candidate for District 9 Supervisor, tells it, his career in politics began by accident.
It happened in the late nineties, when Teachers 4 Change, an organization Sanchez co-founded with other San Francisco teachers, picketed at City Hall, demanding more resources for underfunded classrooms and underpaid teachers.
Supervisor Tom Ammiano, also a former teacher, often joined the marchers, and it wasn’t long before the two started talking. Ammiano had been the last—and only—teacher on the Board of Education, and he suggested that Sanchez run.
“I had no, no, no ambition to enter politics,” said Sanchez, his hair pulled back into a ponytail, and a white Bermuda shirt hanging over tan slacks.
Eight years and two superintendents later, Sanchez is now seeking to replace Ammiano on the Board of Supervisors. After a change to the city charter in 2000, supervisors can only serve two terms, a limit Ammiano has reached. He is running for the State Assembly.
As Sanchez spoke at a recent campaign fundraiser, it was easy to imagine him before a roomful of students. His voice was calm, his words deliberate.
“I think it’s important for the supervisors to realize that the schools are always going to be in much more dire straights than the city is,” he said, with the care he might take to explain the periodic table to 8th graders in Redwood City, a job Sanchez recently took a leave from.
Sanchez is emphasizing his legislative experience on the Board of Education to separate himself from the crowded field of candidates. He points to his achievements as bringing stability to a divided board and as evidence offers the unanimous vote that made him president two years in a row.
One of his favorite initiatives has been to encourage small schools—independent schools that have limited enrollment and alternative curriculum, but are within the district’s administrative authority. June Jordan High School, for example, opened in 2003 with a ninth grade class of just 100 students and an emphasis on community activism. Since Sanchez joined the board in 2000, two public schools have opened with this model, and three others in the planning process.
But Sanchez’s stance on progressive education policies has also incited controversy on the seven-member board.
As a new member in 2001, he supported the 4-2 vote to sever contracts with Edison Schools Inc., a for-profit company that ran one school in the district. The school, now Edison Charter Academy, at 22nd and Dolores streets, is still managed by the company, but under a charter with the state rather than the school district. The board’s vote came amid a nationwide debate over private-public partnerships in education, and drew national attention to San Francisco.
The school board was under the spotlight again in 2006, when Sanchez and Ammiano led a campaign to ax the army training corps, known as the JROTC, from local high schools. After vociferous debate, the board voted 4-2 for its removal. However, the corps, which currently has 500 participants in seven schools, will remain active until the district replaces it with its own alternative leadership training course, the board decided.
While such campaigns have earned Sanchez adoration from progressive constituents, they have also made critics out of many who felt they put politics over students. Vicki Symonds, a District 9 resident and parent of two, has mixed feelings about Sanchez. “He seemed more ideological than trying to run the schools,” said Symonds, who is a member of Parents for Public Schools.
She called his move to excise the training corps “peripheral” to pressing educational issues, and cited it as one reason she won’t be voting for Sanchez. He is one of six candidates seeking to represent District 9.
Beyond his experience in education, Sanchez paints himself as an advocate eager to address the challenges of his neighborhood. Unlike his main competitors in the race—David Campos and Eric Quezada—Sanchez lives in the Mission District. There, he said, “they feel they need a supervisor who understands the Mission and will go to bat for them.”
The district also encompasses the more affluent Portola and Bernal Heights neighborhoods.
From his vantage point on 22nd Street, Sanchez sees violence as the district’s number one issue and one that has affected him personally. In one year, two young men he watched grow up—one a former student—were murdered within a block of his home. In this last month, the number of murders in District 9 spiked to four, for a total of 13 homicides in the first nine months of the year, compared to seven in the first nine months of last year.
Sanchez would like to borrow from the violence prevention strategy that Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi has implemented in District 5, which includes the beleaguered Western Addition neighborhood. There, Mirkarimi compelled the police to increase foot patrols, and has emphasized long-term solutions such as a re-entry program for ex-offenders and funding for after-school activities and workforce development. In that district, homicides dropped to three in the first nine months of 2008, compared to nine in the same period last year.
“At the same time,” said Sanchez, “we need to focus on real community policing,” in which the police talk with the people in their beat, and outreach “in a meaningful way.”
At present, the Mission District does not have a regular shift schedule of officers on foot patrol.
To reach at-risk youth, Sanchez wants to emulate a strategy he observed in Jerusalem where late-night cafes are staffed with social workers who build relationships with at-risk youth. He wants to keep schools open later and expand programs at the Mission Recreation Center as well. At present, it closes at 9:30 on weeknights and five on Saturdays.
To pay for these programs, Sanchez said, he would look at all department expenditures, and see what programs are duplicative and where funding can be redirected. “Something I wouldn’t have done,” he added, “is okay the 25 percent raise for police,” which the Board of Supervisors approved last summer.
Sanchez also pointed to potential padding of the city’s wallet from three measures on the November ballot. Propositions N and Q would raise local tax revenue, and Sanchez says Proposition H, which would transfer the management of utilities from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to the city, would save money in the long term, something opposing sides disagree over.
Though Ammiano inspired Sanchez’s original leap into politics, and the two have collaborated since on education policy, the veteran supervisor gave his endorsement to one of Sanchez’s opponents, Police Commissioner David Campos. Sanchez attributes that to his being a Green candidate rather than a Democrat, and his relatively late entrance in the race. Ammiano did not return calls for comment.
No polls of the District 9 Supervisor race have been publicly released. But to Sanchez, the competition in a field of six candidates, including two other prominent progressives, is comforting. “I feel that whoever is elected will represent a progressive agenda,” he says. “If I don’t win,” he continues, “and I wind up teaching 8th grade science, I’m happy doing that.”
NOTE: A debate with Mark Sanchez and the other candidates for District 9 Supervisor will be held on October 7 at 7:30pm at Victoria Theatre. For more information, click here.