In case you're wondering, 99.2 percent of 124 is 123

The technologist Bruce Schneier has a well-worn saying to explain misbegotten, performative attempts at security: Something must be done. This is something. Therefore, we must do it.

Well, the San Francisco Unified School District attempted to do something earlier this month.

School principals and assistant principals — “site administrators” in school jargon — were officially informed, via an item buried in a weekly newsletter emailed at 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 6, that they would be mandated to begin working once more from their cavernous, empty schools, starting this month. 

It seems hard to believe, but it’s true: Squirreling away this momentous and consequential announcement among many items in a weekly e-newsletter was actually among the smoother steps in this process. 

Days earlier, during a virtual meeting, scores of principals and assistant principals were told by their union leadership that this move was coming. The stated rationale, conveyed from the district, was that they needed to re-learn how to get in the routine of showering and getting dressed every morning. 

“That was extraordinarily offensive,” recalls one assistant principal. “People were un-mic-ing and just yelling.” 

This was said — out loud — at a meeting attended by scores, if not hundreds, of people. Your humble narrator communicated with some two dozen principals and assistant principals for this story, in addition to district and union representatives. Every statement made at these large meetings was corroborated by multiple attendees.

In fact, there’d be plenty of opportunities for taking offense. Principals and assistant principals at a virtual meeting asked what they should do if parents tried to buttonhole them while they were working at school sites. Their union leadership told them that they could simply park their cars far from the school, so as to remain incognito (Perhaps a trench coat and large hat might be wise, too, but this was not mentioned). 

Principals or assistant principals who asked what they should do for childcare were told to bring their tots along to the empty schools. 

Rooftop is part of SFUSD
San Francisco Unified School District. Photo by Jennifer Cortez.

No sizable city in North America has a lower per-capita population of children than San Francisco. And no city in California has a higher percentage of its children in private schools. 

But even those of you without public school students in the next room knocking things over while doing a Zoom PE class have probably heard about the increasingly fraught political finger-pointing between the mayor, Board of Supervisors, Board of Education, teachers’ union, and district itself regarding the sclerotic progress of even quantifying what would be required to partially re-open the schools. 

At this point, you may be wondering how, absent a greater plan, it helps advance any goal to yank principals out of their homes — where many tell me they’re already working long hours, including evenings and weekends — and make them commute daily to do the same work at an abandoned, unheated school where the trash cans aren’t emptied but once every few weeks. And bring their kids along. 

They’re wondering, too. 

“As a site leader, as a manager of people, I never issue a directive without a rationale,” said a school principal. “We are being issued a directive without a rationale.”

Said another, “I have no quibble if the district tells me to go in, and here’s a checklist of things to prepare for this site, and kids are coming back on this day, and here’s how you’ll stay safe. But that has not occurred. So why should I go back — with my kids in tow?” 

The two-dozen-odd principals and assistant principals I communicated with, in fact, informed me they’re already showing up one to five times a week at their school sites. They’re distributing equipment, books or food, receiving massive deliveries, and even telling homeless people who’ve taken up residence on derelict campuses to relocate.

Bruce Schneier invented a term anyone who’s taken her shoes off at the airport or surrendered a nail file at a public building may be familiar with: security theater. And, says one principal with a wan laugh, forcing her to do the job she’s already doing while sitting in an empty school is “covid theater.” 

Putting principals and assistant principals back on site creates, at least, the illusion of progress. But, absent other developments, it really is only an illusion — and certainly not, in itself, a sequential step on a coherent path.

District spokeswoman Laura Dudnick told Mission Local that principals and assistant principals “are integral to site-level planning processes related to a return to in-person learning. A part of preparing to eventually welcome back staff and students is having site leaders present and back in the building.” 

But, again, how that works when principals and assistant principals are shunted back on site absent a larger plan was left unsaid. And the principals and assistant principals have noticed this.

“It’s like re-opening bingo,” says one. “But, as far as the timeline, it doesn’t help reopen the schools. Not if there’s no plan.” 

Photo by Kathleen Narruhn.

Maybe you did bad things in school. Maybe you’ve seen principals and assistant principals get mad. 

You haven’t seen them as mad as this. 

On top of the Nov. 6 dictum to return to empty schools, a Nov. 10 Chronicle article about the district’s attempts to re-open by late January included the following passage: 

For the past few months, principals have been working from home, while top district administrators, including the superintendent, have had to take turns sitting at school sites to oversee access for teachers who requested use of classrooms for distance learning.

The return of principals, who are represented by the United Administrators of San Francisco, would presumably free up the superintendent and his top administrators to spend more time on reopening plans.

“It’s true that centralized district administrators have been serving as site captains in order to have a manager on each campus where teachers are coming in to access a remote teaching work space,” Dudnick told Mission Local. 

“This involves some attention from administrators such as when someone comes to work in-person for the first time or maintenance people need access to something. With the exception of a few interruptions, the site captains are doing their primary district work from the school building where they are stationed.

The implication that “top administrators” have been forced to shoulder the load because feckless principals and assistant principals can’t be bothered to shower and show up to work evoked a visceral response. Far from being a burden pulling “top administrators” from their vital work, principals described “site captain” duty as largely consisting of “sitting at the front door and greeting people.” 

The district declined to answer our question regarding what school superintendent Dr. Vincent Matthews was assigned to. 

If one believes that Matthews and his “top administrators” really have been unable to adequately craft reopening plans because they were instead forced to babysit teachers on-site, it forces the question of just how the hell anyone thought this was a good idea and a proper allocation of resources. 

“The idea that top-level leaders are out at the schools doing the heavy lifting and are not able to focus on re-opening while the rest of us are at home twiddling our thumbs infuriated hundreds of administrators,” said an assistant principal. “And I am one of them.” 

Unlike teachers, principals and assistant principals work on one- or three-year contracts. As such, they are not inclined to overtly protest the district’s actions, and several told me that even their union warned them to pick their battles when agitating — especially if they are in their contract’s final year.

But they are angry, and there’s documentable proof of that. Last week, some 125 administrators filled out an online poll. Regarding the statement “It is not logical for me to work in an empty building with no teachers or students,” 93 percent agreed. 

Regarding the statement “I believe site administrators are being disrespected yet again and being excluded from any decisions that directly impact us,” 98 percent agreed. 

And regarding the statement “I am concerned that site administrators are being directed to return to sites when there is no concrete plan for reopening schools,” 99 percent agreed. 

Or, as one principal put it more succinctly in an online forum: “This is some bullshit.” 

Principals poll
In case you’re wondering, 99.2 percent of 124 is 123.

Those are some hard numbers to ignore. Following that poll, and following pushback from the United Administrators union — and, following even more intense pushback by a number of irate principals organizing independently of the union — the brakes have been applied to the timeline of putting principals and assistant principals back into abandoned schools by month’s end. 

The union and district representatives met on Friday. Some manner of Memorandum of Understanding will likely need to be cemented before principals and assistant principals deign to set foot in the schools again, but an agreement hasn’t been finalized yet. 

The district, meanwhile, clearly has no leverage over its thousands of teachers and their powerful union. (And, separate from whatever you think about reopening schools or not reopening schools, the teachers union is doing what unions are supposed to do — advocating for the well-being of its members.) 

So, the 300-odd principals and assistant principals are being deployed to provide some leverage. 

During a Thursday morning virtual meeting with more than 100 principals and assistant principals, Superintendent Matthews did nothing to diminish this impression when he referred to them as the district’s “leverage pin” moving toward re-opening.

The principals and assistant principals didn’t miss that message — which would be hard to do, considering the overt use of the word “leverage.”  

“My presence at my site does not move us one step closer to actually reopening,” wrote one. “But it provides a talking point. ‘Look, administrators are in their offices.’ This is ridiculous.” 

Perhaps. But it is something


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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. It is unfortunate that the author doesn’t acknowledge any strategic reasoning. As someone who has managed a school-sized facility, it makes complete sense that having principals at school sites will save costly time and errors moving to reopening, because 1) scheduling on-call staff for multiple visits to assess 124 school sites will take hundreds, maybe thousands of hours just for scheduling, vs. having a set # of hours each day when sites can reliably be accessed. 2) Site assessments with staff who know the building well will be faster and more effective. Principals know their sites best. They know the alarms, the light switches, the HVAC, the plumbing quirks. 3) Principals know their students best. They know the bottlenecks of how people enter and move about the school. This is essential for social distancing guides (think, floor circles and arrows).

  2. I am appalled that my 10.yr.old granddaughter has missed almost one entire year of school. It’s bad enough that we adults must have “therapy” with counselors and psychologists by phone, that it’s okay to “see” one’s primary care provider by phone, that it’s”safe” for managers responsible for the well-being of countless aged low income tenants to come to work once or twice a week but not every day as before. But to think that children will learn at home with parents who may or may not be able or interested in helping and who probably are surrounded by chaos in the form of younger siblings and babies and stressed out parents not working and wondering how they will feed the family all week is not just absurd but neglect and cruelty and putting the desires of teaching and administration staff to “work at home” (right!?!) over the needs of the children. The hypocrisy and outright self serving of “I’m working at home” is apparent so don’t fool yourselves that we don’t know what is happening.

  3. Wait…wait HOLD UP….did I read that principals were KICKING OUT homeless people from empty schoolyards? Where is Hillary RONEN? Isn’t that her rallying cry? If the campuses are empty for the foreseeable future why not let people camp out there? No sees the blatant hypocrisy in this? Had anyone else kicked out a homeless person, Mission Local would be all over it…

  4. Retired principal here with some suggestions:
    1. Park right in front, in the Principal’s Parking Space so parents and central admin spies (yes, they do!) can see you’re there.
    2. Lock all doors to your office area, unplug all phones sending them to messaging.
    3. Have your windows tinted with mirror or one-way so you can see out but no one can see in.
    4. Invest in some quality headphones, kick back, and chill to

    I did this every summer when we “had to go in” but no one else was there. Away from home, wife, kids, TV, chit-chat-chatter, honey-do’s, and all the other crap that comes with being home. It’s called survival, and it works.

  5. Yup, any plan must be a good plan!

    A more logical step — before planning to open schools — would be to survey families about whether or not they’ll send their children back but that part of the data hasn’t been collected yet.

    Glad someone is highlighting what our on-site leaders are dealing with. Thanks.

  6. Dear AP

    One school might be the exception not the norm. As a parent educator I am aware of some admin working hard and others who do not. Just like any job. Also a few years back a Fox News reporter once said teachers work part time because they get out at 3. Anyone who know a teacher knows that the work to go in into the actual teaching is long and hard. It’s like assuming a chef through out a meal with no prep. The kitchen is only open when you are eating. The prep work and grading for the instructional time is alit. Teachers also have to do well checks of every student on their case loads right now, meet with their fellow teachers and have staff PD. Stating that teachers only work 3 hours is divisive and shows a lack of understanding of how schools work even though you live with an admin.

    I try to avoid all or nothing statements and used many not all. I am perfectly aware that there are hard working and dedicated admin and district employees and it really too bad that this fight has overshadowed their work and the work of teachers who are in direct service to. Our children

  7. Thank you for writing such an honest article about what is going on. As an SFUSD educator, you’ve written all that we have already been witness too and this article is totally on point! Thank you. As a teacher I haven’t worked this hard in the almost 20 years in the district. Anyone who isn’t an educator or admin really has no idea what it’s like.

    1. In what way is this “one of the worst-written articles”?
      “Ever read”?

      It’s a pretty heavy charge to levy on one of the top investigative journalist in our state (if not even further afield) with no rationale.

      Please offer some correctives.
      I am sure Mr. Eskenazi is eager to learn how he could write more better.

      Thank you.

  8. Dr Matthews and many of the higher ups also have second jobs teaching at universities. Dr Matthews teaches leadership classes at SFSU and maybe this is preventing him and his team from figuring out ways to minimize risks. Many also live in other paces: rumors include Palm Springs, Tahoe and even New Zealand! To go back would mean to either resign or leave their second homes.

    The teachers are the only ones working all of the time and directly in service to children while principals and the district argue over who works more. It’s like this: the more they say transparency the less transparent it is.

    1. Wrong Lili. I live with one of these administrators for a sfusd middle school and he is working from 7 am – 6/7 pm 5 days a week plus weekends. He goes to his site 2-3 x a week and when he is there he has more work To make up and more risk. Admin is fielding ALL of the tech distribution and coming up with strategies to create more equity for distance learning for students. Admin and social workers are making hime visits as well to kids who are falling through the cracks in this unjust situation. Teachers are contracted to teach 3 hours of class time a day. Yes they have to plan but don’t be delusional saying they are the only ones working.

    1. There is no real Principal’s Union and it is actually the same parent union as UESF – they all feed into AFT/NEA. So really there is no union for either group.
      Also, the principals have poor representatives. For example, Jolie Wineroth, Joan Hepperly and Debra Eslava Burton all are principal reps, but they themselves worked in HR and as PAR Director, so they are going to side with HR or the people at Central Office instead of protecting an actual principal who might have problems with an Assistant Principal or HR. Because there is no real union for principals, they are very scared to go against the Central Office grain even a little bit.
      Most importantly, most SFUSD principals are the social climber types who don’t really care that much about doing right. They just want to move up , so they’ll do what needs to be done.

  9. “No sizable city in North America has a lower per-capita population of children than San Francisco. And no city in California has a higher percentage of its children in private schools. ”

    Public school families are a very small voting bloc and the larger city usually leaves Board of Education blank on their ballots. This is why the same people get reelected time and again. The incumbents won their seats and the new members are aligned with the current Board agenda so everyone should expect more of the same.

    Matthews is getting blamed for a lot of this when he pleaded for help in June to hire a consultant to help with the reopening logistics. The Board of Education which holds the control, not the Superintendent refused to allow him to hire the consultant because the consultant group worked with Charters.

    Meanwhile the Board scolds anybody who disagrees that renaming schools isn’t a priority during a pandemic and labels people racist for disagreeing with them around Lowell and advocating to retain merit. SOTA is quietly removing the audition as they talked about in a recent enrollment town hall.

    1. No, this is incorrect. Less than 20% of voters left the Board of Education blank on their ballots this election- 66% of the electorate voted for one or more candidate. It’s dangerous to undermine local democracy by insisting that “nobody votes anyway”.

      I agree with your point about the consultant- the Board should have had a plan B: “No consultant, but..”. I must say, having sat through a few “Thought Exchange” “town halls” with the Superintendent, I don’t think that would have been the silver bullet you might think it would be. If Matthews really referred to the principals as leverage it shows very poor judgement.

      1. Nobody was insisting “nobody votes anyway” It’s dangerous *not* to vote for Board of Education. I’m glad this time around more people were engaged because this hasn’t always been the case as seen in previous elections. People without kids in the district should be as invested as those of us with children in public schools because this affects everyone. Public schools are the backbone of a functioning democracy and it’s extremely concerning that we have such a large group choosing private. As for the consultant you can’t know that it wouldn’t have helped. I wish Matthews would have allowed to hire the group. I have no idea if Matthews referred to the Principals as leverage or not. It doesn’t seem to be his style, I’d love to understand more about that piece.

      2. Also for those curious here is the data from the SF Elections:

        Registered Voters: 449,318 of 521,099 (86.23%)
        Ballots cast Percentage
        Election Day 38,433 7.38%
        Vote by Mail 410,885 78.85%
        Total 449,318 86.23%

        Ballots cast Percentage
        JENNY LAM 195,075 17.05%
        MARK SANCHEZ 194,632 17.01%
        KEVINE BOGGESS 175,176 15.31%
        MATT ALEXANDER 149,090 13.03%
        ALIDA FISHER 143,541 12.54%
        MICHELLE PARKER 117,321 10.25%
        NICK ROTHMAN 56,932 4.98%
        GENEVIEVE LAWRENCE 56,793 4.96%
        ANDREW DOUGLAS ALSTON 33,074 2.89%
        PAUL KANGAS 22,684 1.98%
        Write-in 0 0%

        1. Thanks for posting the numbers from the Department of Elections- unfortunately, there’s a huge caveat: Votes are not Voters. It’s Apples and Oranges for this race due to the “pick any four” directive.

          Comparing ballots cast in the Board of Education race and ballots cast citywide is actually sort of difficult.

          By adding up all of the votes for BoE, you can see there were a little over 1.1 million “ballots cast”, or votes, tallied in this race. And many of those ballots voted for one person or four, somewhere in there.

          As far as I can tell, the only “official” ways to get the number of voters who left BoE blank is to 1) call or email DoE and ask or 2) Download the “Cast Vote Record” from and tally up the blank ballots yourself.

          I did both- and am happy to report that only 103,049 voters left the BoE ballot card blank. So 346,269 voters weighed in on the Board of Education race (66.4% of registered voters)- proving that the larger city does not, in fact, leave Board of Education blank. Yay for democracy!

  10. The only effective intervention that City government has conducted was when the DPH sounded the alarm in March and shut us down early. For all of the hue and cry, very little the City has done, a slim fraction of what they could have done, has been effective.

    There don’t seem to be any demonstrated differences in outcome between homeless people on the streets and in hotels. San Franciscans have almost universally adhered to masking, not because of public policy, rather because we are smart. And interventions in the Mission are all about partial testing after the fact, no proactive efforts to prevent infection.

    Now that the weather has turned and rates are spiking, just a few weeks after Breed went all scoldy on the “far left” Board of Supervisors and SFUSD Boards, demanding they open schools, Breed now has to rapidly pivot her punishy instincts from the powerful to individuals. Breed’s game is to deflect, blame and distract away from her own bland, mediocre competencies while directing public revenue streams to private pockets.

    As usual in San Francisco, the political class bickers over trivialities that conceal their economic patronage interests, catering to the elites, throwing crumbs of services at some poor, while the vast majority of San Franciscans are on our own.

    1. And there in lies the truth. In spite of the “progressive” desire to have government manage more and more of our lives, government is inherently corrupt and inept. So no matter how much we fund them with, we are still on our own. Only poorer, with less resources. 13 BILLION DOLLARS A YEAR AND NOT MUCH TO SHOW FOR IT.

  11. District staff have been cleaning the campuses regularly, per my conversation with our site’s principal, at the least the campuses aren’t filthy. But that is yet another example of the district screaming “we don’t have the resources to reopen” yet continuing to spend money on services/ programs that are benefitting almost no one right now.

  12. Joe,

    Great work scratching another layer of the seemingly eternal incompetency of SFUSD bureaucracy.

    I see a movie with Jack Nicholson as a deranged supe moving teacher pieces around on a giant board in some basement while chuckling.

    “Zoom PE”?

    That’s hilarious.

    What’s next, ‘Zoom Graffiti Art?

    Go Niners!