At 9:05 a.m. on Monday, April 5, San Francisco’s beleaguered public school parents received an email from Dr. Vincent Matthews.
The district superintendent’s note did not begin “Some personal news … ” as so many communiques do these days. But some personal news did follow: While Matthews had, in March, abruptly announced his retirement and escape by golden parachute from the distressed craft that is the San Francisco Unified School District, he was now hopping back into the district’s cockpit.
“Given current events — including the large and complex task of returning some students to in-person learning starting April 12, and all of our students by fall 2021 — the Board [of Education] has asked me to delay my retirement for a year,” Matthews wrote. “I strive to maintain the humility and wisdom to change direction with new information and have agreed to remain with SFUSD for another year, until June 30, 2022.”
And there was much rejoicing.
For, among district employees who think Matthews is a great leader and those who dislike him viscerally — and those in between — there is agreement here: Nobody wants an overwhelmed Board of Education in the midst of suing itself to add a national search for a new superintendent to its overflowing to-do list. Reopening schools and, basically, just keeping the lights on is burdensome enough.
Not only would searching for Matthews’ successor suck up crucial time and bandwidth, it’s also difficult to predict success in this endeavor. If the recent pool for MTA director was shallow because of Mayor London Breed’s brusque treatment of erstwhile Muni boss Ed Reiskin, Board of Education members’ treatment of Matthews makes a child’s experiment of that. So it’s hard to conceive of just who would be raring to come and work for this school board at this point in time.
In a year, with schools open and the city and school district out of crisis mode, things may be different. And the board intuited this, which was one of the reasons it reached out to Matthews.
So the superintendent ended up doing the Board of Education that had driven him to the brink of early retirement a favor. The board, so much maligned for its inactivity, was active here. This was a much-needed win: Albeit, in reality, more not-a-loss.
And maybe Matthews can come out a winner, too.
The superintendent did not return our messages as of press time, but multiple sources have confirmed that he did not merely return out of altruism or because he was asked. That’s not to say that Matthews doesn’t care about children and want the best for the district. But he had conditions.
Just what those specific conditions were is not presently a public matter, but school board president Gabriela López confirmed on the record what multiple sources confirmed on background: Contractual language has not yet been finalized.
Yes: “contractual language.”
If Matthews’ contract is being altered — and the Board of Education is set to vote on it — this is not insignificant.
Could it be a material ask? López and others assured us it is not: Demanding money would seem to be out-of-character for Matthews. And it would be a bad look for an administrator already earning north of $300,000 yearly — and especially after board member Alison Collins sued the district and five of her colleagues, at this of all times, for $87 million.
Rather, we’re told, the change in the contract is regarding “the school board and district staying focused on re-opening” and “Dr. Matthews having both the space and the ability to work collaboratively with this board” — and “the board continuing to adhere to its own rules and procedures.”
López said that “my understanding is, with [Matthews’] asks, it really is, ‘let’s make sure our only work and focus is to fully return to schools.’” She anticipated voting on the new contractual language “in a couple of weeks.”
These seem like intuitive things for Matthews to insist upon — and for everyone to want. And, while the school board has been a fractious place, López said it would be no problem for all members to keep focused here.
And that would be for the best. For all parties. Because with contractual language comes contractual obligations.
So, Matthews stayed. And there was much rejoicing.
But a tempered rejoicing; even district employees who felt Matthews is the best superintendent they’ve worked under were more grateful for the stability of his ongoing presence than for any particular leadership quality he brings. And the rejoicing was brief, because there’s so much to do.
In-person school commences today, and teachers have been vaccinated — but 584 staff members are “requesting an accommodation.” Of those, 290 “meet the criteria for approval.”
Several school principals confirmed that, yes, some of the students heading into school in the coming days and weeks will be taught by a teacher-of-record on a screen and watched over in-person by a substitute.
“Yes, that is definitely happening at some schools,” said one principal. “Even worse than that, there will be classrooms where the teacher of record isn’t doing anything at all. It’ll just be kids taught by substitutes — or, at this point, we’re so short on subs, there won’t be a sub. I’m not sure how that will be handled.”
Indeed, the Board of Education documents laying out the high number of school district staffers requesting to not work in-person and the shortage of substitutes is followed up by a slide reading, “Become an SFUSD substitute!”
Well, that’s uplifting. But also a bit ominous.
In happier times, you’d disperse kids into other classrooms when there were no subs to be had. But that’s tricky when there’s a hard cap on how many students can be in a classroom (Principals also note that they’ve been told there will be no in-person graduation ceremonies — “I’m sure parents will be super upset,” one principal says).
The first wave of children hit classrooms in a matter of hours, including at a handful of Mission schools, and there remain many hatches to be battened down. Principals told me they are still grappling with the choreography of pandemic lunch periods, when, they say, meals will be delivered in eight-minute intervals during late morning and early afternoon.
Principals are poring through lengthy guidebooks — which differ from last week’s lengthy guidebooks — about the protocol regarding the close contacts of a close contact (“I had to call three different supervisors, and every one of them gave me different information.”). They are, in short, dealing with a morass of information; principals observed that we’ve had a long time to plan for this, but these plans are coming together rather quickly.
“I’ve sat in meetings where they start out by saying this is an information overload. And you sit there and you realize, shit, this is an information overload,” says one veteran principal. “If you know it’s an information overload, you really shouldn’t be doing this to principals right now, because we are holding this shit show together.”
And, on top of all this, principals were taken aback by four hours of dialogues being held this week regarding Collins’ racially divisive tweets. Matthews is ostensibly so committed to re-opening that he’s moved to have this enshrined in a contract — but he and his deputy, Enikia Ford-Morthel, were the facilitators of these two panel sessions.
Administrators I spoke with — of all races — felt that, regardless of the necessity of frank dialogues and hard discussions, holding them 72 hours before students return and while school nurses are frantically phoning principals to figure out how health screenings are supposed to work is not the right time.
And yet, none of the school principals I spoke with was pessimistic. Just nervous.
“We are optimistic people. That’s why we do this work,” said one. “We see the bright sight of everything.”
Let’s hope, in the coming weeks and months, they don’t have to look too hard.