Topsy-turvy: An analysis of the Sacramento city school board races, part 1

Voters have the chance to move the district in a more collaborative, productive direction

It’s been a brutal time for Sacramento city schools. The district budget was in free fall for a while. Superintendent Jonathan Raymond had his own agenda, shutting out teachers and parents. The school closures he pushed through were a debacle, and continue to be damaging.

There’s a new superintendent now, and new state funding to help stabilize the district. Voters have the chance to move the district in a more collaborative, productive direction. There are three incumbent school-board members running for re-election and one wide-open seat on the ballot November 4. Bites will look at two races this week, and two next week.

Jay Hansen is the incumbent in Area 1, covering Land Park, Curtis Park, downtown and Midtown. When Bites asked for an interview, he emailed back asking, “Am I getting the SCTA hatchet job?”

Fair question. Regular readers know Bites is married to a Sac city teacher, and is generally not big on the kind of teacher-bashing you get in this city’s other newspaper.

So, let’s talk about the mistrust between Hansen and the Sacramento City Teachers Association and other employee groups.

Like a lot of people, teachers wanted an election to fill the last two years of trustee Ellyn Bell’s seat when she resigned mid-term in 2012.

The school board refused to hold an election and instead appointed Hansen, a former building-trades lobbyist and chief strategy officer for the California Medical Association, to fill the vacancy. It looked like insider politics. Same when, shortly after taking his seat on the board, Hansen gave a haughty lecture to frustrated parents as he cast the deciding vote to close their schools.

To his credit, Hansen now says he regrets those remarks. He also says, “it’s bad business in politics to hold a grudge.” But he clearly holds one. He says he’s “less than impressed” with SCTA leaders, adding “labor organizations up and down the state are supporting me, except this one little labor union.” Of his opponent, the SCTA-supported Anna Molander, he says she’s “a nice person, but she couldn’t think her way out of a box on some of this stuff.”

Bites asked Hansen if he could be effective and work with teachers, given the bitter feelings. He replied, “When I win re-election, maybe we can hit the reset button.”

Teachers want a reset, too, without Hansen. They are supporting Molander, who says she wants to calm things down after the topsy-turvy last few years. “We need to get back to basics and reassure people that we aren’t going to close their school next year or remove their principal.”

Molander is active in Democratic party politics, she’s run campaigns and considered other offices. Bites’ biggest worry is that she’ll get elected and turn politician, too. But at least for now she’s one of a group of candidates who say they want to give the public more power in district budgeting and policy-making.

The third candidate in that race is Kate Woolley. Like Molander, she’s a district parent, and says she’ll work to encourage more parent engagement. She’s also critical of the district’s school-closure mess. Woolley has more of a learning curve ahead of her, and she won’t have nearly the same money. But she’s knocked on 900 doors so far. If she doesn’t win a school-board seat, she’ll have a lot to offer down the road.

Turning to Area 6, including Greenhaven, the Pocket, and much of South Land Park, where incumbent Darrel Woo is trying to fend off challenger Maria Haro-Sullivan.

Woo touts his four years on the board making tough decisions, including “right-sizing” the district. He supported programs like the Men’s Leadership Academy and the district’s admirable “restorative justice” policy to end the abuse of suspensions and expulsions, which particularly affects students of color.

Haro-Sullivan is one of a small group of parents who have dug into district budgets and even trained other parents and teachers to read financial documents and ask questions. She refutes Woo and Hansen’s claim that the district saved money when it closed schools. She was one of the first to raise concerns about the district’s heavy use of paid consultants, prompting the board to end a $500,000 energy-consulting contract for services the district could have gotten free from SMUD.

A citizen budget-watcher like Haro-Sullivan could bring a lot to the school board. But like Molander, The Sacramento Bee opposes Haro-Sullivan strictly because of the teachers’ endorsement.

Well, if your priority is to stick it to the teachers union, Woo and Hansen may be your best bet. But that agenda has not done much to help neighborhood schools these last few years. Time for a different approach.