The San Francisco Board of Education agreed this month to spend a little north of $1.3 million fixing up some dilapidated bungalows at Rooftop Elementary, which happens to be one of the most popular schools in the district. This sounds like a fine idea. The school has too many kids to fit in the classrooms, and the outdoor bungalows, which handle the overflow, are in pretty bad shape. The school district's facilities officer, an architect, says the students are in no immediate danger, but seriously: How can anyone be against repairing rotten old school buildings?
Well, I'm against it.
Here's the thing: The board just shut down a bunch of schools, many of them serving primarily nonwhite populations, to save a few million bucks. The rationale: The district is short of money, and those schools were underenrolled — there were too many empty spaces in the classrooms. So they could be closed and the kids sent to other schools. Closing John Swett in the Western Addition, for example, infuriated a large African American community, but saved around $650,000.
Now think about this slowly for a moment, and see if it makes any sense to you: We've got a school that has too many kids, so they're crammed outside in old bungalows. And we've got a school that has empty classrooms, so we're going to shut it down. Instead of trying to move some of the kids from Rooftop to Swett — which costs nothing — we're saving $650,000 by closing Swett, then spending twice as much as we saved rebuilding the Rooftop bungalows.
Isn't there something really screwy here?
Well, of course, there's an explanation: Rooftop has a long waiting list, and all the upper-middle-class white people want to send their kids there. I understand — it's got a great program, great teachers, and a parent community that raises a ton of money every year for curriculum enrichment.
And I know I'm not as smart as all the people with advanced education degrees at school district headquarters. But I have to wonder: Why can't we take what’s good about Rooftop — a couple of the teachers, the overall program approach, maybe even (gasp) some of that fundraising cash — and, you know, export the revolution? Why not make Swett sort of a Rooftop Annex? Save the money, help the kids, don't close anything — everybody's a winner.
Sarah Lipson, one of two school board members who opposed the bungalow rebuild (Mark Sanchez was the other) told me the whole deal was crazy. "How can we talk about long-range planning and then do this?" she asked.
The district wouldn't have to kick anyone out of Rooftop this year — the bungalows aren't going to fall off the hillside, and they'll hold up another 12 months. There's supposed to be a real community-based process to evaluate facilities and school closures anyway; why not make this part of it?
Do I really have to answer that question?