In the 17 months she served as acting San Francisco public schools superintendent, Gwen Chan found out one irrefutable fact that has marked the tenure of every recent city school chief — it’s not a job, it’s an adventure.
And sadly, the one person probably uniquely qualified to dance around the crazy politics of San Francisco to just do the daunting task at hand has decided to walk awayafter 40 years of dedicated public service in education. One could hardly blame her for wanting to step off the spinning platform of a never-ending, stress-filled job after all this time. But there’s a reason a lot of tears were shed last week among the many teachers, colleagues and students for whom she played an integral part since she came to the school district in July 1967.
Members of the Board of Education say they will announce their selection of the new superintendent this week following a lengthy national search. But it would be hard to imagine how they could find anyone who knows the district better or could deal with the intricacies and hurdles of running one of The City’s most discordant organizations.
"In my mind, the school district needs a long-term commitment from the next superintendent, and I’ve done a lot of soul-searching recently to get to this point,’’ Chan told me the day after she announced she was going to retire July 1, four decades to the day that she joined the district as a young teacher. "But I’m still in good health and I want to pick and choose what I do next. There’s a lot of choices out there for me.’’
One of them could have been to stay on and finish a job for which she once told me she had been training her whole life. But even though she was the hometown person who would have had the easiest transition to a post that has driven the most qualified candidates to distraction (and departure), it was always unclear whether she would have had support from the school board, which has been the source of so much dissension and infighting in recent years.
A general problem with most big city school superintendents is that they’re like baseball managers, traveling from one organization to the next despite their records or their rapport with the players.
Anyone who remembers Bill Rojas’ tenure as San Francisco’s schools chief can think of the period when he was hailed as a great reformer and then quickly became the man who left the district in financial tatters while treating teachers as if they were interchangeable bank tellers. Rojas was run out of town and yet landed as the heralded and high-priced school superintendent in Dallas, where it took the locals about two years to realize Rojas was a terrible fit and fired him.
And Arlene Ackerman was widely praised as the perfect fit for San Francisco’s rainbow coalition, only to run directly into the ideological buzz saw of the board. She took her mighty severance package as the final payoff for her willingness to do daily battle with her windmill-jousting trustees.
Chan was just the opposite of her two predecessors, the calm in the eye of the storm. She brought quiet dignity and respect to the position, someone who worked overtime to reduce the level of acrimony at the board. Her track record is one of the reasons she got support from teachers, principals, parents and union officials. She attended local public schools, she was a longtime teacher who moved up in the management ranks, and she personally knew just about everyone in the district.
"Gwen brought a sense of cooperation to the position,’’ said financier Warren Hellman, who is part of the private group that helped raise money for public schools. "I just worry that the era of building confidence and respect could go away.’’
So it’s something of a shame that someone with perfect credentials to lead the district is departing — to be replaced by someone who will no doubt be hailed as a great visionary. It’s a job for someone who needs to deal with the nuts and bolts of an old engine — not the flash-and-dash politics that play to the crowds.
"It was never the glory I was after,’’ Chan told me. "I wanted to see people work together and bring peace to the district.’’
That’s no small goal in this fractious city. Just recently, Chan was called in to handle a situation inwhich two neighbors complained that grammar school kids were reciting the Pledge of Allegiance too loudly each morning.
Chan said she could write a book about the challenges of leading the district. No doubt it would read like fiction.
Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at (415) 359-2663.