SF’s earthquake safety requirements will be detrimental for private schools 

The March 10 article celebrating Mayor Ed Lee’s introduction of a law that would require private schools to conduct mandatory seismic evaluations within three years and publish the results did not accurately represent the issue and its serious threat to private education in San Francisco.

We all agree that seismic safety and preparedness is of utmost priority in San Francisco schools. Yet, this profoundly problematic policy and proposed law will more than likely sound the death knell for many private schools in San Francisco. If enacted, the blame for our school closures should land on the steps of City Hall.

The proposed Earthquake Performance Evaluation of Private Schools ordinance would force private schools to achieve standards above and beyond the requirements of the state of California, burdening schools already existing on narrow margins. If the standard of seismic safety goes beyond “life and safety” to recovery status (a difference with multimillion-dollar implications), what can only be expected is the diversion of valuable time and resources away from the education of one-third of The City’s children.

Unlike public schools with millions of dollars in taxpayer bonds for evaluations and repairs, private schools have no such funding source. This gaping hole between a vision for public safety and its successful execution only supports the notion that City Hall is more concerned with powering through a checklist of accomplishments rather than directing the type of broad and discerning planning that engages the communities of impact in a meaningful way. Case in point: The participants in the Private Schools Earthquake Safety Working Group included only a handful of representatives from less than five of the 113 private schools in operation.

What the graphs, tables and worksheets in the report don’t reflect are the faces of the faculty, volunteers and committed parents who choose private education for myriad reasons — cultural, social, philosophical and academic — an option that they could be denied if this law passes. The impacted communities are not exclusively wealthy with resources to spare — in San Francisco parochial schools alone, fully one-third of all students receive financial aid to make their private education possible.

The proposed law as written will not just have grave consequences for schools, churches and parish halls, but also has the potential to widen even further the class divide we see developing in our great city.

The mayor and the Board of Supervisors must slow down this primitive legislation and examine the unintended consequences for private education. Our city leaders are obligated to return to the drawing board and agree to work toward language that enables us to achieve our shared objective — to provide for the health, safety and uninterrupted learning of thousands of our city’s children.

Mele Mortonson is the principal at St. Finn Barr Catholic School in San Francisco.

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