FBI investigating San Francisco school system

By Ron Harris Associated Press Writer
Monday May 21, 2001

By Ron Harris 

Associated Press Writer 


SAN FRANCISCO – After years of complaints from parents about San Francisco’s crowded, ill-equipped and run-down schools, the FBI has been called in to find out whether the mess is more than just a matter of bad management. 

City and school authorities asked the bureau earlier this spring to determine whether the mishandling of millions of dollars was criminal. 

“This is a very broken school system,” said Arlene Ackerman, who has been superintendent for less than a year “The infrastructure and finances are very broken.” 

The FBI would not comment. But City Attorney Louise Renne said her office is working with the bureau in an investigation of current or former school staff members. 

In 1990 and 1997, San Francisco residents voted for school improvement and construction bonds totaling $90 million for the district, which has more than 66,000 students and an annual budget of about $500 million. 

The money was meant to cover earthquake-related repairs, fire and safety improvements, building renovations and construction. 

But $27 million went to other projects and needs without Board of Education approval, an audit by an accounting firm found. Some of it went to salaries to new staff in an administration Ackerman has called bloated. 

In addition, $14.6 million in state grant money to be used for new construction and modernization is unaccounted for. 

“That’s just a complete waste of money that’s out there that the district could be soliciting or putting to use,” said Maricela Valencia, who has a daughter in sixth grade. 

Valencia said she is putting her daughter back in private school — at $800 per month with a scholarship — after a one-year trial of the public system. 

“It disappointed me the most in that the number of children in the classroom is too much for the teacher to deal with,” she said. “The students are out of control.” 

Ackerman said the school district needs “tight accountability systems.” She refused to blame directly any previous superintendents or board members, saying only that her job is to fix things. 

Many parents and some district employees say the breakdowns in management and accounting came during the tenure of the previous schools chief, Bill Rojas. Rojas left to become superintendent of the Dallas system but was fired less than a year later after clashing with the board there. 

This week, he returned to San Francisco to answer the allegations. 

Rojas admitted that there were “weak internal controls” during his tenure, but said that the current administration is also to blame for failing to track the bond money. 

“How long, when budgets are produced year to year, are you going to blame Bill Rojas?” he said at a city Board of Supervisors meeting. “I may not have been the most popular superintendent, but you don’t have a single financial audit saying we weren’t solvent.” 

Parents have long complained about an administration in disarray, underpaid teachers, dilapidated buildings, classrooms without books and limited Internet access in one of the world’s most technology-oriented cities. 

Some of the schools are in such bad repair that they were cited in an ACLU lawsuit accusing the state and city of discrimination in funding. 

Bessie Carmichael Elementary School, for example, consists of dilapidated wooden buildings and World War II bungalows in a largely black part of town. A $4 million improvement project has ballooned to $16 million, with little progress toward a new campus. 

At the same time, Lowell High, which selects the city’s brightest students, is still waiting for campus-wide Internet access, despite qualifying for a $1 million state grant for the project in 1998. 

The Board of Education recruited Ackerman after learning of her successes running schools in Washington, D.C. The board also recently named Ramon Cortines, a former superintendent in San Francisco and New York City, to lead a citizens oversight committee. 

“I’m very saddened, but I’m not shocked or surprised,” school board member Dan Kelly said of the financial mess. “This is exactly the kind of activity that some of us thought was going on.”