Mayoral candidate Steve Francis held a press conference today to announce his plans to improve public education — a concern that is traditionally outside the purview of the Mayor’s Office.

The trouble is, I was the only reporter who showed up. Unlucky for Francis, maybe, but lucky for me. And reporters weren’t the only ones absent. The press release announcing the event said school board member Mitz Lee would be in attendance. She didn’t show.

My esteemed colleague Rob Davis wrote this piece examining whether any San Diego mayor has power to solve the problems Francis has cited on the campaign trail, including gas prices, improved health care, and school quality.

If you recall Rob’s article, political consultant John Kern was skeptical of Francis’ plans:

If you say you’re going to do something about health care and groceries and education, I don’t believe you will. And if you do, you’re ignoring something else.

But Francis said his plans, while unfamiliar to San Diego, are not new to California. In San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom has an education advisor. Francis has similarly pledged to appoint an education liaison within the Mayor’s Office to build partnerships with schools, to create a drop-out task force, and to develop strategies to recruit and retain teachers, such as a mayor’s teaching award.

Why create new positions to address issues that schools and foundations already confront? Francis said his liaison could add more connections and provide schools more direct access to the mayor’s power to set policies, or to help share resources and facilities between school districts and the city.

“I used to run AMN Healthcare and I have never once been asked to participate in a community forum to provide young people with jobs,” he said, referring to his plan to link students with internships and apprenticeships with San Diego businesses.

The mayor’s prestige could also benefit fundraising efforts, he said.

“There’s a lot of ‘oomph’ that goes along with” the Mayor’s Office, Francis said.

Francis also cited Newsom’s agreement with San Francisco Unified, which includes a promise to provide any additional $40 million annually in school funding by 2010, according to Newsom’s press release.

Francis’ funding promises are more modest. He has proposed creating a Quality of Life Fund that would raise $1.5 million annually for San Diego-area schools. That fund would face considerable demands: Francis has cited it as the piggybank for teacher scholarships to earn a master’s degree, classroom supplies, the costs of a drop-out task force and studies on how to recruit and retain teachers, start-up costs for promising charter schools, and after school programs.

To put that $1.5 million in perspective, San Diego Unified planned to save almost as much money by simply closing its central office during spring break. And the dollars could be split over multiple school districts, including Lemon Grove Unified, which overlaps into part of the city of San Diego. Lemon Grove school board member Blanca Brown attended Francis’ conference today to support him.

“I’d like to see the change he offers,” Brown said. “We need the collaboration to take place so we can have joint-use facilities. Right now, it doesn’t exist.”

But Francis had a tepid reaction to existing proposals to boost school funding: a bond and a parcel tax, estimated to provide $1.51 billion total and $29 million annually for San Diego Unified respectively. The candidate said when it comes to borrowing money or hiking taxes, “my first priority is fire protection.”

Just how involved would a Mayor Francis get in schools? Francis said he wouldn’t meddle in instructional decisions, such as how many hours of math to teach. But he suggested that he could spend “three or four hours” at an individual school to help mediate conflicts between parents.

“It’s worth the time,” Francis said. “If the mayor puts his prestige on the line, it could help.”


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