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Public school policy in San Francisco isn’t set by the Board of Supervisors. That’s up to the elected school board. But schools are a hot topic in the Richmond District, and in the final push before Tuesday’s election, schools are now front in center in the race for District 1 supervisor.

Staffers for David Lee, the insurance salesman, former nonprofit director, Recreation and Park commissioner and university lecturer seeking to unseat incumbent Eric Mar, called a press conference on Thursday to denounce what they call a “lie” made by Mar, a former head of the school board, printed on Mar election material.

At issue is a Mar mailer sent out earlier in the month (that’s it pictured above) that claims Mar, while on the school board, “support[ed] neighborhood schools.”

That’s an outright lie, according to Lee campaign manager Jim Ross, who pointed out that Mar was one of the elected officials who last year opposed Measure H, a policy statement that would have made “neighborhood schools” a city priority.

“He has never once worked or supported a move toward a neighborhood schools system in San Francisco,” Ross said in an e-mail.

“Now he is saying on his mail the he supports neighborhood schools. This is like John Kerry saying he opposed the Iraq War before supporting it.”

As usual, the whole story is more complicated.

While Mar was the school board’s president, the school assignment system was changed — but because of lawsuits, not elected officials’ actions.

For 22 years, a federal judge was responsible for regulating the school district’s school-assigment process, following lawsuits filed over — believe it or not — neighborhood schools. Back then, neighborhood schools were a bad thing: the San Francisco NAACP sued the state and the schol district in 1978, alleging that the school district was segregated.

As a result, schools were subject to a “racial cap” prohibiting any race from making up more than 45 percent of a school’s enrollment. This made it easier for a kid from Bayview to attend a better school in, say, the Richmond — but it also angered parents of Chinese students, who sued in 1994 alleging that the cap kept their children out of the city’s best public schools.

The settlement from that case, Ho vs. SFUSD, led to the current assignment system, called the “diversity index lottery.” The lottery makes “parental choice” one of the “most significant determinants” in figuring out where a child is sent to school — parents are urged to list seven schools on their application form, but are allowed to rank every school in the district if they so choose, according to school district spokeswoman Gentle Blythe — and Mar was the president of the school board when the current lottery was instituted.

At the moment, students receive a “preference” for their local attendance area school, not a “priority,” according to the school district.

That’s the genesis of the Mar claim that he’s helped parents sent their kids to school closer to home, according to Mar campaign manager Nicole Derse.

“Eric Mar has an exemplary record of advancing quality educational opportunities for all of San Francisco’s children,” she said. “Supporting Prop H is simply not a litmus test for supporting neighborhood schools.

As the school district’s legal history displays, neighborhood schools are either a great thing or a horrific thing (or, of course, something in between) depending on where you live.

Richmond District parents may prefer to send their kids to Washington, Presidio or somewhere close to home; Bayview parents, whose local schools “have long been the City’s most under-resourced and under-attended schools,” according to school board member Rachel Norton, may think differently.

Mar’s daughter Jade attends public school in the Richmond District. Lee’s son and daughter attend private school in Pacific Heights. (We at The Appeal feel as if we barely left high school and will not be a parent of any student for the foreseeable future [If ever — ELB]).

The Lee campaign did not define “neighborhood school” nor go into detail as to what Lee would do while on the Board to advance neighborhood schools aside from acting as an “advocate.” Mar has helped Lee with the evidently-nuclear school claim, energizing “a dozen” angry parents to march precincts for Lee, Ross said.

It bears mentioning that while the entire school board vociferously opposed last year’s Prop H, and only recently has Lee come out in retroactive support, the Richmond as a neigborhood was strongly in favor of the measure, according to election results.

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