School districts face hefty challenges around safety, budgets and inequity during the pandemic, but Chris Funk, superintendent of San Jose’s East Side Union High School District, hopes his resignation at the end of the academic year will help solve at least one of those issues for his agency.
Funk has been superintendent for the district for the past eight years and announced Thursday that his ninth year would be his last. His absence, he hopes, will put an end to the impasse between the district and its unions over a strained budget that has gone unaddressed for years, he said in an interview Thursday.
“There comes a point where you have to finally make a decision you just can’t kick the can down the road anymore, because it’s always going to be the elephant in the room when you’re trying to address other issues,” he said.
In February, the district Board of Trustees slashed the agency’s budget and laid off more than 100 employees to address the mammoth fiscal concerns.
But the board reversed the decision three weeks later in hopes of working out a different solution with the unions, according to Funk. “Our unions have refused to come to the table and they’re using me as the reason why,” he said. “If I’m stopping that progress, then I decided it was time to move on and hopefully that will open the door for meaningful solutions to try to fix the structural deficits.”
Representatives from the East Side Teachers Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Funk’s announcement Thursday.
Board President Lan Nguyen praised Funk’s work as superintendent, particularly some of his ideas about how to help students and staff during the pandemic. But the board has accepted the resignation, he added, chalking up the impasse as a result of “different working styles.”
Nguyen said he remains hopeful for a long-term solution to an ever-changing budget that has only become more unpredictable during the pandemic, stoking distrust among many union leaders. “Maybe if they see that Chris [Funk] doesn’t have anything to gain by presenting an inaccurate number because he’s going to be leaving, and he can do his best to help the district, hopefully everybody sees that and will be willing to engage and work together,” Nguyen told San Jose Inside.
The decision comes at a complicated moment for schools across the region and country, as each decide how to balance health and safety concerns during the novel coronavirus pandemic with effectively educating students and offering equitable resources to each.
Locally, teachers mobilized earlier this year to turn what were once in-class instruction materials into online courses, many working long hours to adjust.
School districts and even some private companies in recent months have provided tools, like laptops and internet hotspots, to students that can’t afford them, though resources are still limited and many worry some students will fall behind.
Meanwhile, the entire country—school districts included—is grappling with a complicated conversation about racism, inequity and police brutality.
“We are also facing a fight for social justice that our nation has not seen since the 1960s,” Funk wrote in a letter Thursday. “We are at an inflection point in our nation’s history where the time to tear down the walls of oppression in our public-school system is now. We have laid the groundwork in East Side to take on this enormous challenge.”
The district is following a four-phase plan to bring students back into classrooms.
The first step, which will be implemented next week when schools return from summer break, will be fully online as Santa Clara County works to get off the state’s coronavirus watch list, which mandates certain closures of businesses and other activities.
Once the county is off the dreaded watch list, however, Funk said the district is ready to jump into the second phase, which would include bringing back “our most vulnerable populations” and some specialty classes for in-person learning. That includes students who rely on special education programs or courses that require resources not available at students’ homes, such as piano classes.
Later this month, a task force of staff members, teachers, administrators, parents and students will start discussing recommendations for the district’s third phase of reopening, which would be some kind of hybrid of online and in-person learning.
In the fourth phase, students would return to classrooms full time, but Funk said he isn’t optimistic that will happen any time soon.
“I don’t predict that happening until there’s a vaccine that’s widely accessible,” he said. “Quite frankly, as long as I’m still the leader here, I’m not going to jeopardize the health and safety of our staff, students and families.”
Funk’s last day with the district will likely be June 30, 2021. He said he aims to be a superintendent at another district after that.