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Meet the parents behind an effort to recall three SF school board members

From frustrated families to a formalized political action committee, various parent groups in San Francisco are seeking to reform the school board. One plan was literally hatched over a plate of brownies. 

This “brownie-powered” campaign, spearheaded by public school parents Autumn Looijen and Siva Raj, is pursuing a formal recall effort against three members of the school board. More than 7,000 people have signed onto the group’s mailing list to keep up with the movement so far.

“Most Americans wake up in the morning knowing that if they don’t do the job, they’re going to get fired. I’d like for our elected officials to feel exactly the same way,” Raj told Here/Say in an on-camera interview.

Raj and Looijen, a Tinder couple who began dating in July and have five children between them, hope to turn their frustration over the school boards’ inertia on reopening into something actionable. Which brings us back to the brownies: the couple dreamed up their recall plan over dessert on Valentine’s Day. (The link to the recipe is on their recall website).

San Francisco’s classrooms have been shuttered since last March despite the city’s low COVID-19 rates. Meanwhile, the school board spent much of the pandemic focusing on issues such as voting to rename 44 schools and ending the merit-based admissions process at Lowell High School. 

An illustration of the recall process. | Image courtesy of Recall SF School Board

There are seven school board members, but only three (President Gabriela López, Vice President Alison Collins and Commissioner Faauuga Moliga) are eligible for a recall. The other four members were elected or re-elected in November and cannot be recalled until at least six months into their terms.

Typically, recall efforts are costly, using paid collectors to amass the tens of thousands of pen-on-paper signatures required. “But no one has gotten a recall on the ballot here in 40 years,” said Looijen. So, “we’ll be doing things our way.”

The duo is limiting individual contributions to $99. They envision a grassroots, parent-led effort that relies on an army of volunteers to spread the word. Those wishing to sign will be able to download a petition from the recall website, print it at home and mail it back. Raj and Looijen are also planning socially distanced pop-up events at homes, businesses and parks.

“We want to make it fun,” said Looijen. “That sounds like a weird thing to say because a recall effort is traditionally kind of an assassin’s job. But that’s not us. You know the saying ‘bring a knife to a gunfight’? We’re bringing a flower.”

Rishaan Sivaraj, 8, enrolled in SFUSD in December after his father moved to San Francisco. He hasn't met any of his classmates in person yet. | Photo by David Topete

The Board of Education has faced increasing ire from parents and elected officials in recent months over the school reopening saga. City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed a lawsuit against SFUSD in February for failing to come up with a reopening plan that meets state requirements. Mayor London Breed has called on the Board of Education to provide an “actual timeline” for a return to classrooms. 

SFUSD spokesperson Gentle Blythe did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the recall effort.

Since the lawsuit, President López has said reopening is the board’s first priority. “Reopening will be our only focus until our children and young people are back in schools. We’re canceling renaming committee meetings for the time being,” wrote López in an SF Chronicle op-ed. She also said she would not publicly comment on the matter again until schools reopen. 

A return to classrooms for pre-K through second graders is unlikely to happen for at least two months. Middle and high school students won’t return to in-person learning in San Francisco until the fall, and even then there are questions about whether that return will be five full days a week or hybrid.

Jen Sey, a mother of five, recently relocated her family to Denver, Colorado so that her son can attend Kindergarten in person. Sey, who supports the recall effort, said it’s about “basically firing them [the school board] for not doing their job for the last year.”

Meanwhile, political action committee Better Public Schools, run by parents Patrick Wolff and Jennifer Butterfoss, is focused on long-term structural change to the school board, including a charter amendment that could replace school board elections with mayoral-appointed commissioners. 

“It seems like we can do better in our leadership for public education and in the public schools themselves,” Wolff said.

Rishaan Sivaraj, 8, says he’s proud of his dad for working on the recall effort—though he says he doesn’t fully understand it. “I don’t really know how to explain it but he tells me that he’s protesting to get schools back open and he even made a website. I think it’s a nice thing because he’s doing it for everyone, not just me and my brother.”

Sivaraj may not understand the full scope of his father’s effort, but he is a fan of the brownies that Looijen and Raj have been making at least a handful of times each week. “Especially the batter,” he adds. “Because it tastes so good.”