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How we got here: Why some San Franciscans are trying to remove the school board

As of last week, three efforts to reform or recall the San Francisco Board of Education have launched. 

One is an offshoot of the advocacy group Families for San Francisco, whose Campaign for Better San Francisco Public Schools is exploring running challengers against incumbents or initiating amendments to the city’s charter that could change how school board members get their seats. Families for San Francisco has criticized the Board of Education’s policies by publishing reports blasting the school board’s school renaming process and digging into demographic data on San Francisco Unified School District’s (SFUSD) high schools.

Another committee has mysterious ties to a San Francisco Republican party member and assembly delegate, according to the San Francisco Examiner. 

The third effort is the grassroots brainchild of two tech industry single parents with five school-age children between them. That duo is pushing to recall School Board President Gabriela López, Vice President Alison Collins and Commissioner Faauuga Moliga and would need approximately 70,000 signatures per school board member to move the effort forward. 

The local movement to either recall school board members or initiate Board of Education reform comes amid a rising statewide effort to reopen schools for in-person instruction, spearheaded by groups such as Open Schools California. But the rise of so many homegrown education reform groups in San Francisco has roots in the school board’s bold policies, which have faced vehement backlash and high profile attention over the past two years.    

A Summer Saga Over Art  

The tinder for this conflagration can be traced back to summer 2019 when the school board voted unanimously to paint over a historic WPA-era school mural of George Washington that also depicts scenes of slavery and a slain Native American. First Nation and Black students reported feeling pained by the mural’s presence in their school, and removing it was the school board’s effort to mitigate that and right historical wrongs. But after an international outcry by mural preservationists, anti-censorship activists and even actor Danny Glover, the board reversed its decision in a 4-3 vote, deciding to cover the controversial mural but not destroy it.

New Year, New School Names

Fast forward to January 2021, and the school board came under fire again for its decision to rename—without broad community input or the help of historians—44 SFUSD schools with namesakes tied to white supremacy, genocide and slavery, including those named after presidents Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. Supporters see the change as part of important anti-racist work and correcting past historical wrongs. Critics see the focus on renaming schools as distracting the school board from working on a reopening plan. 

“Why are you guys trying to rename schools when we have children who are failing or who are not adjusting correctly to the pandemic?” SFUSD parent Erika Foots told Here/Say in November ahead of the final decision. “Why aren’t we talking about those things?”

Shake-Ups to Lowell High School 

On the heels of its decision to rename schools, the school board dipped into hot water once again with a proposal to eliminate merit-based admissions at San Francisco’s elite public high school, Lowell. The proposal came in the wake of a racist online incident involving the school and in response to a lack of Black and Latino representation within the student body.

Proponents argued that the policy change would not only increase diversity at the school, opening the well-resourced campus to more students across SFUSD, but also end an unfair and inherently racist merit-based admissions system. Those opposed to the change said that merit-based admissions support academic achievement and shouldn’t be demonized

Finally on February 9, the school board voted 5-2 to officially end selective admissions at Lowell. 

Tensions Reach A Boiling Point 

The public’s mounting frustration with the school board has come to a head with the continued and heated debate over how and when SFUSD’s campuses should reopen, a topic that the school board has either pushed down to the bottom of the agenda or left unaddressed at public meetings over the last few months. At the Feb. 9 board meeting, reopening wasn’t discussed until 7 hours into the meeting, after 10 p.m.  

“I think it’s an absolute slap in the face to all the families and students of this district that you don’t even have reopening on the agenda. We’re ten months into this pandemic, and your current ‘plan’ is to reassess your plan?” said one frustrated parent during the public comment period of a Jan. 12 Board of Education meeting.

Legal Challenges

On Feb. 3, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera dropped a lawsuit on the school board and district, alleging they violated state law by failing to craft a sufficient plan for returning students to classrooms. Herrera expanded the lawsuit on Feb. 9 to include allegations that the Board of Education and district had violated the state Constitution and equal protection laws by not providing in-person instruction.       

The School Board Pivots

Caving to political pressure, board president López announced in a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed in late February that the school board will put renaming schools on hold and prioritize school reopening. She also announced that this is the last time she’ll comment on school renaming publicly until campuses are opened. 

Sluggish Bargaining Adds To Frustration

Meanwhile, SFUSD and labor unions representing educators and school workers have struggled over the course of the pandemic to come to agreement on working conditions for a return to school—although some progress has been made in recent weeks. SFUSD union educators agreed to return to the classroom with vaccinations once San Francisco hit the red tier or without once the city reaches the orange tier. 

Determined Parents Rise Up

Public pressure on the school board and district to reopen schools continues to mount with parent groups such as Decreasing the Distance organizing socially distanced outdoor “Zoom Ins,” where families can bring their remote learning to San Francisco’s parks. The group is also organizing rallies and advocating for a return to classrooms five days a week for pre-K through 12 in the fall.

Meanwhile, Autumn Looijen and Siva Raj, the two single parents behind the most serious school board recall effort, say they plan to continue pursuing the recall even if schools reopen.

“We’ve launched the recall process and we intend to see this through,” Raj told Here/Say. “Whether they are recalled or not is really up to the people of San Francisco.”

District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston has said the recall effort itself could get in the way of the very thing many SFUSD parents are pining for—reopened campuses. “Is the goal of the school board recall campaign to ensure that school board members have no time to focus on school reopening?” he tweeted.

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

It remains to be seen what will happen first: school reopening or radical change to the school board. Both challenges promise not to go away anytime soon.  

Here/Say Media’s Sophie Bearman contributed reporting to this story. 

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