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Money and motives: Who is paying for the school board recall, and why?

From left to right, David Sacks, William Oberndorf, Arthur Rock and Jessica Livingston. | Photo Illustration by Camille Cohen.

The campaign to recall three members of the San Francisco Board of Education began nearly a year ago as a grassroots effort led by a pair of frustrated parents. It has since grown into a highly energized citywide movement and a flashpoint in America’s culture wars.

Along the way, the push to boot Board of Education President Gabriela López and members Alison Collins and Faauuga Moliga off the board has amassed $1.9 million total in support. More than $85,000 has been raised to oppose the recall. The election is Tuesday.

Though plenty of financial support for the recall has come in the form of small donations—both from angry parents and childless locals—the campaign has also benefited from larger injections of cash from wealthy individuals and special interest groups.

An earlier analysis by The Standard showed that an overwhelming majority of donations have come from San Francisco, mostly from the west side, while 13.1% come from other cities in California and 3.4% outside the state. Close to a quarter of pro-recall funding has come from tech workers: 22% of employed contributors reported that they worked as “engineers'' or in a similar field. In the 2018 Board of Education election, when the three members were elected, tech workers accounted for 2.3% of contributions.

A handful of big players have contributed roughly half of the $1.9 million in support of the school board recall. Opponents of the recall and some of the embattled school board members have seized upon these larger donations in weaving their arguments against the recall.

Board President López has recognized parents’ frustration while also calling attention to the big money being thrown at the recall and underscoring the fact that the initiative was started by parents who had just moved to San Francisco.

“When billionaires are involved in anything regarding education, especially when they’re not experts in the field, there’s a lot of things we need to question,” López said. “There is a lot of dark money and that’s something we need to recognize.” 

Read on for a rundown on some of the biggest pro-recall spenders, according to public campaign filings.

Neighbors for a Better San Francisco - $488,800

Registered to an address in San Rafael, the PAC known as Neighbors for a Better San Francisco Advocacy has contributed close to half a million dollars for the campaign to recall López, Collins and Moliga. Major donors include local businesspeople and venture capitalists with varied histories of political giving.

“We have contributed to efforts to recall members of the San Francisco School Board because we believe every child in San Francisco deserves to have high-quality public education,” an unidentified representative from Neighbors for a Better San Francisco said in a statement to The Standard. “The school board members up for a recall have failed miserably to meet that obligation.”

San Francisco ethics filings show the Neighbors PAC gave $458,800 to the Concerned Parents Supporting the Recall of Collins, López and Moliga PAC, in addition to $10,000 which was given Thursday in a late contribution report. Concerned Parents’ campaign disclosures indicate much was invested in media outreach.

In addition to dropping nearly half a million into the school board recall, Neighbors for a Better San Francisco Advocacy spent even more—roughly $1.8 millionon the campaign to recall District Attorney Chesa Boudin. The Neighbors PAC also gave an additional $20,000 to the original school board recall committee under a different arm of the group.

Though you won’t find billionaire hedge-fund manager William Oberndorf’s name on the city’s campaign finance dashboard, he’s the largest single contributor to multiple pro-recall committees—including the Neighbors PAC, which received $602,722 from him in 2021. He has donated to campaigns supporting Sen. Mitch McConnell and various Republicans in Congress, most recently in 2020 and 2021, as well as the left-leaning nonprofit fundraising provider ActBlue. Oberndorf is a huge supporter of charter schools and government-funded vouchers for private schools, backing candidates who vow to advance the efforts.

Other major funders of the Neighbors PAC include venture capitalist Steven Merrill and Jason Moment, as well as Shorenstein Realty Services. Michael Moritz, venture capitalist and initial investor in the SF Standard, contributed $300,000 to the Neighbors PAC in 2020.

Arthur Rock - $399,500+

Retired venture capitalist Arthur Rock was an early and instrumental contributor to the recall campaign. The 95-year-old Rock, who has no children, gave $49,500 to the original campaign run by parents Autumn Looijen and Siva Raj in August as it struggled to keep the pace of gathering signatures needed to qualify. He has since contributed $350,000 to the Concerned Parents of San Francisco committee, which launched in November and raised about $1 million in a short period. 

Rock gave an additional $100,000 to Campaign for Better San Francisco Public Schools, another political action committee that supports the recall, and $50,000 to Neighbors for a Better San Francisco.

Like Oberndorf, Rock has a history of supporting school vouchers and is a major advocate for non-profit charter schools. He’s also been a major donor to Teach For America, a nonprofit that was founded to address teacher shortages in low-income public schools and has increasingly sent recruits to charter schools.

Rock was also an early investor in Apple, leading to a portrayal by J.K. Simmons in the 2013 film Jobs. Rock did not return a request for comment.

California Association of Realtors - $84,900

Through its Issues Mobilization Political Action Committee, the California Association of Realtors contributed $55,900 to the Concerned Parents PAC. Another California Association of Realtors political action committee gave $29,000 to the Concerned Parents PAC. 

“The San Francisco Association of Realtors cares deeply about providing high-quality public education to every student and family in San Francisco,” the group said in a statement. “The Commissioners up for the recall vote have proven they don’t have the best interests of students driving their decision-making.”

David Sacks - $74,500

Entrepreneur and technology investor David Sacks contributed the second-highest amount for an individual, giving $74,500 directly to the recall campaign, according to San Francisco ethics filings. He also gave during crucial periods for the signature-gathering campaign in June and August.

Sacks is the founding Chief Operating Officer of Paypal and co-founder of the investment firm Craft Ventures. With PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, in 1995 he co-authored The Diversity Myth: ‘Multiculturalism’ and the Political Intolerance at Stanford. The two later apologized for the work.

Sacks also contributed to the failed efforts to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom, whom he initially supported, in September. He hosted a fundraiser for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whom Sacks has praised for ending pandemic closures sooner, in San Francisco this October.

Sacks did not return a request for comment but has taken to Twitter to criticize school closures and the San Francisco Board of Education for a delayed return to in-person learning. 

Jessica Livingston - $45,000

Livingston, who lives in Palo Alto, gave $45,000 to the Concerned Parents PAC. She’s the co-founder of Y Combinator, a well-known startup incubator. Her husband, Paul Graham, also gave $1,000 directly to the recall campaign run by the original proponents.

Livingston did not return a request for comment and public statements give little indication of her motivations to support the recall. As of Friday, she is tied with San Francisco Forward, the political action committee arm of the city’s Chamber of Commerce, which made a $35,000 contribution to the Concerned Parents PAC on Thursday.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the amount of Michael Moritz's contribution to the Neighbors for a Better San Francisco PAC. He contributed $300,000 in 2020, not $30,000.