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A brief history of the San Francisco Board of Education recall

School board elections are seldom the talk of the town, let alone a focal point of national discourse. But as locals vote in today’s recall, they find themselves at the center of a political firestorm with implications stretching far beyond the San Francisco Board of Education.

The question before San Franciscans is seemingly simple: A “yes” or “no” to remove Board of Education President Gabriela López and commissioners Alison Collins and Faauuga Moliga from office. The three board members were elected in 2018 to oversee the San Francisco Unified School District and are up for re-election in November. 

However, the issues at play are more complicated than a simple “yes” or “no” suggests. Proponents of the recall argue new leadership is desperately needed after the mismanagement of school reopenings and the looming fiscal crisis. Critics are also heavily motivated by the board’s move to repaint historic murals at George Washington High School, and a proposal to rename schools that came alongside the school reopening process and the board ending selective admissions at Lowell High School.

Opponents say the recall is a costly waste of taxpayer funds and undermines the will of voters by challenging their earlier decision in a low-turnout election funded by special interests. They also link the effort to a larger agenda aimed at the privatization of public schools and a move toward mayoral control.  

Much like the special election to recall District Attorney Chesa Boudin this summer, the Feb. 15 election is also a referendum on progressive politics in San Francisco and across the country.

Siva Raj and Autumn Looijen were new arrivals to San Francisco when they formed a recall committee in February 2021. The parents and tech workers were moved to do so by the slow return to in-person learning and the board approving school renaming recommendations put forth by a committee criticized for faulty research. That vote, which drew pointed criticism from Mayor London Breed, was later rescinded by court order; it was one of a handful of lawsuits against the district last year. 

Tensions ratcheted up further after commissioners moved in February to end selective admissions at Lowell High School after Black students led a walkout over campus culture. Then, in March, critics resurfaced 2016 tweets by Collins denouncing many Asian Americans for being unwilling to tackle anti-Black racism and playing along with “‘model minority’ BS.” Collins, who is Black, said they were taken out of context and apologized in a Medium post that some saw as disingenuous. 

The tweets led to the board stripping Collins of her vice president title and committee assignments; Collins responded with an $87 million lawsuit that was later dismissed. Most of San Francisco’s political apparatus called on Collins to resign and district administrators condemned the statements.

All the while, proponents of the recall continued gathering signatures—first through grassroots measures, then controversially raising large sums for paid workers, some of it from the same parties that donated to the Boudin recall.

Unlike the recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom, a number of local elected officials have come forward in support of ousting some or all of the school board members on the ballot. Mayor London Breed supports recalling all three commissioners, including Moliga, whom she appointed in 2018. Supervisor Hillary Ronen criticized recalls generally but supported recalling Collins, citing the lawsuit.

Defenders of López, Collins and Moliga—and those who simply oppose the recall—have said recalls like these are undemocratic (Breed would appoint any and all replacements) and have sounded the alarm on the big money from special interest groups that has helped propel the pro-recall campaign. Some of the top donors, like Arthur Rock and William Oberndorf, have a history of supporting charter schools and vouchers for private schools. However, it’s also clear that a significant portion of the financial support for the recall has come from smaller individual donations.

In any case, it’s the first recall before San Francisco voters in 40 years and will not be the last. The Boudin recall is slated for June 7.