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Education spotlight shifts to Breed as city asserts more control after the ousting of 3 school board members in recall

One year after a pair of angry parents embarked on their highly publicized quest to oust three members of the San Francisco school board, it’s over. Almost.

Board of Education President Gabriela López and commissioners Faauuga Moliga and Alison Collins were recalled by an overwhelming margin on Tuesday as voters rebelled against what many saw as a board that prioritized a divisive political agenda rather than educating kids during the pandemic.

They won't be sent packing instantly. The Department of Elections must certify the results of the recall by Feb. 24, and then the Board of Supervisors must then declare the results. Assuming that happens at the next Supes meeting on March 1, the recalled commissioners will vacate their posts on March 11.

What happens next isn’t as clear. Mayor London Breed is the official in charge of picking López, Moliga and Collins’ replacements, but she is under no deadline to make a decision. Breed’s office did not return multiple requests for comment on the appointment process and the mayor gave no public indications of whom she might name prior to Tuesday's election.

At a press conference Wednesday morning, Breed said she is looking for someone focused on the students, particularly around learning loss, and turning the district around. Outreach to find and vet candidates will go on as the vacancies are finalized.

“It's not about having a progressive or moderate,” Breed said. “This is probably one of the hardest decisions that I've ever had to make as it relates to appointments because of the significance of what this means and what the people of San Francisco expect of who I will appoint.”

Mayor London Breed speaks to the press from the “Mayor’s Balcony” on Feb. 16, 2022. | Camille Cohen

Whomever the mayor appoints to fill out the terms of the recalled board members would have to run for the office in the regular November election. López told The Standard that she might well run again, even though she called the work “abusive.”

“With the right amount of support, I’d take that work on," she said. "I’d always planned on running for two terms. I do fear who is lining themselves up to be in this role.”

Opponents of the recall have warned from the earliest days of the campaign that a successful recall would mean an end to elected school boards in San Francisco and effectively hand the keys to the district over to the mayor. Indeed, around the time that Siva Raj and Autumn Looijen launched their grassroots recall effort, a separate committee began exploring a city charter amendment to switch to a mayor-appointed school board. That committee filed termination papers last week—but how big a role the mayor should have in running the schools will likely remain a fraught issue. 

For the moment, Breed’s authority to pick the three replacement school board members will give her immediate leverage as the district works to hire a new superintendent and grapple with a severe budget crisis stemming from declining enrollment. That worries teachers' unions and others who have long fought mayoral control, arguing that it opens the door to business interests and charter school advocates while taking power from voters.

“It’s a little bit nerve-wracking for educators,” said Cassondra Curiel, president of the United Educators of San Francisco. “Public education has been going in the direction of equity, desegregation and inclusion. Now, we’re going to see the swingback of the pendulum. [The recall] is a test to see how fertile the ground is for privatization in San Francisco.”

When asked about appointing someone pro-charter or pro-voucher at the press conference, Breed said she is “not disqualifying anyone at this time.”

More mayoral control of the troubled system also carries risks for Breed, who's up for reelection in November 2023 and could be on the hook if things don’t improve.

“It’s an opportunity and a responsibility,” said Jason McDaniel, a political science professor at San Francisco State University. “People are expecting change. If the board resists that, you’ll see a lot of backlash. I think they’ll be more likely to hold the mayor accountable.”

Building a Bench? 

Some of Breed’s political opponents, including Lopez, framed the recall as a power grab by the mayor aimed at installing friendly school board members who might later ascend to the Board of Supervisors, a traditional path in city politics.

“For the mayor to be able to appoint three people to the school board, it directly impacts other ways of getting her specific agenda to a supervisor seat, to a moderate majority," Lopez told The Standard last week. "This is long-term bench building.”

Proponents of the recall say they aren’t interested in helping the mayor achieve her political goals and simply want better leadership. Raj and Looijen have said they want to help the mayor attract and vet qualified candidates to replace the recalled commissioners.

What’s more, they say, if Breed’s picks turn out to be ill-suited for the job, there is the regularly scheduled election for the three seats in November and voters will have a chance to set the board right once more—though they’ll have to act fast. 

“If we put them in place and they’re not doing a good job, we have no time to waste,” Looijen said. 

Raj also said Breed told both he and Looijen that she wants to retain diversity on the board (López is Latina, Collins is Black and Moliga is Pacific Islander).

The success of the recall is not, however, creating an obvious wave of support for direct city control of the school system. The political action committee behind a proposed city charter amendment that would have given the mayor control of all school board appointees raised nearly $270,000 in 2021 before pulling the plug.

Patrick Wolff of Campaign for Better San Francisco Public Schools, the aforementioned PAC, declined to provide a comment to The Standard, but others have said the effort lacked support. Looijen and Raj said they told charter amendment proponents early on that there wasn’t support for switching to mayoral appointments.

“The charter amendment didn’t pick up much steam,” said Joel Engardio, a former supervisorial candidate helping with the recall. “That kind of fell by the wayside for now. It’s something worth discussing down the road. [Recall] is just a temporary fix.”

A separate charter amendment by Breed that targeted the Board of Education with accountability measures and threatened to withhold city funds was killed in committee last month. 

Looijen and Raj have repeatedly said they wanted to recall the entire school board but López, Moliga and Collins were the only ones eligible at the time. 

“There’s still a lot of enthusiasm now to recall others,” Raj said. “I hope we never have to recall any member in the future. The solution is not to take democracy away, it’s to improve it. To get to that place, I think we need to look at the governance [structure] on the school board.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that a charter amendment proposed by Mayor London Breed was killed in committee on Tuesday. It was killed Jan. 26.

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