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Frustrated students and teachers storm chaotic post-recall school board meeting

There was nothing normal about Tuesday’s San Francisco Board of Education meeting. 

It was convened just a week after locals voted to oust three of its commissioners, and six days after one of the recalled members prematurely stepped down. The meeting’s agenda—posted improperly, in violation of the Brown Act—called for discussions on a number of weighty topics, including the approval of layoff notices and a labor contract.

The session was preceded by a gathering of more than 50 students and teachers, who chanted protest slogans outside San Francisco Unified School District headquarters. And it was kicked off by a lengthy public comment period peppered with defiant student critiques of impending cuts. 

After all of this—and a brief hailstorm—the virtual meeting came to an abrupt halt barely 90 minutes after it began, and before any substantive discussion could be had amongst the board members. The session was continued to Thursday, ostensibly in response to a threat of litigation for the aforementioned Brown Act violation, which came during the contentious public comment period. (SFUSD was sued for violating the Brown Act after the board’s decision to rename schools and end merit-based admissions at Lowell, both of which played a major role in ginning up support for the recall election.)

Tensions are running high across the district. In addition to the nationally spotlighted recall election, the board approved deep cuts in December aimed at balancing a $125 million structural deficit under state watch. School sites received their budgets earlier this month, spelling out how the cuts would impact their schools, all while facing a staffing and morale crisis.

At the same time, the district and United Educators of San Francisco reached a tentative agreement that would bring $32.9 million in bonuses to weary educators. The district will pay for the $4,000 bonuses in part by pausing sabbaticals and, most controversially, stopping prep periods for Advanced Placement teachers next year. AP prep cuts means $6.5 million in savings but translates into bigger budget impacts for schools with more AP courses.

These cuts drove a crowd of students predominantly from Lowell High School and teachers to gather outside the SFUSD office to protest layoffs, the tentative labor agreement, cuts to AP and more. Several Black Student Union members at Lowell voiced concern over the loss of their club sponsor, a chemistry teacher who they said was on the chopping block.

Hannah Chikere speaks into her cell phone during the student comment section of the school board meeting outside the protest at SFUSD on Feb 22, 2022. | Camille Cohen

“We are tired of losing teachers that actually care about our education and our future,” said Hannah Chikere, Lowell BSU secretary, who called into the online comment while attending the protest. “We are tired of fighting for more diversity on our staff and curriculum. When we finally get a little bit of that, it gets taken away from us.” 

Students also called into the meeting pleading to save programs like Peer Resources and JROTC, which they say gave them confidence, better prepared them for school and taught practical life skills. 

A third grader from Dr. William L. Cobb Elementary School even called in asking to stop the cuts saying, “I don’t wanna lose anyone.” 

More than 400 educators received warning that they face potential layoff last month, as a brighter funding outlook from the state came in. Now 188 credentialed and classified staff with the United Educators of San Francisco, and 113 other district staff remain in danger of losing their jobs. SFUSD anticipates the final number will decrease after undergoing a consolidation process in April.

Rebecca Johnson, an AP teacher at Lowell, took a mental health day to help organize the rally on Tuesday. She felt the tentative agreement was rushed and said the pushback against the union is “unprecedented.” A majority of UESF members approved the contract but it received an unusual level of criticism from other members.

“They’re using district talking points,” Johnson said of UESF. “We feel that SFUSD in their austerity measures for budget cutting is going at it poorly and with very little transparency, without any planning or at least communication about what they’re planning.”

UESF is also calling to end austerity measures and prevent as many layoff notices as possible. 

“We knew the entire time this was a hard ask and we’re in a hard situation,” said Cassondra Curiel, UESF President, of the tentative agreement. “The district was proposing large concessions. There’s no union that’s happy to take concessions.”

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