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Meet the special ed advocate who ousted Ann Hsu for a spot on SF’s School Board

Alida Fisher, an SFUSD parent and special education activist, gives her introductory biography at the SF Board of Education candidate discussions, put on by District 4 Youth and Families Network at A.P. Giannini Middle School in the Sunset District on Oct. 6, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Alida Fisher recalls when she first learned to channel her frustrations as a parent into advocacy—a transformation that years later would lead to her victory over Ann Hsu for a seat on the board governing San Francisco’s public schools. 

That learning moment came about a decade ago, with Fisher finding out that the San Francisco Unified School District said one of her four children qualified for special education. Two more of her kids would go the same route into a system that involves long discussions between parents and experts, who come up with what’s known as an Individualized Education Program specific to each student’s needs. 

As a parent of students with unique needs, she decided to get involved with SFUSD’s Community Advisory Committee for Special Education, initially volunteering to pick up pizza from Costco before becoming a member and, eventually, leading the group. Fisher—a white mom to four adopted Black children—also became part of the African American Parents Advisory Council.

In each role, she said she kept special education at the heart of her work.

“Every single classroom and every single school is impacted by special education,” Fisher explained. “When you layer intersectionality on it, to me that was really motivational.”

After three runs for the SF school board since 2018, Fisher finally landed a seat by edging out Hsu, the embattled incumbent picked by Mayor London Breed—along with Lainie Motamedi and Lisa Weissman-Ward—as a replacement for one of the three commissioners voters recalled several months earlier. 

Fisher’s supporters say her ability to work well with others makes her a fitting addition to a board trying to move on from a contentious few years marked by polarizing debates over, among other things, reopening schools in a pandemic and a controversial admissions policy at Lowell High School.

From a coalition of largely Asian American activists, Hsu emerged as a preeminent voice of the recall that unseated Gabriela López, Faauuga Moliga and Alison Collins. 

While two of the mayor’s appointees held onto their seats when they came to a vote this month, Hsu’s campaign lost support after she wrote in a candidate questionnaire an assessment that pinned the struggles of Black and Latino students on their parents.

The comments undermined efforts to steer the board clear from the kind of drama that draws focus away from the 50,000 students served by the district.

Fisher said she’s respectful of the board’s work to focus on student outcomes and looks forward to guiding SFUSD through issues outside the classroom, too, like the bureaucratic boondoggle of an ongoing payroll crisis and the balancing act that is hammering out a yearly budget amid inevitable uncertainties with state funding.

The teachers union rallied behind Fisher in hopes she’d give them more voice on the board.

“It’s a relief that we’ll have someone with as much experience in this district as Alida,” said Cassondra Curiel, president of the United Educators of San Francisco, which endorsed Fisher. “She’s not just aware as a special education parent who’s navigated the system. It’s important, but it’s also not that myopic. She’s been a consistent force for years.”

Leading right up to the election, Fisher remained in the trenches as a parent volunteer, a frequent speaker at SFUSD board meetings and occasionally making the trip to urge state lawmakers in Sacramento to invest more in public K-12 schools. 

Special education teacher Leyla Momeny said that in addition to her perspective as a parent, Fisher is well aware of how special education teachers struggle to give students the support they need in a system buckling under high caseloads and constant staff turnover. 

“She doesn’t need to be convinced,” said Momeny, who teaches at Lakeshore Elementary School. “That’s why she had a lot of support from special education teachers.”

Immersing herself in so many facets of the special education system eventually empowered Fisher to shift career tracks to make her chosen cause a full-time pursuit. She left a corporate engineering gig in 2018 for the Community Alliance for Special Education, where she became executive director earlier this year. Through the nonprofit, she continued to guide families through the systems she once had to navigate on her own.

Christina Share, an SFUSD parent who also serves on the special education committee, said she personally tapped Fisher for help at her child’s special education planning meeting. 

Having Fisher to share what she knows about how different kids learn was important for Share, and so many other parents. And she said that leadership stands to benefit the rest of the student population as well. 

“It can be so overwhelming,” Share said. “It takes constant vigilance. [Fisher] knows a lot about how different kids learn, and that knowledge is really important to parents.”