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Ann Hsu reflects on her swift rise and fall as SF school leader

Ann Hsu, a San Francisco school board appointee, poses for a portrait and reflects on the past year and a half in San Francisco politics, while walking through Golden Gate Park on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Ann Hsu thought she could win, and so did many others in San Francisco.

A nationally watched recall propelled her to San Francisco’s school board, but neither momentum from that campaign nor her core base of Chinese American voters were enough for her to keep the seat when it came to a vote.

Unlike her fellow appointees, Lisa Weissman-Ward and Lainie Motamedi, who kept a firm hold on their spots, Hsu lost by about 4,100 ballots to special education advocate Alida Fisher. 

Yet, in an exclusive interview with The Standard, Hsu said she harbors no regrets from the past year, despite the missteps that derailed her campaign. 

“I don’t consider any experience to be a bad experience,” she said, “even losing an election.”

A Precipitous Rise 

Hsu’s rise and fall in San Francisco politics spanned just a year-and-a-half.

After her husband died in May 2021, Hsu dedicated more time to trying to improve the San Francisco Unified School District. She became chair of the district’s Bond Oversight Committee and president of the parent-teacher group at her twin sons’ high school, Galileo Academy. She also helped gather signatures for the recall campaign that ultimately raised her profile. 

Hsu leveraged her identity as a Chinese American parent to appeal to Asian American voters in TV spots and other media promoting the recall. Her advocacy paid off in February, with San Francisco voting to remove three school board members Alison Collins, Faauuga Moliga and Gabriela López.

Weeks later, as widely expected, Mayor London Breed appointed Hsu, who says that wasn’t her end goal.

“I did not get into the recall in order to become a commissioner,” Hsu explained. “I guess it came with the appointment.”

Though her tenure was short-lived, Hsu said she’s proud of her work on the board. 

Restoring the academic-based admissions at Lowell High School was an important achievement, Hsu said. As well as hiring a new superintendent, Matt Wayne. 

With some polarizing issues, like Lowell admissions, Hsu at least had some board allies. But she occasionally took a stance that invited blowback to her alone, like when she cast the lone vote against adding Muslim holidays to the school calendar.

Ann Hsu, a San Francisco school board appointee, cuddles her dog Luna and reflects on the past year and a half in San Francisco politics, while walking through Golden Gate Park on Nov. 29, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

The biggest fallout came in July. 

In a candidate questionnaire, Hsu blamed the struggles of Black and Latino students in school on a “lack of family support.” The statement prompted a forceful outcry—and marked the beginning of the end for her campaign. 

A host of elected officials and powerful groups demanded her resignation as critics slammed Hsu as racist.

Though she apologized for her words and even joined her colleagues in a vote for her own admonishment, she refused to step down.

Hindsight seems to have made Hsu less apologetic. 

Reflecting on the political firestorm, Hsu insisted her comments aimed to point to solutions for the district’s intractable achievement gap, and that “some people just focus on the political correctness and not really to the full context of what I was trying to say.”

When the two other appointees on the board distanced themselves from Hsu, she doubled down on her base of recall supporters and Chinese Americans. But it wasn’t enough to overcome the damage Hsu’s words inflicted on her own campaign.

“I’m a little bit disappointed at the election results,” she said, “but more excited for what can be coming up.” 

So what’s coming up for Hsu? She’s going back to her roots as a public schools activist. 

Not being a commissioner has been liberating, she said, because it frees her up to “push and champion and advocate anything that is deserving.”

New Leaders, High Hopes

Hsu said she’s optimistic about SFUSD’s new leadership, in no small part because board President Jenny Lam plans to steer the focus away from politics and onto the fundamentals of public education.

“Everybody’s been trained on what we’re supposed to do and what we’re not supposed to do,” Hsu said. “So hopefully you don’t go back to behaving like the previous commissioners.”

Ann Hsu walks her dog Luna and reflects on the past year and a half in San Francisco politics, while walking through Golden Gate Park on Nov. 29, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

But some of her supporters are more worried. 

Lee Work, a recall proponent, said she was disappointed to see Hsu lose her seat.

“That’s the source of my anxiety,” Work said. “I worry that it may lead to poor outcomes for our kids.”

SFUSD is in the throes of a crisis, Work said, with kids failing to meet standards for their age or grade. Hsu positioned herself as a strong advocate for what she calls academic competitiveness. That put her at odds with advocates of overhauling Lowell High’s selection policy.

But Work appreciated Hsu’s academic philosophy. And she also felt concerned that the district has been “systematically removing opportunities for kids to challenge themselves.”

The teachers union, however, welcomed Fisher’s victory over Hsu.

In a statement, the United Educators of San Francisco criticized the way Hsu doubled down on her “racist comments” and blamed her loss on “political correctness.”

UESF, which endorsed Fisher and Weissman-Ward, joined the chorus demanding Hsu’s resignation. As Hsu’s term on the board is set to end soon, union officials said they want other commissioners to learn and take accountability, too.

“We don’t expect our leaders to be perfect,” the union said, “but we do expect them to take responsibility for their actions and be willing to grow and change.”