A remarkably dysfunctional year for the San Francisco Unified school board.
It started in January 2021, when the school board in San Francisco decided to rename 44 public schools, claiming their namesakes were “unworthy of the honor.” The names of such American icons as Abraham Lincoln, Paul Revere, Thomas Edison, Daniel Webster, Francis Scott Key, et al. were to be placed on the chopping block.
February was no less contentious – and at the same time provided some comic relief – when the art department of the school district bizarrely announced that acronyms such as VAPA (visual and performing arts) are “a symptom of white supremacy.” The month also saw the school board decide that top-rated Lowell High School should no longer admit students based on their academic performance. Instead, the school was to use a lottery to admit them. This, of course, was very discriminatory toward Asian American students who made up 50.6 percent of its student body at the time. And if February wasn’t already absurd, the city government of San Francisco sued its own school board to reopen schools. After 327 days the city fathers and mothers decided that enough was enough. But in reality, kids, especially minorities, were not terribly well educated in Fog City before the shut down – just 19 percent of blacks passed a recent state test in reading – so perhaps the school board figured eliminating in-person learning couldn’t do that much more damage.
Then, in March, it was revealed that school board member Allison Collins had made some rather nasty comments on Twitter about Asian Americans in 2016, and left the posts intact five years hence. She accused them of many things, including the use of “white supremacist thinking to assimilate and ‘get ahead.’” The school board was pretty much forced to do something, but they didn’t fire her or take away any of her six-figure salary; they merely removed her as vice president, and stripped her of committee assignments. March went out like a lion when Collins filed a lawsuit against the district and five fellow board members, asking for $87 million in damages for violating her free speech rights. Among other things, her lawsuit alleged that the demotion caused her a significant loss of reputation, severe mental and emotional distress, loss of enjoyment of life, humiliation, and – I am not making this up – “spiritual injury to her soul.”
In April, the school board decided against renaming the 44 schools – not because it was a terrible idea to begin with, but rather to avoid a costly lawsuit, which alleged that the board violated the Brown Act, which requires local government business to be conducted at open and public meetings. In fact, no input from the community was sought in this instance. The board went into an immediate snit, calling the lawsuit “nothing more than a transparent attempt to thwart a lawful and duly-noticed action with which it disagrees,” and also explained that it wanted to avoid “the distraction and wasteful expenditure of public funds in frivolous litigation.”
On May 9 the San Francisco teachers union announced it had “exciting news,” referring to a deal that the school district struck with the United Educators of San Francisco to open up schools to seniors on May 14. The joke is that the opening – only a part of which had students receiving in-person instruction – was established solely to qualify the school district for a $12 million grant. To pass muster, schools had to have opened by May 15. The announcement also stipulated that there would be “in-person supervision” rather than in-person instruction, and that just two of the city's 15 high schools will be reopened. The last day of school in the city was June 2.
August saw the end of Allison Collins’ lawsuit. Federal judge Haywood Gilliam, Jr. tossed it several days before a scheduled hearing, saying no further arguments needed to be heard because Collins’ claims had absolutely no merit.
In September, it was revealed that the San Francisco Unified School District was dealing with a $116 million deficit, and was warned by the California Department of Education in a Sept. 15 letter that it must submit a plan by December 15 to cut 13 percent of its $1 billion budget. Collins’ lawsuit was not helpful, as the district had to spend $125,000 to fight off her frivolous claims.
A major shoe dropped in August when it was announced that three school board members – Gabriela López, Faauuga Moliga and, yes, Alison Collins would face a recall election in early 2022. (The other four board members remained safe, but only because they hadn’t served long enough to face a challenge.)
Then in December, the school district took the first step in preventing the aforementioned state takeover by approving a budget plan to address what had now become a $125 million shortfall. The board agreed to cut $50 million from schools and another $40 million reduction in support services, operations and administration. The same month had the district extend the Lowell lottery for another year. (A judge had ruled the board could not make the change permanent, but allowed it to do so on a temporary basis.)
In early February, apparently desperate, Allison Collins posited that the recall is “part of a Republican-led effort to dismantle a progressive school board.” Apparently, Ms. Collins is not aware that Republicans comprise less than 10% of voters in San Francisco. In fact, Joe Biden got 85% of the city’s vote in 2020, and the last time it voted for a Republican president was Dwight Eisenhower in 1956.
Indeed, the recall election came to pass on February 15, and it was a bloodbath. All three board members were defeated by over 70%, with the ever-offensive Allison Collins “leading” the pack by having over 78% of voters choosing to unseat her.
Did the three losers accept defeat and walk away gracefully? Hardly. Board president Gabriela López claimed her ouster was a “consequence” of fighting for racial justice, and that it represents a victory for – who else? – “white supremacists.” She added “Don’t be mistaken, white supremacists are enjoying this. And the support of the recall is aligned with this.”
But in reality, the recall was primarily a Democratic effort in which many liberals had been pushed too far and Asian Americans were galvanized. Extended school closures, a buffoonish effort to rename schools, an attempt to move away from using achievement as a metric for admission into a high-ranking school, a hideous achievement gap, an enormous budget deficit, not to mention using racial slurs in an anti-Asian rant are most definitely not winning issues for good people of any ethnicity or political stripe.
Mayor Breed will soon be appointing replacements for the ousted incompetent board members, and in November the people will vote for the three positions. My guess is that anyone who chooses to run will be chastened by the past year’s outrages. But as the late Paul Kantner, Jefferson Airplane co-founder and San Francisco native, once said “San Francisco is 49 square miles surrounded by reality.” As such, stay tuned.
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.