By JOCELYN GECKER, Associated Press
A seemingly endless amount of drama, name-calling, lawsuits and outrage from parents and city officials has turned the San Francisco school board saga into a gripping pandemic spectacle that is about to unfold in the urns.
A special election on Tuesday will decide the fate of three school board members, all Democrats, in a vote that has divided the famed liberal city. It also motivated many Chinese residents to vote for the first time, prompted by controversial school board decisions and a batch of uncovered anti-Asian tweets.
Parents who launched the recall effort say it was born out of frustration over the council’s misplaced priorities, mishandling of a budget crisis and inability to focus on the fundamental task of reopening public schools during the pandemic. Most of San Francisco’s 50,000 public school students haven’t seen inside a classroom for more than a year, from March 2020 to August 2021.
“It comes down to incompetence,” said Siva Raj, a father of two, who helped lead the recall effort. “The message we want to send is that if you don’t do the job you were elected to do – your primary responsibility is to educate our children – you’re fired.”
Opponents call the recall a waste of taxpayers’ money and a right-wing attack on liberal San Francisco that is part of a nationwide movement to oust progressives from power. Both sides agree that the San Francisco school board and the city itself have become the focus of an embarrassing national spotlight.
Organizers say they would recall all seven council members if they could, but only three have served long enough to complete a challenge: council chair Gabriela Lopez and two commissioners, Alison Collins and Faauuga Moliga.
One of the first issues to gain national attention was the board’s decision to rename 44 of the city’s public schools that they said honored public figures linked to racism, sexism and other injustices. On the list were names like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and trailblazing California Senator Dianne Feinstein.
The name change effort quickly drew criticism for some of its targets, but also for its timing in January 2021, when public classrooms were closed due to COVID-19 restrictions. Angry parents have questioned why the council has focused on renaming schools rather than getting children back into classrooms. The effort was also riddled with historical inaccuracies and shoddy research that sparked criticism of political correctness gone awry.
“It was so poorly executed that it made a mockery of the broader push for historical reckoning in the United States,” the San Francisco Chronicle said in an editorial endorsing the recall. “He alienated instead of educated and invited national ridicule.”
Ultimately, the plan was scrapped, after the city made the dramatic decision to sue the board and school district to reopen faster. The lawsuit failed in court.
Then the board announced it was ending merit-based admissions to the city’s elite Lowell High School as part of a broader campaign for equity and inclusion. He cited “pervasive systemic racism” and a lack of diversity at Lowell, one of the nation’s top public high schools, where the majority of students are Asian.
Many Asian Americans viewed the Lowell vote as a direct attack.
“It’s so discriminating against Asians,” said Ann Hsu, a mother of two high school students from San Francisco. “It’s so obvious that the only goal is for there to be too many Asians at Lowell.”
The vote blindsided the community, and a court ultimately overturned the decision, ruling in favor of a group of Lowell alumni who sued the board. The group argued that the board failed to put the vote on its agenda, violating California’s open meeting law.
Hsu and other parents formed a group called the Chinese Voter Awareness/API Task Force in December, which she calls “the Chinese arm of the recall group.” By organizing election campaigns and distributing information in San Francisco’s Chinese-language newspapers, the group has helped register more than 560 new voters.
San Francisco’s skyrocketing cost of living has driven families away for years, leaving the city with the lowest proportion of children under 18 — just 13% — of America’s 100 most populous cities, according to data from the 2020 U.S. Census. This made school board elections a low priority for most voters.
“That’s how these people got elected, because no one was paying attention,” Hsu said. “But now we pay attention to it.”
Collins faced more criticism than her two colleagues, after recall organizers unearthed tweets from 2016 in which she said Asian Americans were using ‘white supremacist’ thinking to get ahead and were racist toward black students, prompting his school board colleagues to strip Collins of his role as vice president.
Collins, who is black, apologized for the tweets, which she said were taken out of context, then sued the school district and five other board members for $87 million, claiming that they had violated his free speech rights. This suit was also discarded. Collins, who is aligned with Lopez on many issues, says the recall is part of a Republican-led effort to dismantle a progressive school board, though there is no evidence to support that claim.
Collins says she’s proud to try to bring more diversity to Lowell, who dropped her admissions test for the incoming class of Fall 2021 before the decision was overturned by the court. The number of Hispanic and Black students increased this year when the change was implemented, while the number of Asian and White students declined.
“We desegregated a school. Lowell now has the most diverse incoming class she’s ever had,” Collins said in an email. “I want to be on this side of history.”
Collins and Lopez call the recall a waste of time and money, noting that another election is only nine months away.
“People want us to say we were wrong, we regret doing what we did, we’re sorry. And that will never be something I will do,” Lopez recently said on a local podcast, Latina Latino Latinx News.
Lopez, 31, said under his leadership the board addressed long-standing issues such as the school’s renaming and the admissions process, but ‘blew up’ over racism . She called the encore an opportunity “to bring down someone who is me,” a young Latina woman.
If a majority of voters support the recall of one of the three, the mayor will appoint their replacements to serve until the November elections.
“Unfortunately, our school board’s priorities have often been seriously misplaced,” San Francisco Mayor London Breed said in his endorsement of the recall. “Our children must come first.”
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