Politics

A New Twist on the School Board Wars

A Black man in a facemask puts a piece of paper on a desk in a classroom.
A Bryant Elementary School kindergarten sets up his classroom on April 9 in San Francisco. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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Over the past year, I’ve seen so many school board meetings. Angry meetings. Meetings where parents were dragged out the door. Meetings where whole contingents of observers jeered and then sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But I’ve never seen a school board meeting quite like this. At a San Francisco school board meeting in January, held over Zoom, the president of the board kicked things off by saying, “We want to make sure you feel welcomed and heard, especially during a time when so much pain and hurt is persisting.”

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The way she speaks here—with a lot of talk of “holding space” and “lifting people up”—that is the vibe the board is cultivating. There are a lot of good-natured shoutouts among this crew. But it all takes a lot of time. “The school board meetings often go for seven or eight hours, well into the evening,” says Jill Tucker, who writes about education for the San Francisco Chronicle. She says the problem with all this talking is that it was happening as a lot of San Francisco parents were struggling. At this point in the pandemic: Kids had been out of school buildings for almost a year. San Francisco still didn’t have a firm reopening date on the schedule. But you wouldn’t know any of that if you tuned in to the first few hours of this meeting, because reopening the buildings was way down the board’s priority list, tucked under the 11th agenda item. They didn’t even get to it until seven hours into the meeting.

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By the time they did get to it, people were mad. Listening to hours of testimony from this day, now—the anger being lobbed at this board, it seems prescient. A few weeks after this meeting was livestreamed, a couple of parents hatched a plan to recall as many school board members as they could. Last month, they succeeded in getting this recall put on the ballot.

On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Jill Tucker about San Francisco’s twist on the school board wars. It turns out the debate over how kids learn isn’t just happening in swing states. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: The funny thing about this school board recall effort in San Francisco is that while it certainly heated up around the pandemic, that’s not the whole story. This fight has been animated by some of the same cultural issues around race that have set off school board battles everywhere else. The groundwork was laid a few years back, when the school board weighed in on a controversial piece of art.

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Jill Tucker: It goes back to when they decided to address a controversial mural in Washington High School. It’s this huge mural from the depression area, a WPA work considered very historic by many, many people. And the mural has some images in there, including white settlers stepping over a dead Native American and slaves in the fields. There’s been a lot of consternation over the decades about the mural, about how kids would say something like, “Oh, I’ll meet you by the dead Indian for lunch.”

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And I guess the question is: What do you do? Because it’s a work of art that is, in and of itself, a historic piece. But do you want it around kids, shaping their education? 

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Exactly. Removing this mural—it’s a fresco. It’s not just hanging on a hook. It’s painted into the wall. The issue became: Do you destroy it? Do you cover it up? Or, do you educate the kids about it?

Which did the school board choose?

Well, they initially chose to destroy it, to paint it over, to literally cover it with white paint. And then they realized that that was probably going to be a long legal battle, and expensive. So they then reversed that at another meeting and decided to cover it up with panels or curtains or something that would semi-permanently obscure it, so that the kids didn’t have to look at it.

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How did the community feel about that?

A lot of people felt at the time that the school board was not doing its due diligence in terms of understanding the process of how you would need to make a decision like this about something historic. People were also frustrated by the fact that first they voted to destroy it and then they reversed that and voted to cover it up. And the artist actually painted those images in the mural to illustrate that Washington was not a saint, that he was part of slavery, that he was part of the destruction of Native American populations and culture. But that was not part of the school board’s conversation. So, for a lot of people, it didn’t feel like the school board was in control of the debate.

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The response from the school board sounds a little herky-jerky. They’re very into social justice, but a lot of the things they’re talking about maybe come off as performative and also expensive. And so it’s just touching a lot of hot buttons.

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Oh, 100 percent. This board has been accused many times of being performative and paying no mind to their finances. And of course, this was happening as the district was already facing about a $60 million deficit. And the board just continued to ignore that and focused on other issues, including the mural, which was going to cost upwards of $800,000 to $1 million, depending on which option they chose.

What did that incident tell you about how the school board sees its job?

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It demonstrated that the school board was very committed to these types of decisions at the expense of other types of decisions that typically school boards would make. A lot of things that they have taken up have been very directed toward the superintendent and very administrative tasks. At one point, the superintendent threatened to leave and then decided to stay if they stepped back and let him do his job.

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So they were making trouble for everyone.

This is a board that likes to stir the pot.

This well-intentioned focus by the school board on more symbolic issues continued through the pandemic. In January, as more kids around the country began returning to classrooms, the San Francisco school board made headlines again—this time for an expensive push to rename schools within the district, all while parents waited impatiently for guidance on reopening.

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For a while there have been some schools that the parents and the community and the teachers wanted renamed. And so they created this task force to come up with which schools should be renamed. The idea was any schools associated with a person connected to slavery or oppression would be renamed. The task force then went through every school name and reportedly did their own research to determine whether that person had a connection to slavery or colonization or other types of things. They went down through the list, and out of about 118 schools, they pulled 44 names.

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That’s a huge percentage.

And even school board members that supported the process were like, “Oh my gosh, 44 school names!,” including Dianne Feinstein. At least one of the board members who’d been on the board years earlier had voted to name the school after Dianne Feinstein. So there was a lot of controversy about some of these name changes. The research was very questionable.

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Even the mayor, London Breed, came out with a statement saying, “I can’t understand why the school board is advancing a plan to rename all these schools when there isn’t a plan to have kids back in those physical schools.”

So not only was the process of renaming the schools questioned, but it was happening during the pandemic, when kids weren’t in school, when they were suffering, when there was a lot of issues that the district and the schools and the teachers and the families were facing. And the idea that the school board was raising this issue of renaming 44 schools, a lot of people considered it to be something akin to tone-deafness in terms of what was really mattering.

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Of course, there are a lot of schools that would be widely supported in terms of renaming. But the question is: Is now the appropriate time? Ultimately, that issue gave momentum to the recall effort.

When the school board was facing pressure to reopen, were they not seeing reopening as an equity issue?

Thinking back to their public statements, it was hard to avoid the fact that the closure of schools was disproportionately affecting students of color, low-income students, those that didn’t have the resources at home to be able to study or have parent support. But as the pandemic wore on, they were passing these resolutions symbolically addressing the needs of different demographic groups in the district, when these kids were struggling mightily during the pandemic

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And weren’t in school.

They were in online school and in some cases, not in school at all. There was a lot of folks at the time that were very concerned, saying, “How are we going to get these kids back in school? They’re suffering, they don’t have Wi-Fi, etc.” This led to a lot of angst among the community that the pandemic and reopening appeared to be something of an afterthought seven hours into meetings

Around the time the board was catching so much heat for renaming schools, Tucker interviewed the president of the school board. She asked about equity issues, and whether keeping buildings closed was disproportionately affecting those on the margins. But the president seemed unmoved, insisting that children were “learning more about their families and their cultures” by staying home. She dismissed the idea of learning loss too, saying kids were “just having different learning experiences than the ones we currently measure.”

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Her statements in that story definitely didn’t reflect what a lot of parents were feeling. It was very stressful and the mental health of young people was really harmed for many.

Over the past year, problems for the San Francisco school board began to pile up. Parents were caught off guard when the board suddenly changed admissions criteria at a selective high school, opening it up to a lottery in the interest of equity. One board member was accused of sending anti-Asian tweets. So this recall effort, it ended up being about a stew of hot-button issues.

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It caught fire because there was already so much anger brewing.

What did the recall effort look like? Did it look like people on street corners with clipboards or what?

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Yeah, exactly. It looked like people at farmers markets, and it looked like people literally on street corners in various parts of the city. It’s a tough haul, though, to get 10 percent of registered voters to sign a petition in a city.

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In San Francisco, that’s like 50,000 people.

That’s an awful lot of signatures, during a pandemic, when people are not outside.

One thing that surprised me about this school board battle is when I saw the mayor of San Francisco say that she was supporting the recall of three school board members. Even though she’s a Democrat, and they’re all Democrats. One of these people, she appointed it. It made me wonder a little bit if the school board had burned bridges with their mayor.

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The mayor, London Breed, who is African American, expressed concern about the financial stability of the district, about the priorities that the school board had during the pandemic and that this was a grassroots parent-led recall. And she was behind the parents for change.

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How had the board’s decisions affected the finances of the school district?

When people say they focused on social justice or these other issues rather than reopening or the finances, I think that’s true. The question is: Could they have done all of that at the same time? I certainly think that that was possible. They just chose not to. A lot of these decisions did have price tags with them. And in a district that was struggling financially, they basically just chose not to deal with it. Instead, they passed resolutions that continued to cost money or add money to the budget expenditures. Recently, the state had to appoint a fiscal expert to come in to the district because they are facing such a massive shortfall—$125 million next year—and if they don’t come up with a plan in December, it triggers a process that could lead to a state takeover.

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So the recall election is coming up in a couple of months. It seems somewhat likely that you might have a slew of new school board members coming in. Mayor London Breed would appoint them if any of these members did get recalled. Do you have advice for anyone who might be coming to a school board like San Francisco’s fresh, after all of this?

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Oh, gosh, I don’t have any advice for them, and those members would have to choose a new superintendent because the current one is retiring, and they would have to somehow figure out how to balance the budget and make cuts that are going to be incredibly difficult.

It doesn’t sound like a fun job.

I’m not sure the school board member job description ever includes fun. That’s always been the question of school boards across the country: Who wants to be on the school board? Who ends up being on the school board because of the type of job that it is? I do think across the country right now and in San Francisco, people are realizing the power of these people that are elected by often a very small percent of the voting population. People don’t really know who’s running necessarily. They don’t pay attention. They might just check yes for the incumbent. But people are realizing that school boards have some very powerful tools to make change, whether that’s banning critical race theory or banning vaccine mandates. People are waking up to the fact that the school board isn’t just a bunch of boring people sitting there voting yes or no on library books or whatever, that they can play a very powerful role in the culture wars of a community.

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