The Battle Over San Francisco’s Schools

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S1: Over the last year, I have 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.

S2: Roll call, please.

S1: Thank you. Thank you very much, Mr. Alexander. Here. Mr. Burgess, president, this is a school board meeting from last January in San Francisco. It was held over Zoom. The president of the board kicked things off.

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S2: We want to make sure you feel welcomed and

S1: heard,

S2: especially during a time when so much pain and hurt is persisting.

S1: I want to highlight 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 shout outs among this crew, but it all takes a lot of time.

S2: The school board meetings often go for seven or eight hours well into the evening with lots of comment. Lots of craziness.

S1: Seven or eight hours?

S2: Yeah, there’s a lot of talking.

S1: Jill Tucker writes about education for the San Francisco Chronicle 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 would not know any of that. If you tuned in to the first few hours of this meeting because reopening the buildings, that was way down the board’s priority list tucked under the 11th agenda item.

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S2: And they didn’t even talk about reopening schools and the pandemic until I think it was seven hours in.

S1: By the time they did get to it, people were mad.

S3: They don’t know. But barely. All right. Well, I don’t think it’s authentic engagement to start a discussion about this seven a.m. your meeting. It’s just. It’s the office that effectively purposely discouraging families from participating in, is that appropriate for small children four, five and six year olds, the autism hearing of families because you put up barriers and understand the public comment, I’m saying, Yeah, I’m sorry, sir. Good enough to try to try to reconnect.

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S2: Yeah, we really waited this whole meeting to hear this plan to find out. We definitely are not going back to school. Cut the crap and tell us we’re not going back. And if we’re not going back as a senior, at least let me have a drive by graduation or something.

S1: Listening to hours of testimony from this day now the anger being lobbed at this board, it seems prescient.

S3: You know, the board here and the school district in general has become kind of a laughing stock. You know, if you guys don’t get your act together and address serious issues like you, your job is done. Thank you.

S1: 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 that recall put on the ballot

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S4: six months and 240000 signatures later. The petitions to recall Board of Education members Alison Collins, Gabriela Lopez and Fulgham Mulligan are certified. The special election will be held on February 15th, 2022.

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S1: Today on the show San Francisco’s twist on the school board wars, it turns out the debate over how kids learn is not just happening in swing states. A Mary Harris, you’re listening to what next? Stick around. The funny thing about this school board recall effort in San Francisco is that while it’s 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. In fact, Jill Tucker thinks the groundwork was laid a few years back when the school board weighed in on a controversial piece of art.

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S2: It goes back really to when they decided to address a controversial mural in Washington high school. On the mural is from the depression area, a WPA work considered very historic by many, many people.

S4: The murals were painted by a Russian artist in 1936, the year the school opened. The fresco is called Life of Washington as

S2: students, and the mural has some images in there, including white settlers stepping over a dead Native American and showing slaves in the fields. It’s a huge mural that that takes up the walls along the staircases. It’s not just a tiny mural, and you know, there’s been a lot over the decades, a lot of consternation about the mural about how kids would say something like, Oh, I’ll meet you by the dead Indian for lunch, you know, and and I guess

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S1: the question is like, what do you do?

S2: Because exactly it’s

S1: a work of art that is in and of itself, like a historic piece. But do you want it around kids like sort of shaping their education?

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S2: Exactly.

S1: And if you don’t, what do you do then?

S2: Exactly. I mean, removing this mural, I mean, it’s a fresco. You can’t just it’s not just hanging on a hook, right? 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? I mean, those were kind of the three options that were up for debate, which did

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S1: the school board choose?

S2: Well, they initially chose to destroy it, to paint it over, to literally cover it with white paint and destroy it. And then I think they realized that that was probably going to be a long legal battle, expensive. It would be expensive to paint over it. Frankly, it was just to go through all of the process to do that. So they then sort of 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.

S1: How did the community feel about that?

S2: I think 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 and a piece of art. And I think 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 was actually he 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 I think for a lot of people, it didn’t feel like the school board was, you know, in control of the debate.

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S1: It’s interesting because I hear that story, and I think 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.

S2: Oh, 100 percent. I mean, this board has been accused many times of being performative and paying no mind to their finances. And of course, the mural that this was happening at that time, the district was already in trouble facing, I think at the time, about a $60 million deficit. And the board just continued to ignore that, and state officials have said that. I’m not saying that, that they ignored this situation and that and focused on other issues, including the mural, which is going to cost upwards of 800000 to a million dollars, depending on which option they chose Wolf. Yeah, it was a lot of money, you know, so I think people were looking at the school board wondering, I think, you know, certainly this mural has always been controversial, and I think that, you know, it’s right for people to talk about it to to look at how to address something like this that is in a school rather than a museum. You know, and a lot of people agreed with that. I think the problem was that the school board went into it with one mind. And and wasn’t really looking at the big picture.

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S1: So what did this incident tell you about how the school board, as it has been, sees its job?

S2: I think it demonstrated that the school board was very committed to these types of decisions at the perhaps expense of other types of decisions or or the types of decisions that typically school boards would make, you know, very sort of policy top down. You know, a lot of things that they have taken up have sort of been very directed toward the superintendent and very administrative tasks, which at one point the superintendent threatened to leave and then decided to stay if they basically stepped back and followed their own policies and let him do his job. Hmm.

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S1: So they were making trouble with everyone.

S2: Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. This is a board that likes to stir the pot. Hundred percent. Yeah, and that and the mural kind of it demonstrated that. And then it just kept going.

S1: This well-intentioned focus by the school board on 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.

S2: For a while, there have been some schools that the community, the parents and the community and the teachers wanted wanted their schools renamed. And so they created this task force to come up with which schools should be renamed. And the idea was, you know, any schools associated with a person connected to slavery or oppression would be renamed. So the task force then came up, went through every school name and reportedly did their own research to determine whether or not that person had a connection to slavery or colonization or other types of things. So they went down through the list and out of about a hundred eighteen schools, they pulled forty four names.

S1: And that’s a huge percentage.

S2: It’s huge. And even school board members that supported the process were like, Oh my God. Forty four school names, including Dianne Feinstein, who’s somewhat like at least one of the board members who’d been on the board years earlier, voted to name the school, Dianne Feinstein. So, so there was a lot of controversy about some of these name changes. The research was very questionable. So there was a lot of questions about the historic accuracy of the decisions, the lack of academics and historians in going through these names.

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S1: Even the mayor London Breed came out with the 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.

S2: Yes. And 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, I think a lot of people considered it to be something akin to tone deafness in terms of what what was really mattering. And of course, you know, the other side of the debate, I think there are a lot of schools that that would be widely supported in terms of renaming. The question is, is now the appropriate time when families can’t even be really part of that process? Ultimately, that issue, I think, gave momentum to the recall effort. It was sort of the nail in the coffin, if you will, for a lot of families from interviews that I did and talking to people that it just that was it

S1: when the school board was facing pressure to reopen. Were they not seeing reopening as an equity issue?

S2: Thinking back to their public statements, I think it was hard to avoid the fact that the 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, sort of symbolically addressing the needs of different demographic groups in the district. So all of it, through all of it valid that these are groups that are historically underrepresented in high level classes or in college or these types of things disadvantaged students to put in place, Support says. Homes for these kids, when these kids were struggling mightily during the pandemic and weren’t in school, they were in online school and in some cases, not in school at all. But yes, they you know so. So I think there was a lot of folks at the time that were very concerned saying, you have to focus on now, you know what is happening now, how are we going to get these kids back in school? They’re suffering, they don’t have Wi-Fi, they et cetera, et cetera. So this really led to a lot of angst among the community that the school board was. It was that the pandemic and reopening appeared to be something of an afterthought seven hours into meetings

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S1: around the time the board was catching so much heat for renaming schools. Jill interviewed the president of the school board and she asked about equity issues and whether keeping buildings closed was disproportionately impacting 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 to saying kids were just having different learning experiences than the ones we currently measure.

S2: I think that her statements in that story definitely didn’t reflect what a lot of parents were feeling. A lot of all parents, not just those that didn’t have wifey, but it was very stressful, and the mental health of young people was really harmed for many physical issues from being isolated at home during the pandemic. So I think that that interview, whether it reflected her real thinking, was not indicative of how a lot of parents were feeling at home.

S1: We’ll be right back. Over the last year, problems for the San Francisco School Board just 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 got accused of sending anti-Asian tweets. So this recall effort, it ended up being about a stew of hot button issues.

S2: The reality was I think it caught fire because there was already so much anger brewing that the schools were not open, that it just took a couple of people to sort of say, Hey, we’re pulling papers and you know who’s with us?

S1: What are the recall effort look like? Did it look like people on street corners with clipboards or what?

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S2: Yeah, exactly. It looked like people at farmers markets, and it looked like people on literally on street corners in various parts of the city. You know, you could go to Chinatown and there’d be a table set up. You could go to the sunset, you know, near the ocean. And, you know, in areas where there’s lots of traffic by Starbucks or whatever and people would be set up. It’s a tough haul, though, to get 10 percent of registered voters to sign a petition. And in a city in

S1: San Francisco, that’s like 50000 people.

S2: Yes. And so they needed to get about 50000 valid signatures. But in order to do that, you actually have to get about 70000 to make sure you have enough to qualify. And so that’s an awful lot of signatures in a city like San Francisco to go around during a pandemic when people are not outside

S1: the people pushing the recall forward were a pair of local parents. Their efforts were pretty grassroots. They encouraged mostly small dollar donations, despite the fact that recalls are expensive and paid. Signature collectors are almost a prerequisite, and they seemed pretty giddy about their campaign. When they did an interview with the San Francisco Standard earlier this year,

S5: and you want to make it kind of fun ActionScript, which sounds like a weird thing to say for a recall effort because like a recall effort is traditionally kind of like an assassin’s job, right? Right. But that’s not us. People tell us that San Francisco politics is like and they fight in a phone booth and we hear, like, you know, the saying, bring a knife to a gunfight.

S1: We’re bringing you flowers. Exactly. 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, 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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S2: Yes, I think you know, the mayor, London breed, who is African-American. You know, she 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 you know, there was there were too many important things coming up, and she was she was behind the parents for change.

S1: How had the board’s decisions impacted the finances of the school district?

S2: You know, when people say they were, they focused on social justice through these other issues rather than reopening or the finances? I think that’s true. I think 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. But a lot of these decisions did have price tags with them. And, you know, in a district that was struggling financially and they knew they were facing years of financial shortfalls and and all of these things and 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 the plan in December, it triggers a process that could lead to state takeover.

S1: 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 if any of these members did get recalled. I wonder, as a reporter who’s watched the last few years play out in San Francisco. Whether 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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S2: Oh gosh, I don’t have any advice for them, I think. And those those members in the next coming months after they wouldn’t be appointed 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 and make cuts that are going to be incredibly difficult.

S1: It doesn’t sound like a fun job.

S2: Yeah, I don’t I. I’m not sure, you know, school board member is ever, you know, like the description never 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 now realizing that these people that are elected by often a very small percent of the voting population in San Francisco. You know, you can get elected to the school board with twenty five thousand votes, twenty two thousand votes. And that’s the same across the country, people. Just sort of they don’t they don’t really know who’s running necessarily. They don’t pay attention. They might just check, you know, yes, for the incumbent, you know, but I think people are realizing across the country that, you know, school boards have some very powerful tools to make change. You know, whether that’s banning critical race theory or banning vaccine mandates, school boards have a lot of power. And I think that that is the message that we’re seeing across the country and and playing out in San Francisco as well. People are waking up to the fact that the school board isn’t just a bunch of boring people sitting there, you know, voting yes or no on, you know, library books or whatever that they can, they can play a very powerful role in the culture wars of a community.

S1: Jill Tucker, thank you so much for joining me.

S2: My pleasure.

S1: Jill Tucker is an education writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. And that is our show. What next is produced by Carmel Delshad Alan Schwarz, Mary Wilson Davis Land and Danielle Hewitt. We are led by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. You can go find me on Twitter. I retweet stuff. Sometimes it’s funny. Sometimes it’s just weird. Anyway, I’m at Mary desk. I will catch you back in this feed tomorrow.