SAN FRANCISCO -- Tuesday marks a new chapter in the scandal-plagued San Francisco school board's story. Voters will decide whether to recall three members of the board after a year of controversy and national attention.
The special municipal election, for many parents, is a referendum about how the city's school board handled the pandemic.
The recall effort was initiated by frustration expressed by parents, who claim that the board spent too much time on unrelated matters to the coronavirus and instead focused on reopening public school. Many residents and organizers agree that the recall effort was also driven by a general feeling of discontent in San Francisco. The pandemic, rising crime, and attacks on Asian Americans added to the perception of a city in turmoil.
"It seems that it has catalyzed an broader public awareness in San Francisco. Siva Raj, a father-of-two who launched the recall effort, said that many people see what's going on in the school board as a sign of a larger failure. "We live in one of the most wealthy cities in the world, and we don't know how to do the basics."
This special election is happening at a time when national unrest in public school education has become a rallying issue of Republicans in the 2022 midterms. Voters weighed in on the dozens of school board races that were dominated over by heated debates about race, vaccinations, and history.
The situation in San Francisco is famously liberal, but it has been less partisan. However, Republicans are still closely watching the situation. Conservative media has portrayed the race as a clash between "liberals and the far left". While distance learning is a national issue but the school board was unable to resolve self-inflicted disputes that were unique only to San Francisco.
The effort to rename 44 schools was the subject of a controversial racial reckoning that critics claimed went too far. School board members stated that they concentrated on places that honor public figures who were linked to racism, sexualism, and other injustices. Names like Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Dianne Feinstein were included on the list.
This renaming effort was criticised for historical inaccuracies, poor research and also for being timed in January 2021 when all city schools were closed and students struggled with online learning. The plan was eventually scrapped.
The city's 115 schools which provide education for 50,0000 students were shut down for more than a year from March 2020 to Aug 2021. However, nearby districts reopened schools and private schools held classes in person.
Mayor London Breed stated that "sadly our school board's priorities are often severely misplaced" in her endorsement of the recall effort. "San Francisco's public schools parents are not just venting their commonplace frustrations."
The board was faced with multiple lawsuits after the renaming disaster. One from San Francisco brought a dramatic action by suing both the school district as well as the board to force them to reopen schools more quickly.
The organizers claim they would recall seven members of the board if possible, but only three of them have been serving long enough to face a challenge: Gabriela Lopez, Board President, and Alison Collins and Faauuga Molliga, two commissioners.
Collins was criticized for making comments on Twitter that seemed to be anti-Asian. These tweets were posted before Collins was elected to office in 2016. They claimed that Asian Americans use "white supremacist thinking" to gain success and are racist towards Black students. The board rescinded Collins' title as vice president after their emergence. Collins was sorry for her tweets, and stated that they were not taken into context. Collins dismissed all calls for her resignation.
Many parents of Asian descent were angry at the board's attempts to stop merit-based admissions at Lowell High School. This school is home to a majority of Asian students.
Many Asian Americans have been encouraged to vote in their first municipal election. In mid-December, the grassroots Chinese/API Voter Outreach Task Force was formed and registered 560 new Asian American voters.
Ann Hsu, a mother to two, who founded the task force, stated that many Chinese voters saw the attempt to reform the Lowell admissions system in Lowell as an attack.
She said, "It's so blatantly discriminatory towards Asians." Lowell is seen as a pathway to success in the city's Chinese community.
Hsu stated that "it is ingrained into the culture: It doesn't make a difference if someone came from another country or if they don't speak English at all." You can make a new start here if you put in the effort and do well. Lowell is a recognition of this fact.
Breed will appoint interim replacements for any member of the board if they are recall.
Critics claim the recall effort is a waste time and money. The district has a number of problems, including a $125m budget deficit and the need for a replacement Superintendent Vincent Matthews.