first published in Medium, January 31, 2022

One of the thirteen panels from the George Washington High School mural, “The Life of Washington,” painted by Victor Arnautoff in 1936.

Why I Support the San Francisco School Board Recall

by Matt Gonzalez

I support the recall of three members of the Board of Education in San Francisco in an election that is taking place on February 15, 2022. Because some liberal Democrats have attempted to criticize anyone taking this position, specifically by alleging that it’s a Republican led effort and part of a movement by conservatives to attack left-leaning school boards around the country, I want to defend my position and explain what seems to me to be fairly obvious: First, while recall efforts can be abused, like any electoral procedure, the electorate’s power to recall is rooted in longstanding progressive traditions that remain vital and which we should be proud to be able to access.

Second, there is little about this election that resembles the recalls in other parts of the country. In this instance, these school board members have failed the voters who previously elected them. The reasons to vote for the recall are quite unique to the mismanagement by these individuals and should be viewed as a specific moment in our City’s history. For that reason, I believe Democrats like former Mayor Art Agnos, who once led many progressive reforms in the California State Legislature, and former Congressman and State Senator John Burton, also a Democrat, support the recall; as does democratic San Francisco Mayor London Breed.

In my case, it all started when the school board voted to destroy historically important New Deal-era murals painted by Victor Arnautoff at George Washington High School because of objections that the murals, depicting various stages in the life of Washington, included racist and offensive scenes. One panel includes a Native American lying face down (presumably deceased) as Washington and other settlers and Founding Fathers stand upright. In another, enslaved Black Americans are seen laboring on Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation. Both are relatively small vignettes in what is a 13 panel mural that spans hundreds of feet along the walls of the school (it measures 1,600-square-feet with one panel standing over 1 ½ stories tall). Ignoring that it was quite courageous to render these now allegedly troubling scenes in 1936 when the mural was first painted, the board voted in 2019 to have the murals whitewashed because they were offensive. The school board was quite dismissive about any alternative actions that would preserve the rare frescos made by an artist who had once worked with Diego Rivera.

The school board eventually retreated from their position because of staunch opposition from the school’s alumni association, which filed a lawsuit alleging the school district had not complied with the California Environmental Quality Act (known as CEQA). The school district lost. “Political actors at every level are tempted to circumvent what they consider to be inconvenient legal requirements in order to advance parochial political agendas,” San Francisco Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo wrote in a 42 page published opinion. “The hallmark of our system is that whether it concerns the president of the United States or a local school board, the rule of law — the process — is more important than the result.” Regardless, the school board has continued to expend district resources appealing the decision.

Later, in a highly publicized name change proposal, the school board voted to change the names of forty-four schools so as to remove any names honoring white supremacy, colonization, slavery, and those who had “inhibit[ed] societal progress.” While many San Franciscan’s support such a proposal generally, the manner in which it was done has irked everyone I have spoken to. Essentially, the board haphazardly ascribed historically offensive acts to innocent persons as a reason to change the name of a particular school. For instance:

Paul Revere was criticized for participating in an attack on Native Americans; the only problem is that he didn’t. The committee apparently confused his role as an artillery commander in the Penobscot Expedition of 1779 as an effort to colonize the Penobscot people, when in fact it was an assault on a British fort in the center of a small peninsula in Massachusetts’ Penobscot Bay. Businessman James Lick’s name was deemed worthy for removal because, nearly two decades after his death, a foundation in his name funded an offending installation. The committee also determined that U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein’s name should be removed from a school because in 1984 she had directed a confederate flag, removed by a protestor from the plaza in front of City Hall, be replaced; she had in fact ordered its permanent removal when told about it (it was the Recreation & Parks Department that had the confederate flag temporarily restored). Ironically, her male predecessor, former mayor George Moscone, was allowed to keep his name on a school though he had allowed the confederate flag to be flown in Civic Center Plaza (the custom displaying eighteen flags in San Francisco’s history had been initiated in 1964).

No one would accuse me of being a political associate or supporter of Diane Feinstein. But I understand that my opposition to her political views and positions should not govern my assessment of her record for the purposes of honoring San Francisco’s first woman mayor. The school board, by casually and irresponsibly ordering the renaming of schools with little apparent concern for basic accuracy, trivializes and undermines serious efforts to revisit our history.

In at least one renaming matter, the issue wasn’t historical accuracy but rather the balancing that is necessary as we evaluate complex lives and historical circumstances. Abraham Lincoln’s name was deemed worthy of removal because his administration continued to implement discriminatory 19th century policies against Native Americans. He is also implicated in failing to intervene in the death sentences imposed by the U.S. Army against many Native Americans for hostilities against white settlers during the Dakota War in Minnesota in 1862. Lincoln did assert his power to commute the sentences of 264 individuals, and one of the condemned captives was granted a full reprieve. However, thirty-eight captured Native warriors were executed after Lincoln chose not to intervene. While the criticism against Lincoln is grounded in fact, we should hesitate to require purity among anyone that might be honored with public recognition, otherwise we might be left without anyone who would qualify. In Lincoln’s case his Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves and his role in preserving the Union is what we honor when we name a school after him. I question whether this school board can fairly consider historical facts when making such decisions.

Whether you agree names should be changed or not (I believe many should), we ought to be able to agree that historically offensive acts should not be ascribed to innocent persons. This happened repeatedly in the process created and supervised by the school board. When confronted in an interview with The New Yorker (published 2/6/21) board president Lopez, in effect, argued that historical accuracy didn’t matter as long as the concerns of the renaming committee were satisfied.

But it actually gets worse. San Francisco public schools are currently ranked in the bottom five percent for academic performance in the State of California, according to the California Reading Report Card. Facing a budget deficit of over $125 million, which is expected to grow significantly, one of the commissioners of the school board, Alison Collins, filed a $87 million lawsuit against the district she was elected to serve, alleging she had been slandered. The frivolous lawsuit, summarily thrown out of court, was rooted in her upset over being removed from her post as vice president of the body for once sending what many consider to be racist tweets. Those messages, wherein she accused Asian Americans of using “white supremacist thinking to assimilate and ‘get ahead,’” and equated them with a “house n****r”, were not sensitive to, nor conducive to, positive public discourse.

School board president Gabriela Lopez, a staunch supporter of Collins, has presided over all of the school district’s mismanagement and struggled to explain why the board prioritized school renaming in the middle of the pandemic, at a time parents were eager to see remote learning improved and the school district prepare plans to reopen schools. State education officials have intervened to monitor San Francisco’s efforts to restore fiscal stability to the school district, and have demanded a fiscal stabilization plan, something typically reserved for troubled districts, but the school board has failed to meet necessary fiscal cuts to meet state targets.

School board member, and former vice president, Faauuga Moliga has feigned innocence as he defends his tenure. But inactivity is not a reason to keep someone in office. He was the school board member tasked with overseeing the district’s bond implementation (Bond A, 2016), as part of the Building and Grounds Subcommittee, but took no action to see a Citizen Bond Oversight Committee (CBOC) seated. As a result, a number of irregularities have arisen. When public pressure mounted and the committee was finally selected and empowered 2 ½ years later they discovered that some bond monies had already been spent irresponsibly. Specifically, resources earmarked for a school, in the predominantly black Bay View neighborhood, were redirected elsewhere and monies to repair Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 Community School were not spent for five years. All three commissioners facing recall have taken the wrong position on critical issues facing the school district.

The board has also invited further legal battles incurring legal expenses fighting claims they violated California’s “sunshine” law, the Brown Act first passed in 1953, which applies to all local city and county boards. San Francisco Superior Court Judge Ethan Schulman ruled against the school district, yet again. The decision to commit greater financial resources to these various lawsuits should be contextualized: the School Board had received a letter dated September 15, 2021 from the California Department of Education directing it to “not incur any discretionary expenditures unless operationally necessary.” Failing to heed this cautionary plea, it is estimated that the School Board has thus far spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

Voters should be alarmed that these school board members are making other decisions that require maturity and due consideration, qualities these members have shown they lack. The move to revoke merit-based admissions policies at Lowell High School, and other decisions that change our city in ways that we need to reflect on, should be handled carefully. Rather than eliminate San Francisco’s sole academic merit-based admissions high school because it is admitting too many Asians, shouldn’t the school district be tackling the question of what they need to do to improve middle schools that don’t traditionally send students to Lowell?

Opponents of the recall are attempting to label all recalls as Republican-inspired. This may be a good tactical election ploy, but it isn’t anywhere near the truth. Recalling elected officials in California first arose as a populist effort, in the era of progressive Governor Hiram Johnson, as a tool seeking to curb the power and influence of railroads and corporate interests who dominated California politics so as to maintain their railroad and shipping monopolies. Progressives won battles ensconcing the initiative, referendum, and recall in California’s Constitution. In the recall’s over 100 year tenure, Republican and Democratic legislators have both suffered early defeats as a result.

In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed, a Democrat, will name the successor to any of the board members removed during the recall. No one has claimed these three Democratic school board members will be replaced by members of a different political party. This is why this recall does not resemble efforts in other parts of the country, where removed school board members fighting over curriculums and the content of textbooks, will likely face replacement by conservative appointees. Critical Race Theory and curriculum battles is not what this current election is about; rather, it is about fundamental competence and decency in how a public body engages the communities it serves.

It is true that some Republicans have helped fund the recall. But this doesn’t detract from the fact that a record 80,000 San Franciscans signed recall petitions, the majority Democrats. It is not reasonable to dismiss these San Franciscans as all Republicans or conservatives — or to use the spectre of the GOP to detract from the issue here — the dissatisfaction of residents of diverse backgrounds and views with the performance and decision making of these officials.

School district parent Siva Raj and his partner Autumn Looijen, both Democrat-leaning Independents, launched the grassroots campaign hoping to motivate the school board to regain its focus. Importantly, and perhaps the larger political lesson is that sometimes disparate political actors agree on an issue. It is naive to think political alignment must always be in concert with a host of unrelated issues. Yes, I will concede that learning that some big donors to the recall have previously contributed to conservative Republicans is a reason to pause. But it turns out they have also donated money to many Democrats (including Gavin Newsom and Hilary Clinton). At the end of the day all it demonstrates in this case is that the effort has support among a wide array of people, including conservatives. It manifests a single point of unity. Moreover, it’s worth noting that recent data shows that over 80% of the individuals contributing to the recall are San Franciscan residents, while opponents of the recall are getting over half of their contributions from outside the city.

I believe it is an open question under what circumstances a recall should be allowed to proceed to the ballot and any reforms necessary should be explored, particularly campaign finance limits. But to suggest recalls per se are all illegitimate misses the mark. Recalls should be evaluated on their merits, not sideshows and false claims.

Facts matter, and the facts here compel voters to take action. While reasonable minds can differ, the will of the voters will decide this issue February 15.

Matt Gonzalez is a former president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He currently serves as Chief Attorney in the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.

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