Incredulous parents watched last year as the seven-member board spent hours worked to rename schools and discard merit-based admissions policies at a storied high school, citing equity concerns, as classrooms sat empty of students. Then board member Alison Collins, one of the recall targets, sued the cash-strapped district for $87 million, claiming the district violated her free-speech rights when she was reprimanded for old tweets accusing Asian-Americans of “using white supremacist thinking to get ahead.” A federal judge tossed the case.
Some San Franciscans grew angry enough to launch a recall drive that gained the support of deep-pocketed allies and prominent Democratic officials, vastly outraising the school board’s defenders. Affluent technology industry players like former PayPal executive David Sacks and other wealthy donors, including charter school proponent and billionaire investor Arthur Rock, have opened their wallets to buoy the effort.
A San Francisco teachers union and labor allies backing the school board members have not kept pace, with opponents outraising them ten-to-one.
Board members abandoned their drive to strip schools, including Abraham Lincoln High School and Dianne Feinstein Elementary, of their names after the effort drew national ridicule, and a judge recently ruled the board had violated the law in rushing to end merit-based admissions for the selective Lowell High School. Proponents had argued the change would boost the school’s diversity, but it infuriated parents who said it would undercut Asian-American students who made up just over half of the student body.
None of the recall targets — Gabriela López, Faauuga Moliga or Collins — responded with comments for the story. But their supporters lambaste the recall attempt as a waste of taxpayer sources and a ploy by Mayor London Breed and wealthy allies to reshape the school board.
The local teachers union, United Educators of San Francisco, has sought to rally supporters against what the union calls an effort to privatize public schools, noting the money the recall has drawn from charter school boosters.
Public school parent Brandee Marckmann, who opposes the recall, said she believes fellow parents who support the school board’s Covid safety and renaming efforts have been drowned out by well-financed foes. Marckmann worries that allowing Breed to appoint replacement board members to serve for the rest of the year would disenfranchise voters with kids in public schools, and she fears the recall is linked to a broader right-wing push to politicize school board races.
“These are the first school board members who have really listened to our Black and indigenous families,” Marckmann said.
Powerful San Francisco Democrats including Breed and State Sen. Scott Wiener have endorsed the recall, as have several members of the board of supervisors — though board President Shamann Walton, a former school board member, has rejected the recall as a waste of taxpayer money.
“It’s not about politics or ideology. It’s about harm that’s been done to our children,” Wiener said, noting support has spanned the “progressive-versus-super-progressive divide” in city politics. “This is an emergency situation for our kids, and we need to right the ship as quickly as possible.”
The grievances fueling the recall are specific to San Francisco, but the broad parental backlash could serve as a bellwether in an election year pervaded by education politics. Disputes over school closures during the pandemic’s nadir have given way to fights over mask mandates and school curricula.
“Regardless of your party or political position, I would love to see the adults in the country come around and say: ‘We need to do something for our kids. This is urgent,’” said Siva Raj, a parent organizer along with Looijen. “I would love to see politicians start to acknowledge the damage this last couple of years has done to kids.”
San Francisco often prides itself on riding at the vanguard of national progressive politics. Its school board furor may have placed it at the forefront in another way.
“A lot of the issues you’re seeing in Virginia, in Colorado, in Nevada, around masking and returning kids to school are playing out in San Francisco,” said Jim Ross, a San Francisco-based political consultant.
Ross isn’t involved in the school board election, but he is fighting a separate recall campaign in the city: a push to oust Progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin in June. Concerns about crime have intensified and deep-pocketed donors have coalesced behind an effort to unseat the DA.
An underlying anxiety about quality of life in San Francisco links the two recall races, which have drawn support from overlapping spheres of affluent San Franciscans in tech and real estate. But the effort to oust Boudin has drawn far stronger opposition from the left than the school board race. Many progressives see a reactionary effort to claw back hard-fought criminal justice reforms, pointing out a prolific Republican donor, billionaire investor William Oberndorfhas supplied much of the funding.
But both races reflect a pervasive public restlessness. Breed has not taken a position on the Boudin recall but has intensified her rhetoric on public safety, decrying the “reign of criminals who are destroying our city” as she vowed to crack down on violent crime and open-air drug dealing.
“There are basic things people want and need when they head out their door every morning to go to school or go to work,” said Maggie Muir, a Democratic consultant who has worked for Breed and is working for a committee supporting both recalls. “They want to know that their kids are getting a good education, that they’re safe in school, that they and their family feel safe when they head out the door and they’re not going to be burglarized or their car broken into or something worse.”
Chris Ramirez contributed to this report.