After months of criticism from San Francisco politicians, parents of children in the school district, and Fox News, the San Francisco Board of Education has relented in its push to rename 44 schools for reasons of historical racism associated with their namesakes.
Board President Gabriela Lopez put out a statement on Twitter on Sunday announcing that the renaming project would be shelved until after children have returned to classrooms in San Francisco. Also, she said the board would seek more public input before moving forward.
"I'm committed to making sure every student and family at SFUSD is supported through this process," Lopez tweeted. "I also acknowledge and take responsibility for mistakes made in the building renaming process. We need to slow down and provide more opportunities for community input — that cannot happen until AFTER our schools are back in person."
I want to make sure as many people as possible can see my statement about the board’s focus on reopening our schools. pic.twitter.com/8aJvMdNNPT— Madam President, Gabriela López (@lopez4schools) February 22, 2021
In her statement, Lopez said that the renaming project began in 2018 and did not anticipate a pandemic happening as it reached a final stage. And she says that there have been many "distracting public debates" about the project that have come at a time when the district needs to be focused on reopening schools.
"We are working with educators at all levels to involve and educate our school communities about the renaming process," Lopez writes. "We are realizing, especially now, it will take time and energy to get that right."
She added that this would be the last time she would comment on the renaming project until after schools are open again, and she acknowledged that it was "easy to say the wrong thing" during a time of crisis, and that everyone needs a step back.
"I know families are hurting," she writes. "I hear it from each and every parent I’ve spoken to. We’re in negotiations to get the work on returning to in-person learning done and I’m committed to working with city partners to get vaccinations, testing and other resources we need."
The renaming committee's recommendations were made public last fall, and in late January, the school board voted 6-1 to approve all 44 renamings, saying that they expected schools to complete the process by April.
Lopez's comments come as a movement is growing to recall her and two other school board members. As KPIX reports, an online petition to recall the trio has amassed 1,200 signatures so far as frustrations grow over the delay in reopening schools.
The project drew plenty of negative response both locally and nationally, in particular because Abraham Lincoln was among the names a board committee decided needed to be stripped from a school. The reason given had to do with Lincoln's treatment of Native Americans, and one particular historic incident in which he approved the execution of three dozen Santee Sioux warriors following a violent uprising in Minnesota in 1862. Historians pushed back that this was a politically complicated moment, and that this was ignoring the fact that Lincoln — very controversially at the time — commuted the death sentences of hundreds of warriors in the same case.
The renaming committee was also called out for ignoring some ugly truths about labor leader César Chávez and his opinions of undocumented Mexican workers — whom he was known to speak of in derogatory terms. César Chávez Elementary School was not among the schools up for renaming.
Mayor London Breed said back in October that this was not a project the school board needed to be wasting energy on right now.
"Look, I believe in equity," Breed said. "It’s at the forefront of my administration and we’ve made historic investments to address the systemic racism confronting our city. But the fact that our kids aren’t in school is what’s driving inequity in our City. Not the name of a school."
Debates about the renaming of schools have been ongoing across the country for several years. Just across the Bay in the last year we saw former President Woodrow Wilson's name stripped from an elementary school that is now known as Michelle Obama School.
San Francisco is likely to lose the names of slaveowners Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and George Washington from the schools that bear their names. But there is also likely to be further debate about some of the renaming committee's other recommendations, including removing the names of Senator Dianne Feinstein, conservationist John Muir, Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere, and Lincoln from those respective schools.
Incidentally, the Sierra Club — which Muir cofounded — issued a statement last July in which it acknowledged the overt racism that Muir expressed in some of his writings prior to his arrival in California, in the years before he became a crusader for wilderness conservation.
"Though his views evolved later in his life, [Muir] made derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous peoples that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes," wrote Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune. The Club announced it was diverting $5 million "to make long-overdue investments in our staff of color and our environmental and racial justice work."