Amid calls on social media for all of them to be recalled, San Francisco's embattled Board of Education is saying that it will reverse its decision on renaming 44 schools in the district in favor of a different, "more deliberative" process at a later date. Also, they've convinced SFUSD Superintendent Dr. Vincent Matthews to delay his retirement for a year, in order to ensure stability in the coming months.
Never in SFist's almost two-decade history have we written so much about the city's school board as we have in the last six months — it's just not usually highly rated among compelling news beats. But during a pandemic, all that changed, and the SF Board of Ed has been front-and-center in the news for more reasons than just the fact that schools need to reopen for in-person classes and that still hasn't happened yet.
Most recently there's been the drama surrounding board member Alison Collins and her 2016 tweets about Asian Americans students and parents in the district. Collins, who is Black, was arguing on the public platform, in the emotionally heated weeks after the election of Donald Trump, that in order to combat Asian-on-Black racism and bullying at Lowell High School and elsewhere, she needed to find more stories about Asians being bullied — presumably by white people. And she made a number of broad generalizations that fellow board members and local politicians have characterized as anti-Asian and racist. Collins later issued what some of her board peers considered a non-apology apology, and they subsequently took a vote of no confidence that stripped Collins of her committee positions and her title as vice president of the board.
Then, last week, Collins sued her fellow board members and the school district for tens of millions of dollars, claiming infringement of her First Amendment rights and seeking punitive damages. A number of legal experts have weighed in, with one telling Mission Local "It’s more of an op-ed pretending to be a lawsuit," and another telling the Chronicle it's more "publicity stunt" than lawsuit.
Before that kerfuffle, there was the story about the board deciding to rename 44 schools in the district based on what it said was the racist or otherwise oppressive legacies of their namesakes. That story received national attention, on Fox News and elsewhere, mostly because the scope of the renaming project extended to names like Abraham Lincoln and Dianne Feinstein — and it was unique in uniting both liberals and conservatives, with the former arguing that yes, some legacies should be revisited, but that the renaming committee had done shoddy research in deciding what names needed to be on the list. History, it turns out, is a matter best not culled entirely from Wikipedia.
As pundits and scholars have pointed out in the months since the renaming list became public, President Lincoln's decision to execute a group of Native American warriors who had killed white settlers in Minnesota needs to be seen in the context of the time, and with the added detail about the hundreds he pardoned in a compromise. Also, the board committee mistakenly assumed that Alamo Elementary School was named for the Texas battle and not for the Spanish word for "poplar tree"; and they cited incorrect history about Revolutionary War figure Paul Revere trying to steal land from the Penobscot people of Maine — the 1779 Penobscot Expedition he took part in was actually an unsuccessful battle with the British who had landed in Penobscot territory and "captured" it a month earlier.
Others have pointed out that Cesar Chavez, the Latino labor hero whose name was not on the list to be axed, was himself openly discriminatory toward undocumented migrants coming across the southern border.
The outcry over the renaming decision was widespread, and it included a press conference (pictured above) held in February outside Lincoln High by Republican gubernatorial hopeful Kevin Faulconer — the former San Diego mayor who's expected to be on the ballot if and when Gavin Newsom gets a recall election.
Back in February, the SF Board of Ed backtracked and said they would delay the school renaming process to seek more public input. This week, as KPIX and others are reporting, the board is meeting to reverse their earlier vote — though the vote still needs to be taken. SF Board of Education President Gabriela López said in a statement that mistakes were made, and the board would seek a "more deliberative process" at a later date for discussing future renamings.
"Right now, it’s time for the San Francisco school board to focus," Lopez said in the release. "It’s still our goal to get all of our students back to in-person learning, and stabilize our budget as soon as possible. Far from shying away from this challenge, we are ready to do this."
The timing of the decision to undertake the renaming project made the board look entirely out of touch with reality, as SF families continued to struggle with the burdens of distance learning and students continued to fall behind. Mayor London Breed blasted the board's January vote on renaming, calling it "offensive and completely unacceptable" while students remained out of the classroom.
The city has since filed a lawsuit against its own school district claiming that sufficient planning for in-person learning still had not been done.
As announced in early March, SF's youngest students are heading back to the classroom in a phased reopening that begins next week, on April 12. But middle and high school students still have no timeline for returning to the classroom — and the board has on its Tuesday agenda a public comment period to hear from those students.
Meanwhile, Dr. Matthews had announced he was moving forward with his scheduled retirement this June, but Lopez reportedly convinced him to stay on another year.
"SFUSD needs stability at this time," Lopez said. "We agreed that an inclusive community process for selecting the next superintendent could take up to a year. With that in mind, I asked the superintendent to delay his retirement by another year. His commitment to the wellbeing of our young people has shone through."
Matthews also issued a statement saying, "I strive to maintain the humility and wisdom to change direction with new information and have agreed to remain with SFUSD for another year. I am dedicated to supporting all of our SFUSD staff as we navigate the many challenges and opportunities that lay ahead in the coming year. I have the highest regard for the team assembled at SFUSD and am honored to continue to work together."
Matthews will now step down from his role in June 2022, at which point maybe SF's public schools will all be back open?
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images