A San Francisco Superior Court judge ruled against the San Francisco Board of Education Thursday, dealing another blow to the embattled school board that can hardly afford the attorneys fees it's incurred.
On Thursday, as the Chronicle reports, Superior Court Judge Ethan Schulman ruled that the school board had violated the state's Brown Act when it took a vote in February to permanently change the admissions process at Lowell High School from a merit-based system to a lottery, which is used by most other schools in the district. The Brown Act stipulates that public officials must provide thorough and comprehensive information about agenda items for public meetings before those meetings take place, and Judge Schulman wrote that the SF school board had "plainly failed" when it came to the Lowell agenda item.
Controversy over the change in admissions policy at Lowell has been one of the driving factors behind a campaign to recall three out of seven of the members of the school board — and that recall election was recently certified, and will now be held on February 15, 2022. The switch to a lottery system had at first been billed as a temporary one, caused by the pandemic and the lack of grades from middle-school applicants from the interrupted spring 2020 semester. The board, and some students and parents in the district, have contended that a change needed to occur to insure equity and diversity, with Lowell being the most prestigious high school in the city — and with a student body that was increasingly not reflective of the diversity of the city, with particularly few Black and Latinx students. And in February, the board voted 5-2 in favor of ending merit-based admissions.
Judge Schulman said in his ruling that the board's agenda listing ahead of the meeting in question gave "entirely inadequate notice to parents and others that the board was considering eliminating Lowell’s merit-based admissions policy." And, the judge said, the board had received multiple letters from parents warning them that they were in violation of the Brown Act, but the board still failed to correct the situation.
This same judge, in September, ruled that the board had violated the Brown Act on another occasion, when it took the controversial vote to rename 44 schools in the district on the grounds of the perceived historical racism of those schools' namesakes — however critics have since said the board's justifications for some of the renamings were poorly researched. In that case, the board was then on the hook for $60,000 in plaintiffs' attorney fees, an expense that the district can not afford as it is in a major budget crisis.
In addition to a lawsuit brought by one of its own members, Allison Collins, the school board has been hemorrhaging money in legal fees over the last year, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
While Judge Schulman largely left it up to the school board how it would handle admissions at Lowell going forward, he left open the possibility that it could simply switch back to being merit-based immediately, if only temporarily until the board takes future action that's in compliance with the Brown Act.
The school board issued a statement, per the Chronicle, saying it would take 30 days to review the ruling and decide on future action. If the board waits a couple of months to take another vote, there could also be three new sitting school board members appointed by Mayor London Breed, should the three facing a recall — Alison Collins, board President Gabriela López, and Vice President Faauuga Moliga — actually be recalled.
The plaintiffs in the case, Lowell Alumni Association, Friends of Lowell Foundation and the Asian American Legal Foundation, are pushing to immediately reinstate merit-based admissions, which is why they brought this suit in April.
Applications for the 2022-2023 school year at Lowell, under the lottery admissions system, began coming in on October 25. Attorneys for the board argued with the judge that if a switch back were to happen immediately, it would be at great financial expense and would be of great disappointment and frustrations to students who are applying. Judge Schulman replied that the board and the district "only have themselves to blame."
Arguments about merit-based admissions in public schools extend well beyond San Francisco, and the New York City school system has been facing its own controversies. Still, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio stopped short of ending merit-based admissions at the city's two most prestigious high schools when he made some sweeping changes the admissions systems in the city's districts this year to address segregation. Only New York's middle schools are now broadly going to select students by lottery.