Tuesday's municipal election in San Francisco had eyes on it across the country, despite it being a seemingly small-potatoes race focused on the local Board of Ed. And it proved to be a clear referendum on the school board, despite relatively low voter turnout — and perhaps a harbinger of of doom for DA Chesa Boudin, who is up for a recall in June.
It was the city's first recall election in four decades, and all three school board members up for being recalled — Gabriela López, Alison Collins, and Faauuga Moliga — were decisively voted out. Collins, who made the most news last year due to some ill-advised and racist tweets from 2016 and a subsequent, ill-advised lawsuit against her colleagues, was ousted with 78.5 percent of the votes counted so far. Lopez was voted out with 75% of votes, and Moliga was voted out with 72% of votes. In total, around 127,000 votes were cast for the latter two, with slightly more cast in the case of Collins.
"The voters of this city have delivered a clear message that the school board must focus on the essentials of delivering a well-run school system above all else,” said Mayor London Breed in a statement. "There are many critical decisions in the coming months — addressing a significant budget deficit, hiring a new Superintendent, and navigating our emergence from this pandemic... The school district has a lot of work to do."
All three school board members — and it's likely all seven would have been put up for the recall if they could have been, but only these three were eligible due to their tenure on the board — will now be replaced by mayoral appointees next month. Per city rules, they will serve until ten days have passed since the official certification of the election results.
It's been noted here on SFist and elsewhere that Breed threw her endorsement in favor of recalling all three school board members, despite Moliga being her own appointee. And the political expediency of this election is evident in quotes given to the media by such divergent politicians as Supervisor Hillary Ronen and state Senator Scott Wiener.
Ronen tells the Chronicle she is not surprised by the results, adding, "We faced the hardest time of our entire lives as parents and as students in public schools and this Board of Education focused on issues that weren’t about dealing with the immediate crisis of the day, and they didn’t show the leadership that that was necessary and that parents needed to hear, and that kids needed to hear."
And Wiener said in a statement, "We need the Board of Education focused like a laser on stabilizing our schools, keeping them open, and supporting students and families in the most effective way possible. With the recall now behind us, I look forward to the mayor making three strong appointments to the Board of Education."
San Francisco parent Siva Raj, who helped lead the signature drive to put the recall on the ballot, said at an election night event at Manny's that this election is an example of "the people rising up in revolt in San Francisco and saying it’s unacceptable to abandon your responsibility to educate our children." Per the Chronicle, Raj also said, "Thank you, and thank you San Francisco for making this happen. For fighting for our children."
The New York Times notes that this election was particularly important to Asian American voters, and particularly Chinese Americans in the city, who were galvanized by the battle over merit-based admissions at Lowell High School — and later incensed by the racist tweets that surfaced from Collins. (In the wake of Donald Trump's election in 2016, Collins tweeted some statements about "anti-Black racism" in the Asian American community, "Tiger Moms" at Lowell High School, and comparing Asian Americans to house slaves who benefit from working close to their masters.)
Asian students have historically made up an outsized percentage of the student body at Lowell, considered the city's best high school, which until 2020 had used a merit-based process for admissions. The school board voted last year to make admissions lottery-based, in the interest of equity and greater diversity.
"It’s been an opportunity for the Chinese community to flex its muscles," says David Lee, a political science lecturer at San Francisco State University, speaking to the Times. "The community is reasserting itself."
It's not clear what the turnout was in this election among Asian voters, but it appears likely to have been higher than usual. The Times notes that Asian voters tend to turn out as around 18 percent of the vote in most elections in SF, despite making up 34 percent of the city's population.
Many eyes were on this election around the country, given widespread rage against school boards and school districts coming out of the pandemic. In San Francisco, while there was significant tension over delays in reopening schools last year, issues about pandemic closures and public health mandates were not front and center in this recall. Distrust of and unhappiness with this school board had more to do with the Lowell fight, and the board's controversial decision to rename some 40 schools in the district — a project it continued to focus on when reopenings should have been the focus — a decision it later reversed after pressure from the mayor. The schools up for new names included ones named for Abraham Lincoln, Paul Revere, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Dianne Feinstein.
The Chronicle spoke to one parent who dressed in "Gaybraham Lincoln" drag to celebrate election night on Tuesday.
"This is what happens when you try to rename the schools in the middle of a pandemic!" said Gaybraham, a.k.a. SFUSD parent David Thompson.
Explaining his rainbow look and platform shoes, Thompson said, "We wanted to show the diversity of the community behind this recall. I knew they were going to say, 'Oh isn’t it just a bunch of Republicans?’ and I’m like, do I look like a Republican?"