The Case for Recalling the San Francisco School Board

By Joel P. Engardio

Well-run public schools are essential for a city to function and thrive. San Francisco’s future depends on being able to retain families, but too many are moving away because of our mismanaged public schools. That’s why every resident should care about the school board.

An effort is underway to recall three school board commissioners: Alison Collins, Gabriela Lopez, and Faauuga Moliga. They were the only commissioners eligible for recall when the effort started.

Click here to visit the official school board recall website.

Reasons for recall
Commissioners Collins, Lopez, and Moliga are being recalled because they:

  • Fired top administrators not in line with the school board’s ideology, which created instability and left a vacuum of expertise that made navigating the pandemic even more difficult.
  • Refused to hire a consultant to create a plan for reopening schools.
  • Chose to rename schools with a flawed process before making any plans to reopen schools.
  • Ended merit-based admission at one of the nation’s top high schools rather than focus on reopening high schools or creating more high schools with high academic standards.
  • Allowed enrollment to decline and deficits to balloon to the point that the school district’s credit rating was downgraded by Fitch and Moody’s because of “governance” problems.
  • Ignored a growing fiscal crisis until the State Superintendent of Education was forced to intervene with budget management because San Francisco’s school district had become financially insolvent and was “no longer a going concern.”
  • Neglected to establish a legally required oversight committee for a $744 million bond passed by voters in 2016.
  • Commissioner Alison Collins wrote racist tweets about Asian Americans in 2016 that resurfaced in 2021. She then sued the school district and her fellow commissioners for $87 million after they censured her for the tweets.
San Francisco School Board 2021

Putting ideology over the needs of students
The greatest indictment against San Francisco’s school board is that it neglected its core job: Getting students safely back into classrooms to avoid the harmful learning loss and mental health stress of being isolated at home on Zoom for more than a year.

Before the pandemic, commissioners Alison Collins, Gabriela Lopez, and Faauuga Moliga fired the school district’s chief academic officer along with a number of administrators who did not fit their ideology. Superintendent Vincent Matthews relied on the expertise of the people in these positions. Losing such valued administrators undercut his ability to run the schools effectively — especially when COVID hit.

The chief academic officer that San Francisco’s school board let go for not meeting its ideological litmus test was quickly hired to lead the schools in Berkeley.

We must remember which school board commissioners voted to fire the chief academic officer for reasons that weren’t in the best interest of students:

We also cannot forget the school board’s fateful decision in June 2020 to not hire a consultant to plan for reopening schools. Superintendent Vincent Matthews begged for the hire, even telling the school board that rejecting the contract would be a “body blow.”

Reopening specialists were in short supply because every school district in the nation faced the same problem. But our school board refused to hire the consultant because they had previously done work for charter schools. Watch a compilation video of the remarks commissioners made when rejecting the consultant.

Our school board chose to put ideology over the needs of students. They promised to create a plan on their own. But the Chronicle reported all the ways they had procrastinated and flunked the task. Our school board didn’t bother to start planning to reopen schools in earnest until faced with lawsuits, recalls, and protests from frustrated and exhausted parents.

We must remember which school board commissioners voted against hiring a consultant to create a plan for reopening schools:

Academic performance dropped as students suffered from learning loss
Student proficiency in reading and math dropped on this school board’s watch, with economically disadvantaged and minority students falling behind the most. San Francisco is at the bottom five percent of all state school districts, according to the California Reading Report Card.

Yet the president of the school board, Gabriella Lopez, wouldn’t acknowledge any learning loss among students. She said students were “just having different learning experiences.”

Renaming schools took priority over reopening schools
The woes of San Francisco’s school board became national news when a profoundly flawed school renaming process was revealed. It became a source of embarrassment and mockery.

Yet our school board voted to double down on a process that relied on cursory Wikipedia searches, historical inaccuracies, and didn’t know whether Roosevelt Middle School referred to Teddy or FDR (they found reasons to remove both presidents). Only after intense public pressure did the school board announce it would “ pause” the renaming until it could reopen the schools. And only after a lawsuit and a ruling by a superior court judge did the school board move to rescind its vote to rename the schools. But the school board still refused to acknowledge the flawed renaming process, saying it was “deeply grateful for the work of the [renaming] panel.”

The school board was forced to pay all legal fees after losing the lawsuit. But commissioners refused a deal that would have substantially reduced the costs because they didn’t want to acknowledge the legitimacy of the lawsuit. The school board chose to pay more than it had to as the district faced massive deficits.

We must remember which school board commissioners voted to rename schools with a flawed process before making any plans to reopen schools:

Ending merit-based admission to a top high school in the nation was more important than reopening high schools
Lowell High School is San Francisco’s only academically merit-based high school and its student population is majority Asian. As one of the best-ranked schools in the nation, Lowell is a popular option for families who can’t afford private school. More than one-third of Lowell students belong to low-income families.

Yet our school board ended merit-based admissions at Lowell in a rushed process with little community input. The stated goal was to increase diversity of the student population and address a culture problem. A study by Families for San Francisco used school district data to show that Lowell is not the only high school with a demographic imbalance. Others are worse and Lowell falls in the middle. The same can be said for Lowell’s culture/climate scores on district-wide student surveys.

Many parents ask why not create more high schools like Lowell with high academic standards?

We must remember which school board commissioners voted against the low-income families who rely on Lowell:

Incompetent governance led to enrollment decline that compounded financial troubles
Failed school board policies led to a significant decline in enrollment, which reduced revenue, and compounded a deficit crisis. Now there is a threat of insolvency and a state takeover.

Fed up parents fled San Francisco’s public schools. New parents refused to even consider public schools, which resulted in a 10 percent drop in kindergarten enrollment. Overall, the school district lost more than 3,500 students the past two years. Fewer students means less state funding. A projected $35 million loss only exacerbates a growing deficit of more than $100 million for the next two years.

The ballooning deficits and steep decline in enrollment resulted in a downgrade in the school district’s credit rating. Fitch and Moody’s cited “governance” problems.

Meanwhile, the school district neglected to establish a legally required oversight committee for a $744 million bond passed by voters in 2016.

And now the state is warning of a takeover as the school board.

Massive deficits were ignored, forcing a potential state takeover
San Francisco’s school board has long known about its deficit crisis — currently over $100 million for each of the next two years. Yet they refused to address costs and continued to spend $60 million a year in the red.

They were willing to spend millions on renaming schools and another million to cover up a mural at George Washington High School. They also used one-time state and federal pandemic recovery funds to cover this year’s shortfall without making any cuts to balance the budget — knowing those funds wouldn’t be available to cover next year’s costs.

The State Superintendent of Public Instruction sent a letter that didn’t mince words: “The SSPI has determined that the district is no longer a going concern.”

By using an accounting term that refers to the inability to remain financially solvent, the state letter signaled a first step in a potential takeover of San Francisco’s public schools.

Recently, the school board was unable to agree on making just $5 million worth of cuts at schools where enrollment has declined. Now they’re on notice that if they can’t cut $100 million, the state will do it for them.

Anti-Asian tweets and a frivolous lawsuit by Alison Collins
Much outrage is rightfully focused on the tweets by school board commissioner Alison Collins that disparaged Asian Americans with racist remarks. They resurfaced from 2016 to cause a political earthquake in 2021. Nearly every elected official in San Francisco has called for Collins to resign and she was censored by her colleagues.

No one believed the school board could become any more dysfunctional than it already was. But Collins took the chaos into uncharted territory. She filed an $87 million lawsuit against the school district and her fellow commissioners for censoring her for the tweets.

Collins claims she was defamed and her First Amendment rights were violated. She sought $87 million in damages for herself as the school district faced a budget deficit of more than $100 million and students hadn’t been in classrooms for more than a year. A judge eventually dismissed the lawsuit, saying it had no merit.

Perspective
It’s important to remember how a majority of school board commissioners had failed parents long before the tweets by Collins were exposed:

  • Decisions and distractions that hindered the ability to safely reopen schools and caused more learning loss.
  • Poor governance that led to budget deficits, reduced revenue, budget deficits, and a downgrade in the school district’s credit rating.
  • Fiscal incompetence that led to the state saying the district is financially insolvent and is at risk of a state takeover.
  • A profoundly flawed school renaming process that took priority over getting kids back in classrooms.
  • The end of merit-based admissions to Lowell High School, which was rushed with little community input and ignored the pleas from low and middle-income families who relied on Lowell because they can’t afford the academic experience offered by private schools.

And we can’t forget that the school board didn’t commit to reopening schools or back away from the school renaming debacle until faced with lawsuits, protests, and recalls.

Alison Collins, Gabriela Lopez, and Faauuga Moliga are being recalled because they all participated in disastrous decisions for San Francisco families and our public schools.

Click here to visit the official school board recall website.

Originally published at https://engardio.com on October 5, 2021.

Forward-thinking + pragmatic Democrat, civil liberties advocate, award-winning journalist, Westside SF homeowner. My local views at www.engardio.com/issues