What Pundits Don’t Understand About the San Francisco Recall

It was about incompetence.

From left: Alison Collins, Gabriela López, and Faauuga Moliga were removed from the San Francisco school board in a recall election on February 15, 2022.Mother Jones illustration; AP; Getty

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All politics is local. And that’s especially true of the San Francisco school board recall. Last night, SF residents overwhelmingly voted to oust the only three board members eligible for recall, including the particularly divisive Alison Collins (79 percent voted for removal), board President Gabriela López (75 percent), and even Vice President Faauuga Moliga (72 percent), the first Pacific Islander elected to citywide office, who tried belatedly to distance himself from the others. Within minutes of the results being announced, national news outlets and pundits of all stripes began breathlessly trumpeting this as a blow against excessive wokeness, a vote to “return to normal,” a “three-alarm warning for Democrats,” a “parental backlash for pursuing the renaming of schools and other progressive policy changes.”

Kinda/not really. If I had to boil it down, it was a for vote to put performance over performativeness.

But let’s review the array of irritants.

Remote learning: Against every other issue I’m about to name, some of which were on a slow boil before the pandemic, you need to understand that most SF schools stayed closed until the fall of 2021, longer than most districts in America. Now: SF takes the pandemic damn seriously. Because of the AIDS crisis, because we have a truly multiracial city, because we have a lot of Asian American residents who mask up even in non-pandemic times (thanks to SARS, etc.), we took collective measures early and often to safeguard each other. And we did so across racial and class lines. So, it’s not just that the “schools were closed.” It’s that the board and the district didn’t do much planning back in the summer of 2020 to reopen them or distribute laptops or make substantive contingency plans, and they didn’t make much progress even a year into the pandemic. Parents started freaking out because there was seemingly little effort to even talk about scenario planning. Instead, in interminable Zoom meetings, the board focused on…

School names: The board pushed a risible process to rename 44 schools. Should some schools be renamed to strip enslavers and other terrible people from the walls where our kids are taught? Sure, most San Francisco voters are cool with that, and many are eager for that. But the process was a crowd-sourced embarrassment that placed Dianne Feinstein, Abraham Lincoln, and Paul Revere among the names to be stricken and got many basic facts and even full identities wrong. Nevertheless, the board stood defiant in its defense of this shambolic process, which basically made a mockery out of scholarship. Along the way, it also violated the open meetings law (this will become a theme), triggering a potential lawsuit (ditto).

The murals: For years, there’s been debate about murals in George Washington High School, some of which show Washington standing over Black and Native peoples who are being subjugated. Students protested that the murals were racist. At least at the onset of this debate, most students were probably unaware that the heretofore obscure WPA-era painter Victor Arnautoff, who depicted Washington overseeing these horrors, did so as a way to critique racism and colonialism—a very progressive take for the 1930s. Again, rather than use this as a teaching opportunity, maybe even something to build a curriculum around, the board voted to paint over the murals, then backtracked, then decided maybe they should be covered—at a cost of $815,000. This alienated art historians, the local NAACP, actor Danny Glover, and even Matt Gonzalez, the uber-progressive who ran against Gavin Newsom for mayor in 2003. “Don’t whitewash history,” he warned in an op-ed.

Lowell admissions: Lowell is one of the highest-rated public high schools in the country. Admission was determined by “merit,” i.e., GPA. (For most students.) Lowell was also overwhelmingly Asian American (the biggest group) and white. Many people inside and outside the Lowell community had for decades been advocating various ways to make the school more representative of Black and Brown students. This was always going to be a touchy subject because there’s a proud alumni base, and because some kids—particularly Asian American and/or immigrant kids—had been working their asses off for their whole lives to get in, and all that work was for naught when the board decided to assign spots by lottery. More broadly: Is SF school inequity best solved by rearranging one high school? Or would resources and time be better spent on intervention in elementary and middle schools? And does getting rid of “academic merit” admissions for Lowell mean that we should also get rid of audition-based admissions for the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts (a.k.a. SF’s “Fame” school), where Collins’ kids attend? Tl;dr: Reform was always going to be contentious and messy but needed to be public and transparent. Instead the board rammed through a change without allowing for public input, apparently violating state sunshine provisions and triggering more lawsuits.

The budget: For a whole bunch of reasons, including a (very recently overhauled) lottery system that tried to be progressive but essentially made school segregation worse (such unintended consequences are a theme in SF politics), we have low, and declining, public school participation. That, and poor management, has led to a $125 million shortfall, one that got worse because pandemic school closures cut the district off from federal funds. You’d think that getting the budget into line would be the top priority for the board. You would be wrong. They continually kicked that can down the road, and only under threat of state takeover did they grudgingly pass a budget. And—of note re: “Why recall them now when there’s an election in a few months?”—the details of the budget, including staffing cuts, need to be hammered out by June. Which brings me to…

The consultant: In June 2020, Vincent Matthews, the superintendent of the district, asked—honestly, begged—the board to sign off on a consultant to help advise on how to safely reopen schools. (Matthews himself had to be begged to come back after board dysfunction had driven him out, and would only agree to do so after extracting a promise that the board would act professionally.) Finally, parents hoped, somebody would be spearheading this process. But the board decided that, because the consultant had once worked at a charter school, they wouldn’t allow it—even though Matthews warned there was no time to find a replacement. And so schools didn’t reopen until fall 2021.

LGBTQ representation: The school board (which, it should be noted, is essentially paid only an honorarium for its work—let’s change that) has a parental advisory board (PAB) of volunteers. In February 2021, amid all these other controversies, the school board had to sign off on a few possible candidates for the PAB, which was at the time majority-BIPOC, all female, and had no LGBTQ members. A gay teacher—who was also the dad of biracial kids—was a nominee, but Collins and others felt that because he would temporarily tip the composition of the board to majority white—and here I must point out that there were five other open positions and thus it could have been quickly tipped right back—they blocked him. That meant the volunteer PAB would continue to consist entirely of women, all of whom were straight—in San Francisco.

Alison Collins’ racist tweets: Collins took point on most of the above issues and seemed to relish in the fight. (This is a pattern.) Somebody on the other side of the Lowell issue dug up some of her 2016 tweets, in which she essentially accused Asian Americans of being anti-Black. And that certainly did not quell fears among Asian American voters about whether she was trying to fairly see her way through the complex set of racial injustices—particularly given that the tweets resurfaced during a time of skyrocketing anti-Asian hate crimes.

The $87 million lawsuit: After those tweets were publicized, a majority of the school board gave Collins a vote of no confidence. That’s no penalty but to ego, but no matter, Collins sued—for $87 million, in the midst of a budget crisis that the board was downplaying—all the board members who cast a vote against her. A judge threw out her lawsuit in August, but not before it cost the budget-strapped district some $400,000 to defend.

Meetings: Nothing is more Left than meetings—and meeting critique! But this was a crisis. Multiple crises. And the meetings that were public were often six-plus hours long and tended to front-load anything other than pandemic issues (that’s why we know about the gay dad, who was debated for two hours). And then the board would undermine this whole process by making crucial decisions out of public view, violating sunshine laws. It didn’t help that Collins and López appeared to be tweeting their way through some of the meetings.

In summation, this recall was a vote about a lot of issues, but overall it was a vote against incompetence. The coalition that came together to recall the board members was an extremely unique patchwork. Some people cared deeply about Lowell. For others, that was way down or not even on their list. And yes, San Francisco parents were anxious about school reopening and safety plans. But what really set them off was that the board had no plan, and that it stopped Matthews and other officials from making a plan.

All of these issues are fraught and complex and required care and consensus-building. Instead, it felt like the board was playing politics, very ineptly. They prioritized performativeness over performance, and they brushed away any critique as coming from people who were insufficiently radical.

Using that shield to cover for your own bumbling is nothing new to San Francisco politics. We’re masters of making the perfect the enemy of the good. Exhibit A: We are in the midst of a horrific housing crisis because, for decades, the board of supervisors (and their counterparts regionally) has failed again and again and again and again to take a pragmatic approach to density and to the distribution of homeless services and shelters throughout the city. Typically, these officials claim their actions or inactions are progressive, when in fact they’re at the behest of NIMBYs or ignore data and scholarship and fiscal realities. And voters are fed all the way up.

Politicians everywhere will be facing a massive wave of anti-incumbent fever this fall. That’s to be expected when voters are buckling under a panoply of stressors. California’s recall process, which desperately needs an overhaul, makes it easy to weaponize rage. But make no mistake, SF voters were correct in thinking the school board had failed. And though the defenders of Collins, López, and Moliga tried to claim that the recall was entirely cooked up by Fox News and Silicon Valley millionaires (some of whom did make big donations to the recall petition drive), the evidence of who signed the petitions and the overwhelming citywide, multiracial vote against the board members says otherwise. Just check out the maps.

Nor does this necessarily mean that progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin will also be recalled. There’s some overlap among supporters of the two efforts, but the attempt to recall Boudin is more clearly part of a pattern of conservative organizing against progressive DAs—the recall campaign began before he even took office. And, as a friend put it, Boudin is doing what he ran on doing, whereas nobody knew much about these board members or their priorities until they started spectacularly failing.

Going forward, that dearth of information should no longer be the case. Mayor London Breed gets to appoint their replacements within 10 days; those substitutes will serve until the elections in November. Come fall, voters and journalists will pay a lot more attention to who runs for the school board. We, too, need to be more competent.

Images from left: Liz Hafalia/San Francisco Chronicle, Gabrielle Lurie/San Francisco Chronicle/AP, Liz Hafalia/San Francisco Chronicle/Getty

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If you value the reporting you get from Mother Jones and you can right now, please join your fellow readers who pitch in from time to time to keep our democracy-advancing, justice-seeking journalism charging hard (and to help us avoid a real budget crunch as June 30 approaches and our fiscal year ends).

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