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San Francisco gears up for vote on school board recall

Three San Francisco school board members could be removed in a recall election spurred by parental vexation over the slow reopening of schools, a botched school renaming process, and other debacles.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — On Feb. 15, San Francisco voters will decide whether three members of the city school board should keep their jobs in a special election that has been simultaneously characterized as a grassroots effort by fed-up parents and a power grab by moneyed interests.

The push to recall school board president Gabriela López and board members Alison Collins and Faauuga Moliga started with parents Autumn Looijen and Siva Raj, who — propelled by mounting vexation with public schools remaining closed for over a year due to the pandemic even as other schools in California reopened — began gathering signatures in late 2020. By October 2021, they had well over the number needed to place the recall on the February 2022 ballot.

Meanwhile, the commissioners aroused widespread ire by turning their attention to renaming 44 elementary and middle schools, earning a sharp rebuke from Mayor London Breed, a lawsuit, and an order from a judge that they drop the effort.

The board also drew criticism when it decided to scrap merit-based admissions at academically rigorous Lowell High School without giving parents adequate notice and opportunity to comment.

For public school parent Todd David, the final straw came in June 2020 when the board shot down Superintendent Vince Matthew’s request to hire a reopening consultant for the schools. Their reasoning? The consultant had previously done some work for a charter school. At the time, Matthews called the rejection a “body blow” for reopening.

"Renaming the schools was botched and it was an embarrassment, but for me when the superintendent said 'I need to do this to get kids safely back in school' and the board says ‘no,’ that is quintessentially putting performative politics before children,” David said. “That sits in my craw. I can't believe they said no because someone at some point did some consulting for a charter school. This was an expert that the superintendent said we needed.”

Commissioner Moliga explained why he initially voted against hiring the consultant in an email to Courthouse News.
“I have been asked about my vote regarding the consultant at almost every debate I have had with the recall proponents in the last two months. My answer each time is that I did not vote for the consultant in 2020, because all the research I had done showed it was not clear if they can engage with the community during this time of crisis.”

He said he did vote to hire the consultant when it came up before the board again in 2021. “I voted to support the hiring of the consultant, because the superintendent was adamant that we needed a consultant to successfully open schools. However, shortly after we approved the contract for the consultant, the firm said they could not fulfill the scope of the contract because they did not have the capacity to complete the work. Therefore, the work was never done by the consultant and SFUSD was still able to successfully open schools. My votes are never based on ‘personal performative politics,’ and I believe my reason for voting on the issue of the consultant shows that to be true.”

López did not respond to a request for comment.

When reached by email, Collins was initially receptive to questions but did not respond to them before press time. But she defended her reopening stance in a November interview with local radio station KQED. “We represent all parents and I'm a parent who wanted my teenagers to go back for sure, but there were also families that reached out to us that were worried,” she said. "Our number one priority was opening schools safely, not opening schools at all costs.”

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David, who has two children currently in public school in San Francisco and one who recently graduated from high school, volunteered to collect signatures at the Noe Valley farmer’s market. Now he heads "Concerned Parents Supporting the Recall of Collins Lopez, and Moliga," a committee that’s raised a little over $1 million since it began taking donations this past November.

Raj and Looijen also run a committee called "Recall School Board Members Lopez, Collins, & Moliga,” which has raised nearly $850,000, mostly from donations of under $1,000. Tech investor and PayPal founding executive David Sacks tops the list of donors with a contribution of $74,500.

"Siva and Autumn have done a phenomenal job of grassroots organizing. My hat is off to them,” David said. “When we knew the recall was qualifying for the ballot we also knew it was going to morph from a grassroots lets collect signatures campaign more of a political communications campaign.”

It’s an area David knows something about, having served as as campaign director for state Senator Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, in 2016. He is currently the executive director of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition.

Money has been pouring in since November from a mix of small donors, tech tycoons, and venture capitalists.

“Between the two committees there's over 1,700 individual donations. It's a gigantic group of people who are financially supporting the recall,” David said.

What can be gleaned from this mix, he said, is that there is a broad swath of people who are frustrated with the board.

"Just like when a broad coalition of people come together on an issue, there are probably 20 other issues they'd disagree on,” David said. “There is a large coalition offended by the behavior and failure of the commissioners to put the education of children first and foremost.”

With a contribution of $458,800, the Concerned Parent’s committee’s largest donor is Neighbors for a Better San Francisco Advocacy, a political action committee that lists billionaire William Oberndorf as its chief executive officer. Oberndorf also chairs the American Federation for Children, a charter school advocacy group.

Billionaire tech investor Arthur Rock also gave $350,000 to the committee in November, and made a separate $49,500 donation to the Recall committee in August, according to data from the San Francisco Ethics Commission,

Politics does indeed create strange bedfellows. Just two weeks ago, Matt Gonzalez, a stalwart progressive, public defender, and former president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, wrote a treatise outlining his myriad reasons for supporting the recall.

López, Moliga and Collins were elected in 2018. The other board members have not held their positions long enough to be recalled; members elected within the last six months are not eligible for a recall election. Otherwise, the entire slate of commissioners would be on the list.

All three will be voted on separately, and Moliga has distinguished himself from his colleagues by running a separate campaign with a political action committee that has raised about $47,000, including $12,500 worth of non-monetary contributions. The Californians for a Diverse and Effective Government is his single largest contributor with a donation of $10,000.

“I decided to run separately from my colleagues because our policy work and reasoning for our votes are different, and I want to be able to communicate this difference directly to voters,” Moliga said in an email.

Moliga said he is aware that some recall opponents have described the recall as a cynical ploy to install new commissioners favored by wealthy right-wingers. Or by the mayor, who will select their replacements if the recall is successful.

But he said that's not an argument he's making to voters, instead hoping to succeed on his record.

"My argument is simply that I am a highly effective legislator with a strong record who has improved learning and health services for students and families, mitigated fiscal issues and taken actions that will increase enrollment in the years ahead. In addition, my voting record is sound and I have not undertaken any action that warrants immediate removal from office.”

Still, he said he believes there could be some political motivation behind his inclusion on the ballot. “It does seem like I have been roped into this recall because I was the only other board member eligible. Many people have reiterated this thought. I have heard from voters a number of times that I don’t belong in this recall, and that they are sorry that this happened,” Moliga said. “Therefore, if my performance is not the reason, I assume there is a political motivation. Whatever that is, I think this is a question for the proponents and their big money donors.”

A committee opposing the recall of all three board members raised $34,525, mostly in the last two weeks. The bulk of these donations have been from labor unions — the Service Employees International Union and a PAC run by the United Educators of San Francisco.

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