The city’s school board president said a debate over changing school names has become a distraction as the district shifts its focus to reopening, rather than renaming, school buildings.
SAN FRANCISCO (CN) –– Facing a recall effort and threats of litigation, the San Francisco School Board is putting a controversial push to rename 44 schools on hold so it can focus on a more pressing task: getting school buildings reopened.
San Francisco School Board president Garbriela López made the announcement in a San Francisco Chronicle opinion piece Sunday, acknowledging that public debate over the renaming process has become a distraction as school officials work to bring students back to classrooms.
The board voted 6-1 on Jan. 27 to redub schools named after George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Dianne Feinstein and others perceived to have played a role in slavery, genocide, colonial conquest and other forms of oppression.
School officials were criticized for allowing a School Names Advisory Committee to make recommendations based on faulty research, inconsistent standards and without adequate community input. Last month, a group called Families for San Francisco released a report blasting the process as arbitrary and “deeply flawed.”
López recognized those complaints in her op-ed Sunday.
“I acknowledge and take responsibility that mistakes were made in the renaming process,” López wrote. “We recognize we need to slow down. And we need to provide more opportunities for community input.”
López said the board is cancelling renaming committee meetings for the time being, adding that it intends to revise its plans to create “a more deliberative process” that includes “engaging historians at nearby universities to help.”
The decision to pause renaming comes after a petition was launched last week to recall school board members, including López. It also follows a lawyer threatening litigation over the renaming decision, claiming the school board violated California open meeting laws by not clearly indicating in its agenda that the board would make a final determination on renaming schools.
The attorney, Paul D. Scott of San Francisco, said in a phone interview Monday that he is pleased with the decision to pause the renaming effort, but “we’ll want to see specifics in writing to ensure that they are actually reversing their Jan. 26, 2021 resolution deciding to rename the 44 schools.”
Scott said he hopes a new process will allow each school community –– students, parents, teachers and alumni –– to make renaming decisions, rather than allowing school board members to supplant each school community’s preference with their own judgment.
“If they want a fair process, they need to give each of those schools on a school-by-school basis an opportunity to give input in person and allow those individual schools to determine their own destiny,” Scott said, adding that the process should also include more robust research of the eponyms.
The decision to pause renaming also comes as the school district faces a lawsuit from San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera claiming the district’s reopening plan is inadequate and fails to meet standards imposed by state law, including a requirement that it “offer classroom-based instruction whenever possible.”
The school district announced a tentative deal with labor unions on Feb. 7 that would require vaccinated teachers to return to classrooms if the status of Covid-19 community spread is considered “substantial” under California state guidelines. Teachers would return without vaccinations if the status of Covid-19 transmission is lower.
Despite that deal, City Attorney Herrera sent a letter to the school district last week, arguing that the proposed deal falls short of its legal obligation to offer in-person instruction to the greatest extent possible. Herrera cited federal, state and local public health guidelines to support his argument that it is safe to teach elementary school students and vulnerable students in classrooms, even when Covid-19 spread is considered “widespread” in the community.
“Vaccination of staff is not a prerequisite or an essential element for K-12 schools to open safely for in-person instruction,” Herrera wrote. “Accordingly, if the school district’s reopening plan delays in-person instruction subject to staff vaccination, that plan violates the law.”
Herrera also filed a motion for an emergency court order last week to compel the district to reopen classrooms in accordance with local public health guidelines. The city attorney cited deteriorating mental health conditions for San Francisco public school students, including a 5-year-old autistic child who “has become extremely anxious and withdrawn” and “avoids any new activities.”
The school board was criticized last week for delaying a vote on its school reopening plan. The board instead held a closed session to discuss undisclosed legal issues. López and school board vice president Alison Collins blamed the delay on “litigation filed by people who claim to have our students’ best interests at heart” in a San Francisco Examiner op-ed on Feb. 15.
The school board is expected to vote on a reopening plan this Tuesday that includes mandates for mask-wearing, hand-washing, socially distant spacing for students, isolation and quarantine practices, contact tracing and surveillance testing.