San Francisco Repeals Plan to Rename 44 Public Schools

The board cited the need to avoid “distraction” and costly litigation but vowed to revive the school renaming process after in-person classes are available to all public school students.

The San Francisco Board of Education voted to rescind its prior decision to rename 44 public schools during a virtual meeting on April 6, 2021. (Screenshot)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The San Francisco school board on Tuesday rescinded its prior vote to rename 44 public schools as it faces litigation claiming it used a flawed and unfair process to push through the changes.

In a 6-0 vote, the board approved a resolution undoing its Jan. 26 decision to redub schools named after George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and others perceived to have played a role in slavery, genocide, colonial conquest and other forms of oppression.

The resolution defends the board’s prior vote as perfectly legal and describes a lawsuit challenging its decision as “a transparent attempt to thwart a lawful and duly noticed action.” The resolution also thanks an advisory panel that recommended school name changes, but states that it will rescind the vote because it “wishes to avoid the distraction and wasteful expenditure of public funds in frivolous litigation.”

Public school alumni groups, a taxpayers association and two high school graduates sued to block the renaming effort on March 18.

They say a panel formed in May 2018 to review school names excluded input from community members and historians and based its recommendations on faulty research and unreliable sources, such as Wikipedia pages. The lawsuit also claims the school board was required to hold a public hearing on each individual school, rather than approving renaming 44 schools in one legislative action. It further contends that a Jan. 26 meeting agenda item for the school renaming vote “gave no indication” that the decision would be final and binding.

On the same day they filed suit, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Ethan Schulman ordered the district to either vacate its renaming resolution and dissolve the School Names Advisory Committee or show good cause for why it has not done so at a hearing set for May 6.

San Francisco school board president Gabriela López had announced in February that the district would pause school renaming, slow the process down and provide more opportunities for community input. Paul Scott, an attorney representing petitioners challenging the renaming decision, said López’s statement in a published op-ed gave no assurances that the district would restart the process in a fair and legal manner.

“The comment that she made in the newspaper isn’t binding on the board,” Scott said in a phone interview. “Without the majority of the board voting, they could resume the process at any time.”

Scott called the process “deeply flawed” because it allowed a committee of unelected officials with a “lack of expertise” to make recommendations without giving members of each school community a chance to express their views.  

“For this process to be successful it needs to be an organic one where all the members of the community from a particular school including the teachers, kids, the parents and the alumni — the key stakeholders — all have a voice in the discussion on whether or not their school should be renamed,” Scott said.

Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law scholar who also represents the petitioners, called the school renaming process “poisoned” in an interview with Courthouse News last month. The Harvard Law professor emeritus said he would support a “well-reasoned, legally structured process” for renaming schools, but he took exception with what he labeled an “impulsive, irrational, arbitrary decision” to erase the name of the “Great Emancipator” from his alma mater, Lincoln High School.

Lincoln was targeted for removal based on his 1862 decision approving the execution of 38 Native Americans involved in a conflict that killed 350 white settlers in Minnesota. Some historians credit Lincoln for resisting immense political pressure to swiftly execute all 303 Sioux men who had been sentenced to death by a military tribunal. Lincoln reviewed evidence for each accused man and spared the lives of 265 men, but the hanging of 38 Sioux men remains the largest public execution in U.S. history.

The School Names Advisory Committee was criticized for focusing on “just one thing” that made individuals unworthy of having a school named after them, instead of measuring their flaws or disgraceful acts against their positive contributions. The committee did not apply that same reasoning to Malcolm X, whose school eponym was retained despite evidence that he promoted misogynistic views.

At the same time, the committee voted to erase U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein’s name from an elementary school because she allegedly replaced a vandalized confederate flag outside of San Francisco City Hall when she was mayor in 1984. A group of families from her namesake school wrote a letter urging the district not to remove the senator’s name, arguing she has been a pioneer for women’s rights and authored the only assault weapons ban passed by Congress in U.S. history.

Tribe’s clients also accused the committee of using faulty research to tarnish the reputations of historical figures who were misidentified as racists and human rights abusers. The panel decided Paul Revere’s involvement with the Penobscot Expedition in 1779 made him a colonizer, even though the battle was against the British, not Indigenous people. According to the petition, the committee was seemingly aware of this, but listed The Paul Revere School for renaming anyway.

The committee also listed James Russell Lowell, for whom Lowell High School is named, because “he did not want Black people to vote,” though a reputable biography of Lowell says he “unequivocally advocated giving the ballot to the recently freed slaves.”

The resolution approved Tuesday states that the board will reauthorize the School Advisory Committee, or a similar panel, to review school names after all students have returned to in-person classes five full days a week.

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