San Francisco School Board Ordered to Drop Plans to Rename Schools

The San Francisco School Board’s decision to remove the names of historical and political figures from 44 public schools was done hastily, without due process and to the exclusion of opposing voices, a group of alumni and San Francisco taxpayers claim in a petition filed Thursday. Late Thursday, a judge agreed.

The San Francisco Board of Education voted to rename 44 public schools during a virtual meeting on Jan. 26, 2021. (Screenshot)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The San Francisco school board’s 6-1 vote to remove the names of historical and political figures from 44 public schools has drawn a legal challenge from a local attorney and a famed legal scholar, with a lawsuit that claims it was done hastily, without due process and to the exclusion of opposing voices.

And in a ruling late Thursday, Judge Ethan Schulman agreed. He ordered the district to either vacate its renaming resolution and dissolve the School Names Advisory Committee or to show good cause for why it has not done so at a hearing set for May 6. 

“This was a top-down process that failed to give all members of individual school communities the opportunity to express what they wanted for their particular school.” attorney Paul Scott said by phone on Thursday. 

Scott represents alumni associations from Abraham Lincoln and George Washington high schools, the San Francisco Taxpayers Association, former Contra Costa County Superintendent of Schools Karen Shigezumi Sakata, a graduate of George Washington, and former congressman John Burton, a graduate of Abraham Lincoln. 

Their petition filed Thursday in San Francisco Superior Court says the school board passed its resolution without holding a properly noticed public hearing on each individual school, and that an agenda item associated with the issue at the Jan. 26 meeting “gave no indication that the Board was going to make a final decision to rename 44 San Francisco public schools in a single vote at the meeting.” 

They added that they didn’t realize the resolution was final until the end of the meeting, as well as in a press release issued afterward. 

Scott said public outcry led him to take the case. 

“I did have a few kids that attend San Francisco public schools, but as much as anything, it was friends and family approaching me and expressing frustration with what the school board was doing and looking for someone to do something,” he said.

“I think that most people were offended by the process. There have been plenty of schools renamed in San Francisco. Most people are fine with that,” Scott said, adding that most are fine with “the idea of trying to uplift people of disadvantaged communities” but “That’s not what this effort was. It may have had some intentions along that line, but it didn’t accomplish its goal in a manner that was consistent with fairness or due process.” 

Scott said he sent the school board multiple letters saying the process was unlawful “and they basically ignored the correspondence.” 

Harvard University professor emeritus Laurence Tribe is also representing the petitioners, who seek to repeal the board’s resolution.

The San Francisco Unified School District began working in earnest last summer to purge the names George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln from its public high school and grammar schools; Washington and Jefferson because they owned slaves, and Lincoln because of his administration’s wars with American Indian tribes which resulted in the U.S. Army’s massacre of hundreds of Cheyenne and Arapaho people.

The district board of education announced two years ago that it would form a panel to review the names of schools in the district and oversee the process of renaming schools named for slaveholders, perpetrators of genocide, “known racists,” and “those who directly oppressed or abused women, children, queer or transgender people.”

The petitioners say the committee’s faulty research tarnished the reputations of several historical figures who were misidentified as racists and human rights abusers. The committee decided Paul Revere’s involvement with the Penobscot Expedition 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.” 

San Francisco School Board President Gabriela López announced that the renaming would be paused while the district focuses on re-opening schools, which have been closed for over a year because of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The district is still negotiating with the teachers’ unions over the conditions of their return to the classroom, but the school board has vowed to revisit the renaming process as soon as in-person learning resumes, this time with the help of local historians. Each school is still expected to submit a suggestion for a new name by April 19.

López and the school district did not respond to emails requesting comment Thursday.

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