'We've become parodies of ourselves': California Democrats bemoan SF school board

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OAKLAND — California Democrats disagree on plenty of issues, but they are increasingly coalescing around a common gripe: What exactly is the San Francisco school board thinking?

Board members last month decided former President Abraham Lincoln — and current U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein — were no longer worthy of having their names on San Francisco schools. The same board this week devoted much of a marathon meeting to upending storied Lowell High School, saying its admissions requirements resulted in an academic enclave lacking diversity. And it spent two hours debating whether a parent had a sufficiently diverse background to join an advisory council (the board concluded he did not).

The San Francisco Board of Education has drawn national criticism as an example of California’s liberalism gone too far, especially as campuses in the district remain shut despite San Francisco having one of the lowest Covid-19 infection rates in the state. California Democrats routinely lament that conservative attacks on their state are exaggerated for effect, but this time even they are shaking their heads, many saying the caricature has turned out to be true.

It comes as Democrats feel unexpectedly vulnerable in the blue state with Gov. Gavin Newsom facing a recall threat now attracting national Republican interest.

“We’ve become parodies of ourselves,’’ said Democratic strategist Brian Brokaw, who recounted Republican friends good-naturedly jabbing him as the developments became a running joke on the political scene. “It’s counterproductive in so many ways.”

In a surreal escalation last week, San Francisco sued its own school district to force the reopening issue, winning the support of Democratic Mayor London Breed and fueling a clash of civic leaders in a uniformly Democratic city. A reopening deal struck over the weekend offered a glimmer of hope. But it was tempered by ample skepticism, as Breed said it was “definitely” not enough to return students this school year.

But the pact was a sideshow Tuesday when board members devoted much of their meeting to deciding whether to end merit-based admissions at Lowell High School, which has a disproportionate share of Asian American and white students relative to the district’s student population.

Seven hours in, the board began discussing reopening. Earlier in the evening, an incensed commenter accused the board president of being “so fixated on your political ideology” that she is essentially the “the Ted Cruz of San Francisco” — fighting words in a proudly progressive town.

“It’s clear to me that kids just aren’t being prioritized,” said Jennifer Sey, a San Francisco parent of two kids in public schools and a member of the grassroots group Reopen Schools California. “I don’t understand how you couldn’t spend the entire nine hours focused on opening. What could be more urgent than getting schools opened for our kids?”

The San Francisco Board of Education was already navigating a public perception debacle after moving to strip the names of former Presidents Lincoln and George Washington, Feinstein and others from 44 public schools. Renaming supporters pointed to the fact that Washington owned slaves, argued Lincoln facilitated the slaughter of Native Americans and objected to former Mayor Feinstein for replacing a vandalized Confederate flag in 1984 that had been part of a City Hall historical flag display.

Board President Gabriela López raised eyebrows with a meandering New Yorker interview defending the decisions. Critics questioned the historically dubious rationale for some of the erasures, but the most astringent critique — flowing from a gleeful conservative media and Republicans U.S. senators as well as from elected San Francisco Democrats — has assailed inverted priorities.

“What I cannot understand is why the School Board is advancing a plan to have all these schools renamed by April, when there isn’t a plan to have our kids back in the classroom by then,” Breed said in a statement at the time.

“It’s as if they never took a history course — a U.S. history course — in their entire lives,” said Democratic consultant Katie Merrill. “It’s shameful, and it’s a disservice to parents and kids who attend San Francisco schools — not to mention voters.’’

Those tensions have yielded a high-stakes legal standoff that echoes a larger California fight. San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera has sued the school district, arguing that the protracted closure is violating state law and students’ constitutional rights. Herrera expanded the lawsuit even after the union announced a tentative reopening framework last weekend, and he included a swipe at the renaming controversy.

“Rather than prioritizing resources to reopen schools, the School District has dedicated limited time and money to renaming empty schools now,” the lawsuit states. “For that misguided priority, the School District created a plan, established a ‘blue-ribbon panel,’ and took action. The School District seems to feel no similar urgency to reopen schools or, at the very least, even create a plan to do so.”

Herrera has gained a powerful ally in Breed, who has echoed the city attorney’s point that public health officials have deemed in-person classes safe enough to reopen more than 100 private and parochial schools serving some 15,000 students. In a plangent appeal this week, Breed said she was supporting the legal effort as a last resort in the absence of concrete progress.

“I would not be pushing it if I were not advised by our Department of Public Health that it is safe,” Breed said. “I trust them and I’m asking the school district to trust them, and I’m asking us to make some hard decisions."

"Our children are suffering," she added.

San Francisco Superintendent Vincent Matthews argued in a statement that the district does have a “comprehensive plan,” decrying the lawsuit as “frivolous” and infighting between the city and its schools “a waste of time that we don’t have.” López, the school board president, faulted the city in a statement for “playing politics” and not providing adequate support.

“Most urban school districts across the state are in the same position — one big difference is their mayors are fully supporting them,” López said. Neither López nor Matthews responded to interview requests.

Those disagreements are at times setting San Francisco Democrats against one another. Supervisor Hillary Ronen publicly rebutted Breed’s assertion that schools would likely remain closed, tweetingTHIS IS NOT TRUE” and outlining steps that could mean some students returning by April.

Ronen told POLITICO in an interview that it’s likely only elementary school students could experience in-person schooling this year, but Ronen said she felt the need to offer some hope after Breed’s comments “made me slump in my chair and feel completely defeated.” Ronen said she is in touch with negotiators who have worked feverishly to get schools open.

“It’s a failure we most likely won’t get high school and middle school students back,” Ronen said, “but what I want to show by bringing elementary kids back is we can prove to parents we can really do this. The reason that’s so important to do by the end of the school year is if we don’t see kids come back, then anyone who can flee from the public system, who has the money and means, will do so.”

Newsom played no role in the board’s recent decisions and has aligned himself closer to Breed in calling for schools to open. Still, conservatives regularly try to tie the governor to San Francisco due to his stint as the city’s mayor from 2004 to 2011, and the recent fallout could give them ammunition to link the governor to school closures in a city preoccupied by campus renaming. Republicans hoping to replace Newsom in a possible recall election have hammered him over schools.

A renaming effort in Washington, D.C., drew criticism in September when a city commission suggested removing Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and other historic figures from 49 schools, parks and buildings. The effort did not advance.

Rather than a deep blue anomaly, San Francisco’s woes parallel a larger struggle over the balance between vaccinating teachers and welcoming back students. The back-and-forth has opened cracks between Newsom and the teachers unions, which are typically the Democratic party’s steadfast political allies. Following San Francisco’s lead, a Los Angeles city councilmember wants to sue the city’s second-largest school district in America.

Unions have largely pushed for widespread vaccination of educators as a condition for returning to classrooms. The San Francisco agreement conditions physical schooling both on the city entering the next lowest tier of coronavirus risk and on vaccine doses being made available to teachers, or on entering an even lower tier. Breed has said that would mean in-person schooling would “definitely not [occur] this school year.”

Similarly, Newsom has been increasingly blunt about teachers unions’ insistence on an inoculation prerequisite as he works to hammer out a statewide deal with state legislators and battles an intensifying recall effort fueled in part by frustration over homebound students. Newsom said on Tuesday that while he “would like every single person in that school vaccinated,” finite doses create a choice: full inoculation of educators or in-person schooling.

“When you’re receiving less than 600,000 first doses a week, when you start to do the math, if that’s the prerequisite then we need to be honest with people,” Newsom said, “that it’s very unlikely we’ll be able to accomplish that very idealistic goal before the end of the school year.”

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