Only in San Francisco: A Unique School Board Recall

By Tony Hall
Tony Hall
Tony Hall
Tony Hall is a former supervisor for San Francisco's District 7. He has held executive and administrative positions in seven different city departments in all three branches of government over a 33-year period.
and Larry Marso
Larry Marso
Larry Marso
Larry Marso is a graduate of Stanford Law School and the Woodrow Wilson School graduate economics program at Princeton University. In New York, he practiced law at Cravath, Swaine & Moore, worked as an M&A investment banker at Morgan Stanley, and ran financial institutions M&A for UBS Paine Webber. He is now a Bay Area M&A adviser, technology consultant, and political data analyst.
February 3, 2022Updated: February 8, 2022


The recall of San Francisco School Board Commissioners Alison Collins, Gabriela López, and Faauuga Moliga crosses the finish line on Feb. 15 with what we predict will be an important and decisive victory. Average voters—Democrats, Republicans, independents, and especially parents—are waking up and becoming motivated by the fact that they really do have the power to determine and influence who will oversee the education and future of the city’s children.

Their efforts to mobilize and have a say in who represents their interests and the interests of their children have become a reality. Support for this first step—to remove these three commissioners—is as broad and nonpartisan as any coalition in modern San Francisco politics.

But take note of a minor miracle: The campaign is an oasis, isolated from national and state politics.

Across the United States—and elsewhere in California—protests against school boards are portrayed by opponents as Republican, far-right, racist, and even violent. At the same time, school boards are caricatured as progressive Democrat far-left culture warriors, imposing the “1619 Project,” critical race theory, gender political correctness, and “new,” but discredited teaching methods.

In September 2021, the National Association of School Boards labeled school board protesters as “domestic terrorists” and called for intervention by the Department of Homeland Security. Biden administration Attorney General Merrick Garland tasked the FBI with investigating. The California School Boards Association accused local law enforcement of refusing “in numerous cases” to defend school boards and asked Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Rob Bonta for protection.

School board meetings nationwide have served as flashpoints for protests about vaccine and mask mandates, school closures, curriculum, and culture. For many parents, remote learning during the pandemic offered an abrupt introduction to the contemporary classroom. This ignited concerns about “modern” approaches to literacy and math, and it has caused culture shock at the treatments of race, history, and gender.

Establishment, partisan political leaders have attempted to capitalize on this growing concern about the direction and goals of local school boards. Indeed, Republican Glenn Youngkin won the race for governor of Virginia after his opponent, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

Youngkin, on his inauguration day, issued executive orders banning critical race theory and school mask mandates. A total of 25 states, along party lines, have restricted discussion of “divisive concepts” in classrooms.

Partisan posturing is largely absent from the San Francisco recall story, and this is what’s remarkable about it. Normally, populist or “citizen” issues would never have gotten off the ground because of the wild imbalance in party numbers—the Democratic Party has such tremendous influence in San Francisco. But this recall has been different.

We believe that its approval will accomplish more for parents and students than the movements we’ve seen elsewhere in the country. Voters in the city have come together and embarked on a constructive project that may serve as an example to the state and the nation.

It’s a perfect example of how ordinary citizens, regardless of political preference, can reinvigorate local government, rejuvenate the civil service, and reassert control over the education of their children.

Two political outsiders initiated the recall effort in March 2021, after the school board postponed plans to reopen in January. Tech entrepreneur parent activists with few previous ties to the city, Autumn Looijen and her partner Siva Raj, have children enrolled in public schools in Los Altos and San Francisco.

Their struggles as a family with remote learning, frustration with curriculum, and astonishment at the priorities of the San Francisco School Board are the recall’s origin story, which has resonated with parents across the political spectrum. Raj, as a noncitizen, couldn’t be a formal proponent or sign the recall petition, but he can vote in this week’s election.

A truly grassroots parents’ movement unfolded, funded by small donations. Early on, it gathered about 20 percent of the signatures required to trigger a recall election.

For the better part of two years, high-profile actions by the school board—and especially by an individual commissioner—had already enraged influential alumni groups, the Asian community (which by and large supports quality traditional education), advocates of good government, and major donors. A coalition quickly assembled to help the grassroots effort, without partisan division.

In June 2019, the school board voted to paint over the “Life of Washington” mural at George Washington High School by Victor Arnautoff, one of the foremost muralists in the San Francisco area during the Great Depression. In October 2020, the board ended merit-based admissions to the prestigious Lowell High School in favor of a simple lottery.

In January 2021, the board voted to rename 44 schools because each name was associated with some perceived “injustice.” These included schools named after George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and even Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

The board had no reopening plan and failed to reach a union agreement, which prompted the city attorney to file suit in February 2021 for an injunction to reopen the schools.

In March 2021, past Twitter posts by then-School Board Vice President Alison Collins surfaced that expressed racist views on Asian Americans. The board quickly voted to strip Collins of her leadership position, and a constellation of city and state leaders called for her resignation. In reaction, Collins sued the board and her colleagues for $87 million (the suit was swiftly withdrawn).

Ultimately, legal maneuvers and public pressure preserved the Washington mural, suspended the school renaming program, and reopened the schools, but it failed to restore competitive admissions to Lowell High School.

Throughout 2021, the recall effort continued to develop as a means for parents, voters, and constituencies across the city to express their frustration and anger with the school board. Support for the recall grew and donations increased, which allowed the campaign to expand its outreach and utilize professional signature gatherers. The campaign submitted its successful petition on Sept. 8, 2021.

The board ended 2021 by cutting $90 million from its 2023 budget, narrowly avoiding a state takeover of its finances. Enrollment for the 2021–22 academic year declined to fewer than 50,000 students, down by 9,000 students in five years.

Establishment Democrats and liberal political figures have endorsed the recall of all three commissioners. These figures include San Francisco Mayor London Breed, state Sen. Scott Weiner, and former Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez.

Some current members of the left-of-center Board of Supervisors have also endorsed recalling either Collins alone or Collins and Lopez. The most common theme and justification are that the recall effort isn’t political, but it’s about priorities and competence. We might add that the majority of donations received by this time for the recall have been from Democratic sources.

Another minor miracle: In San Francisco—an oasis of a different kind and arguably one of the most liberal and left-leaning cities in the country—people of all political stripes have come together and put aside their differences to achieve something that will benefit the average parent, student, voter, taxpayer, and resident of the city.

Does this recall movement signal to the rest of the country that San Francisco is ready to move on from its national perception as a lighthouse for the blind and become a beacon of hope for good governance? We certainly hope so, and we want to congratulate everyone who has taken part in the process.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.