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Education leaders oppose landmark designations for three SF schools over controversial mural

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Controversial murals at Washington High prompted school board members to opposed landmark status for three schools in San Francisco. (Daniel Kim/2017 Special to S.F. Examiner)

The San Francisco Board of Education on Tuesday opposed The City’s nominations of three schools that are slated to become historic landmark sites over concerns that the designation could complicate the potential removal of a controversial mural at one of the nominated schools.

Last year, Sunshine School in the Mission, as well as the Richmond District’s Theodore Roosevelt Middle School and George Washington High School, were nominated by the nonprofit San Francisco Heritage for their historic relevance as well as architectural and social values.

The nominations are largely funded by the Historic Preservation Fund Committee and have been backed by the Historic Preservation Commission, which has recommended approval of the designation to The City’s Board of Supervisors.

But school board members objected to the nominations at an informational hearing held Tuesday, saying the board might be giving up too much of its autonomy in sanctioning future alterations or upgrades to the schools if landmark status is granted.

As the first “purpose-built public orthopedic school built west of the rockies,” Sunshine School is a “testament to San Francisco’s commitment to education and the wellbeing of children with disabilities,” San Francisco Preservation Planner Desiree Smith said Tuesday. 

Roosevelt Middle School and Washington High School were designed by renowned local architect Timothy Pflueger. While Roosevelt houses three New Deal-era murals, Washington is also home to “several historically significant artworks” from the era, according to Smith.

But several murals inside of Washington High have drawn the ire of the school board commissioners.

While one depicts enslaved African Americans, a portion of another 1,600-square-foot mural inside of the school’s lobby appears to show the body of a dead Native American man amid white colonizers, and has been deemed particularly problematic.

“The [Native American Parent Advisory Committee] recently brought forward to the board a set of concerns about the of mural and [asked] for it to be removed,” said Commissioner Matt Haney. “We want to have respect for our students and communities that have concerns and allow that conversation to take place before we complicate it.”

Once a property is designated as a landmark at the local level, “any [new] building permit triggers a specialized permit review process,” according to Smith, who added that because the school sites are owned by the school district, they are considered to be “state land” and exempt from local planning code.

“A landmark designation will not change how these properties are maintained or upgraded by the school district,” said Smith, adding that the designations are “purely honorific.”

Despite that assurance, the commissioners maintained the designations could complicate conversations between the school board and the Washington High community.

“Even though we don’t fall under [city] jurisdiction, our concern is it will still be the optics and public push that will prevent us to do the kinds of things we want to be doing around our schools,” said School Board President Hydra Mendoza McDonnell.

Haney, who is a supervisorial candidate for District 6,  in 2016 called for a name change for George Washington High School that would not honor a “slave owner.” The suggestion sparked a national debate, and Haney said on Wednesday that he would still stand behind it if it was wanted by the school’s community, though the landmark designation could potentially complicate this process.

I always thought it was something that our schools in our district should have the opportunity to consider and discuss,” said Haney. “I still think that [the school] should take up that conversation if it’s something that they feel strongly about, but I’m not pushing it.”

On Tuesday, one of the historians who authored the landmark nominations suggested the intentions of Victor Arnautoff, the artist who painted the mural in question at George Washington, were taken out of context.

“I, too, was shocked when I first saw that figure … especially when I heard there’s a tradition at the school to say, ‘Let’s meet at the dead indian,’” said historian Donna Graves. However Graves said that the painter’s motives “were more positive.”

“The figures depicted over [the] Native American male [are] painted gray and are the only deathly hued people in a very colorful cycle that covers thousands of square feet in [the school’s] lobby,” said Graves, explaining that Arnautoff, a leftist muralist, likely intended to undermine Washington’s perception at the time.

“In all of the  large murals at [Washington High] Arnautoff presented a counter narrative to what is prevailing in high school textbooks today,” said Robert Cherny, a professor emeritus of history at San Francisco State University. “In two, he put Native Americans in the center. In a third, enslaved African Americans [were] in the center, and in a fourth, working-class Americans [were] in the center.”

That interpretation, however, was met with criticism by Commissioner Shamann Walton.

“I don’t understand how people who are not affected by the depiction of the mural can come in here and tell us how Native Americans … should see the mural and what’s on there, when they came here and told us it was offensive to them and caused problems and issues for their community,” Walton said.

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