S.F. school board must focus on core issues, say recall advocates

‘I’m pretty sure what parents want to see is us moving past that political divide and just focus on the kids’

If their overwhelming win came as a complete surprise, advocates for the recall of three San Francisco school board members hope it will be the last surprise.

What they say they want is not so much specific outcomes to the problems that beset the district — budget deficits, falling enrollment, school renaming — but a clear and transparent focus on core issues that affect their children.

The key, they say, is not a shift in power, but a shift in approach. 

“We need to rebuild confidence and we have to do that by being professional, laser focused and really centering on our students and working with people who know our students best, which are families and our school sites,” said Lainie Motamedi, who evolved from parent advocate to school board member when Mayor London Breed appointed her to a seat earlier this month.

A month after their victory at the ballot box, proponents of the recall of three school board members say their attention isn’t simply on the decisions the district makes, but on how the district makes them.

“What we want to see is the school board members run a process where they actually engage the community in these decisions,” said Siva Raj, co-leader of the group Recall SF School Board.

The recall election drew outsize attention from national media and pundits eager to speculate on whether staunchly liberal San Francisco was tired of lefty politics, highlighting the board’s perceived focus on renaming schools instead of reopening schools.

But for every headline like “Woke’ school board members in San Francisco recalled” there’s a parent here demanding that the district prioritize students as it prepares to make key decisions and – hopefully – stave off a state takeover amid financial struggles.

They see the recall as a backlash to the way the school board went about making decisions like ending the merit-based policy at Lowell High School – rapidly and without enough public input.

“We need to be in partnership around what our core priorities are and values and minimize the surprises,” Motamedi said.

The district will have to regain the trust of disaffected families as it navigates an array of major decisions in the coming months.

“I’m pretty sure what parents want to see is us moving past that political divide and just focus on the kids,” said Meredith W. Dodson, executive director of SF Parent Coalition.

Parents who fought for the recall say they’re looking to the school board to tackle issues with early and clear communication to the district’s families.

And those issues are numerous.

The district’s budget is in shambles, putting it at risk of a state takeover.

Enrollment has plummeted, with many who can afford it opting for a private education.

The pandemic and forced closure of schools has resulted in broad learning loss from which children will need to recover.

And the superintendent is retiring, leaving a question mark about district leadership.

“We need to see a total reset on governance and a focus on getting back to the basics and prioritizing the education of our children,” Dodson said.

The three new members – Motamedi, Ann Hsu and Lisa Weissman-Ward – are all parents of students in the district, a fact Breed highlighted as she announced her picks.

“Now we have the people who can help us get through these hard issues. People who are paying attention, know the crises that our district is facing,” Dodson said.

One key decision is just around the corner, as the school board will hire a new superintendent to replace retiring leader Vincent Matthews. The newcomer will have to navigate everything from prospective cuts to basic administrative functions, like ensuring teachers are paid.

The board will also be tasked with leading the district out of its budget deficit, which amounts to $125 million.

Autumn Looijen, co-lead of Recall SF School Board, said the district needs leadership that will “at least stand up and say this is going to be a painful next couple of years, and I’m sorry about that.”

“A lot of the pain that happens here happens because things are done badly, not because they’re done,” Lady said.

Motamedi said it’s too early to know if drastic measures like school closures will be necessary.

“What I would like to center on as we move through the budget is our students and educators, so when we’re making trade offs and having hard conversations we all are understanding what the priorities are,” Motamedi said.

The switch from a merit-based admissions policy at Lowell High School to a lottery system drew the ire of many parents and helped drive the recall. So will a new board revert to the district’s old ways?

Recall advocates believe the admissions policy at Lowell High School need not be a binary choice, and that the school can maintain academic standards while working to increase the diversity of its student body.

“I have been a strong proponent of expanding what is available at Lowell to other locations,” Motamedi said. “I think we’re overdue for some thinking around our high school offerings, period.” There have always been more applicants than available spots at Lowell, Motamedi added.

With the recall over, it remains to be seen whether parents will stay as engaged in school politics.

The parent coalition noted some attrition following the recall vote, but not as significant as leaders had expected. Ultimately, the work needs to stem the loss of students from the public school system. “I really want to get to a place where every family in the city would consider SFUSD and we’re not there yet,” Motamedi said.

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