School board recall signals ‘strange bedfellows’ of San Francisco politics

Election was fueled by populist outrage and millionaire donations; now, mayor will pick replacements

Three members of the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education were resoundingly recalled Tuesday in a landslide vote. Alison Collins, Gabriela López and Faauuga Moliga, all of whom were up for reelection in November, are expected to be removed from their posts next month.

The Department of Elections reported that more than 70% of voters supported the recall of each board member. Voters cast a ballot for each board member individually. More than 50% of voters are required to support the recall of each candidate for removal to occur.

Of the 128,862 votes counted out of a possible 499,771 registered voters, 78.55 supported the recall of Collins, 74.9% supported the recall of López and 72% supported the recall of Moliga.

All three will be removed as soon as the Board of Supervisors has certified the election results, which is expected to take place March 1, with new board members likely taking office in mid March.

The recall movement first gained steam more than a year ago as San Francisco Unified School District students remained stuck in distance learning, even when state and county officials gave the green light to reopen and while other public education systems were returning to in-person instruction.

Calls grew more intense for the removal of the eligible board members when the board prioritized, while schools were still closed, the renaming of 44 campuses — whose names, such as Abraham Lincoln and Dianne Feinstein, it said, honored figures linked to racism and sexism.

The board then voted to permanently use a lottery system for admission at Lowell High School, one of only two campuses in the district to use a merit-based admissions system. Both decisions were later overturned by lawsuits, though the board extended the general admission lottery for Lowell High School for another year.

“We met so many families who were heartbroken to leave the public schools they loved,” said Autumn Looijen, co-founder of Recall San Francisco School Board, the group of public school parents who helped lead the campaign in support of the recall. “People in San Francisco are overwhelmingly supportive of vibrant public schools and hungry for leadership that works.”

The recall appears to be a galvanizing moment for Asian American voters who have been incensed by the board’s decision to change the admissions process for Lowell High School, the district’s most academically rigorous school, which is 50% Asian.

Mayor Mayor London Breed, who supported the recall, said in a statement Tuesday night, “The voters of this city have delivered a clear message.” The mayor will appoint replacements for the vacant seats. These individuals will serve until the regular election in November. Breed’s office did not respond to comment on who might be on the short list for appointment.

Recall San Francisco School Board organizers said they plan to “screen” candidates and provide a list of potential nominees to Breed who they believe “would do good work.”

“We’re looking for candidates who can get to work fast to solve those crises and also solve the equity gap that has been expanded by this crisis, and who can provide steady leadership that will give families the confidence to stay,” Looijen said.

Joel Engardio, a prolific organizer for the recall campaign and other movements in San Francisco, added that financial and budgeting expertise are essential for replacements. The school district faces a $125 million deficit as well as the need to hire a new superintendent.

“It is vital that we have a rational and competent school board that can hire an equally rational and competent superintendent they can work with,” he said.

National trend

Social media vitriol, fiery rhetoric and even lawsuits have headlined the recall campaign. Yet the recall is not unique to San Francisco. Across the country, school boards have become the latest battle grounds for populist movements and moneyed political interests.

Ballotpedia, an online service that provides explanations of elections and ballot measures for races nationwide, tallied an average of 23 recall efforts against 52 school board members each year between 2006 and 2020. Last year, however, that number jumped to 84 school board recall efforts against 215 board members.

But here in San Francisco, the recall campaign was not centered around debates facing other school districts, such as textbooks, trans student participation in sports or critical race theory. Nearly half of the campaign’s $1.9 million total dollars raised have come from large donations from people who have no clear connection to San Francisco public schools, and much of the funding was sent through a slew of groups with different names and unclear roots.

Take Neighbors for a Better San Francisco, a political action committee based in San Rafael. It is the single largest contributor to the school board recall campaign, providing $488,800 to various arms of the movement. The PAC’s biggest donor is local hedge fund manager William Oberndorf, who gave $600,000 to Neighbors for a Better San Francisco in 2021. (Oberndorf also gave $1 million to Republican Senator Mitch McConnell’s PAC in 2020).

Other donors include technology investor David Sacks, who gave $74,500 directly to the recall campaign, according to San Francisco ethics filings (and also hosted a fundraiser for Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis), and Jessica Livingston, a Palo Alto resident who co-founded a startup incubator and gave $45,000 to the Concerned Parents of San Francisco PAC.

Retired venture capitalist Arthur Rock has also flooded numerous recall campaign groups with dollars. He gave $100,000 to Campaign for Better San Francisco Public Schools, according to filings, as well as $50,000 to Neighbors for a Better San Francisco and $350,000 to the Concerned Parents of San Francisco Committee, according to reporting from the SF Standard.

Another pillar of support for the recall came from the California Association of Realtors. Citing its wish to keep families in The City, the organization gave nearly $85,000 to various recall groups.

The school board recall signals a “strange bedfellows” moment in San Francisco politics — as in “politics makes for strange bedfellows.” Collins, López and Moliga were removed from their seats due to an unlikely alliance of right-of-center millionaires without substantive ties to local public education and a populist coalition of outraged parents.

Looijen and her husband, Siva Raj, set out in the spring and summer of 2021 to collect 51,325 signatures, roughly 10% of the San Francisco electorate, in favor of recalling each of the school board members. The “Recall SF School Board” petition collected north of 70,000 signatures for each school board member.

“When we started this recall, we were told that one out of 10 recalls makes it to the signature gathering stage. Of those, one out of 10 makes it to the ballot. And of those, only one out of 10 passes,” Looijen said. “If even one of our recall measures passes, it will be a small miracle — and we’re confident we will recall all three.”

Of particular ire to recall supporters was Collins, the then-vice president of the school board. A string of controversial tweets written by Collins in December 2016 were unearthed, reportedly by frustrated and upset parents. The tweets accused Asian American students of using “white supremacist thinking” to get ahead and used “house n****r” (including the asterisks) to refer to Asians.

The revelation sparked outrage, bolstered by Collins’ support for peeling back the merit-based admissions system at Lowell High School, where more than half the students are Asian American.

When the Board of Education voted to strip Collins of her vice presidential status and other leadership roles, she filed a lawsuit seeking $87 million in damages. The suit was later dropped.

While Breed and state Sen. Scott Wiener have endorsed recalling the three school board members, the teachers’ union has not. United Educators of San Francisco instead has focused on the dangers of handing the mayor power to appoint three replacements and questioned the intentions of the PACs funding the recall. Union president Cassondra Curiel has suggested the recall could lead to an influx of charter schools in San Francisco, which union members generally oppose.

The Board of Education special election is the first ballot recall of a San Francisco official in nearly 40 years, since then-mayor Feinstein defeated a recall with 81% of the vote. It will cost The City an estimated $3.25 million.

Joshua Spivak, senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College, has called the San Francisco school board recall the most historically noteworthy effort to remove school officials since 1959 when voters in Little Rock, Ark., recalled three school board members leading to the integration of the city’s high schools.

Leaders of the school board recall movement insist that while the ability to remove an elected official from office before a term expires is an essential democratic tool, they are only to be used in extreme situations.

“Recalls are an emergency escape hatch or crisis situations where an elected leader has failed at their job, and their continued presence would cause real harm,” Looijen said. “Hopefully this recall will send a message that voters care about competence and that will make further recalls unnecessary.”

The question now is: Will the successful school board recall lead to other populist-millionaire strange political bedfellows? Already, similar forces have lined up for and against the recall of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin scheduled for June 7.

On Tuesday, however, the Board of Supervisors voted 7-4 to send a recall reform measure to the ballot on June 7. Among other things, it would prohibit recall elections within one year (rather than six months) of an official taking office, which would have applied to the school board recall.

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