Harnessing the frustration over delays in school reopening, a political action committee targeting the school board for a possible recall or other changes has launched this week.
The Campaign for Better Public Schools, launched by the Families for San Francisco PAC, is exploring options to make long-lasting changes to San Francisco Unified School District, the Examiner has learned. That could include recalling current school board members, placing a charter amendment to make them mayoral appointees on the ballot, another charter amendment dividing school board seats up by supervisorial districts, or simply running candidates to defeat incumbents.
While a number of people have raised the idea of recalling elected board members or pursuing a charter amendment in recent months, the formation of a political action committee represents a more serious effort.
“We’re going to explore options,” said Patrick Wolff, Families for San Francisco chief strategist. “At a minimum, we want a better school board. There’s really a crisis of government at the moment and we certainly want to address that. We want to see if we can use this moment and groundswell to make longer-lasting, more fundamental reform for the betterment of [public schools.]”
SFUSD and the school board have been criticized for moving slowly to bring students back to physical classrooms afforded to private school students and for the perception that it is focused on other policy changes such as school renaming and changing Lowell High School admissions. Mayor London Breed has been vocal in condemning the district and City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed suit against SFUSD to compel reopening earlier this month.
School Board President Gabriela Lopez and Vice President Alison Collins declined to comment Tuesday on the formation of the PAC.
School officials have previously vehemently rejected the notion that they are not working on a safe reopening. SFUSD and unions have reached a tentative agreement around safety standards that the board was expected to vote on Tuesday, but that vote has been delayed to next week while a final in-person teaching agreement is being negotiated. Board members were instead meeting in closed session to discuss litigation.
“If they want mayoral appointments, maybe they don’t want a democratic process,” Board member Matt Alexander told the Examiner earlier this month. “People should absolutely hold public officials accountable, but that’s why we have elections. Many families are really desperate right now — [helping them] would be a much better use of our money than trying to engage in political games.”
Recalling board members will be a tough order. San Francisco voters just elected four members — Alexander, Jenny Lam, Mark Sanchez and Kevine Boggess — in November and they aren’t eligible for a recall effort until June. Lopez, Collins and Faauuga Moliga are up for reelection in November 2022, and cannot be recalled less than six months before their term ends. Sanchez, a teacher who chose to skip campaign fundraising during the last election to focus on his then-board president role, and Lam coasted to reelection in the face of building pressure to reopening.
A recall campaign has 120-160 days to gather valid signatures once the Department of Elections notifies the proponent that their petition has met requirements. Joel Engardio, who unsuccessfully ran for District 7 supervisor in November and has recently focused on school board reform, said a recall campaign would need to gather about 70,000 signatures to make sure enough are validated. If a successful petition kicks off this spring, San Francisco could be in for a rare local recall election this fall.
Gov. Gavin Newsom is also facing his own recall effort, but it’s unclear whether a local recall would be tied to a state recall election date.
“Getting 70,000 signatures in a pandemic is going to be very difficult,” Engardio said. “That’s why some people are talking about a charter amendment. Or, if that fails, the last recourse is running candidates at the election next November to kick out the incumbents.”
The soonest a charter amendment could be placed on the ballot is at the next regular June 2022 election, Engardio added. There may be two charter efforts, one around turning the board into mayoral appointments, or dividing the board by supervisorial districts. Wolff cast doubt on the latter but said Better Public Schools would explore all options.
The effort is likely to face heavy opposition from groups including the teachers union and many progressives. Families for San Francisco has faced criticism in the past for taking over a PAC last year that took money from the Police Officers Association, although Wolff denounced that organization and said it didn’t reflect the group’s values.
United Educators of San Francisco President Susan Solomon cautioned against the proposed charter amendment and pointed to Chicago, where there have been numerous efforts to turn the mayor-appointed school board into an independently-elected body. She also noted that most public school funding comes from the state, not The City.
“That’s a terrible idea, in my opinion,” Solomon said earlier this month. “That’s a whole lot of control for one person. Public education needs to have its own voice and not be The City taking over.”
UESF endorsements are almost always predictors of which candidates — of which there have been more than a dozen in recent years — will prevail. But it is not entirely clear that giving the mayor more influence will change the way the board works.
Breed appointed Lam, who serves as her education advisor, to fill a vacancy, and voters have elected her twice since then. Breed also appointed board member Moliga shortly before the 2018 election, giving him a potential late boost. However, both have since voted to rename 44 schools, a decision that Breed has sharply criticized, and largely followed the rest of the board’s lead on other issues.
Better Public Schools will hold an informational session to launch the PAC on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. It comes after a conversation with Lopez and Lam about safe school reopenings on Wednesday at 7 p.m.