Residents view a Works Progress Administration mural that dates to the Great Depression at George Washington High School. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

High school mural backers move planned ballot measure to November

Group seeking to preserve controversial historic fresco and keep it visible to public

Supporters of a controversial mural inside of George Washington High School announced Friday that they intend to forge ahead with a ballot initiative aimed at keeping it in place and visible to the public — but not before November 2020.

The group, called Coalition to Protect Public Art, had initially planned to place the issue of whether the 13-panel fresco depicting slavery and genocide of indigenous people should be covered up or not before voters in March.

In a statement issued Friday, the group said that it is now “drafting the legal language of the initiative,” with plans to launch a petition signature drive in February 2020 to qualify the measure, called Protect Public Access to Public Art Initiative, for the ballot.

“The ballot initiative comes in response to a decision by the San Francisco Board of

Education to spend $825,000 to install solid panels that would permanently block the public

from viewing 13 New Deal murals by Victor Arnautoff at George Washington High School,” the group said in its statement.

The announcement follows a lawsuit filed by the high school’s alumni association last week, which challenges a vote by the school board in August to cover the New Deal-era mural, which spans George Washington High School’s lobby.

The alumni association’s lawsuit alleges that this decision violated an environmental review process required under California law.

“There is no basis for the assumption that the [school board] will not exercise good faith throughout this process and, in fact, the board has every intention of doing so,” said San Francisco Unified School District Spokesperson Gentle Blythe in response to the lawsuit on Wednesday, calling it “premature.”

“Through this process, the District is committed to evaluating all possible

options to accomplish our goal of addressing the harm and impact of this mural on our students, in full compliance with the law,” said Blythe.

While the controversy over the “Life of Washington” mural inside of the high school is not new — efforts by the school’s Black Student Union as well as the Black Panther Party to remove it date back some 50 years — the debate over whether a mural depicting slaves shucking corn and colonizers towering over a dead Native American is appropriate in a school setting was renewed in June after the school board initially voted to paint over it.

Following pushback from arts preservationists and the alumni association who have argued that painting over the mural is censorship, the school board in August directed the district to study alternatives, including covering it up with solid panels.

“That flawed decision satisfied nobody and resolved nothing,” said Jon Golinger, director of the coalition, in a letter penned to school board President Stevon Cook on Friday. “If the School Board continues its current plan to deny students, teachers, and the public the ability to learn from, debate, and decide for themselves what to think about these important works of art, we are confident that San Francisco voters will decide otherwise.”

Cook acknowledged that the board’s vote “didn’t please everyone,” but added that “reversing the decision to paint over themural does protect the art.”

“The data on student achievement was released this week. I understand the attention on the mural, but it’s unfortunate that people want to spend millions on a ballot measure and aren’t as concerned about advocating for our most vulnerable students,” he said.

Cook added: “I think it should be noticed that they’re making this announcement as we appraoch Indigenous People’s Day, which we formerly called Columbus Day. This matter [the mural] has been an ongoing source of pain for the Native American community and it shows an ongoing disregard for their ongoing advocacy about this issue.”

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