The San Francisco school board on Tuesday voted unanimously to rescind its controversial approval of a renaming process that fueled anger, litigation and even a recall campaign.
The board agreed to revisit the issue after all San Francisco Unified School District students return to in-person learning five days a week, which it committed to on Tuesday for the fall semester.
Tuesday’s vote overturns a Jan. 26 vote accepting a panel’s recommendations to rename 44 schools, a process that met with criticism both for its methods and conclusions and for the fact that it occurred while students were learning from home.
One month after the vote, Board President Gabriela López said the board would halt any work on the matter until SFUSD reopened and would revise plans for the renaming process moving forward, engaging historians and conducting more community outreach.
“I acknowledge and take responsibility that mistakes were made in the renaming process,” Lopez said in February. “We recognize we need to slow down. And we need to provide more opportunities for community input. We are working with educators at all levels to involve and educate our school communities about the renaming process.”
However, Tuesday’s vote to completely rescind the vote was forced by a court order issued last month requiring the district to either revoke its decision or show cause why it should not by May 6. The order was the result of a lawsuit filed by groups including the Abraham Lincoln and George Washington high school alumni associations. Both schools had been targeted for renaming.
“We all share the same values of reflecting on our history and trying to uplift disadvantaged groups, particularly those most oppressed, but the process has to be fair and open for the end result to endure and be respected by the community,” said Paul Scott, the attorney representing plaintiffs opposed to the renaming decision, in an email before the vote. “They could have been dedicating their energy to getting kids back in school. Instead, they created a legal mess and left San Francisco residents with no alternative but to file suit against the board to clean it up.”
The resolution approved Tuesday called the suit “a transparent attempt to thwart a lawful and duly-noticed action with which it disagrees. The board is deeply grateful for the work of the panel, but wishes to avoid the distraction and wasteful expenditure of public funds in frivolous litigation.”
The renaming process and the blue-ribbon advisory panel were launched in 2018, at a time when institutions nationwide were grappling with the legacy of slavery and racism reflected in many names and statues. San Francisco itself has removed several controversial statues — not always by choice — and renamed streets and parks as part of the ongoing movement.
Meetings of the panel resumed online during shelter-in-place, leading to a recommendation to rename 44 schools, including Francis Scott Key and Junipero Serra elementary schools, for their associations with slavery, colonization and oppression.
Many communities welcomed the change and several people who called into public comment on Tuesday expressed disappointment at the change in policy.
“We had a board that was committed to doing the same here in San Francisco, to not allow vestiges of racial injustice and inequity to stay here,” said Bivett Brackett, an SFUSD alum. “Now we’re pretty much going back on that. The process is being co-opted by people with moneyed interests who have come to this board before and made very anti-Black, anti-Asian statements.”
Others supported the resolution, calling it the right move at this time.
The process was criticized for not including historical experts, and for the fact that it asked schools to launch a community process to consider alternate names during a chaotic time of distance learning. Proponents of a recall campaign invoked renaming and another controversial vote to change admissions at Lowell High School as they began collecting signatures last week to oust Lopez and fellow board members Faauuga Moliga and Alison Collins.
Moliga said he intended to propose a resolution on how the process would resume when the time comes.