Siva Raj, an Indian American father of two, was faced with a difficult choice when the pandemic hit in 2020: rebuild his start-up business which became a victim of COVID-19 or focus on his children’s suddenly nose-diving grades due to the prolonged shutdown of schools; he chose the latter.
That decision all those months ago has resulted in today in Raj, a data scientist by training, taking up the herculean task of recalling the San Francisco Unified School District(SFUSD)board members.
Speaking exclusively to indica, Raj [Above with his children]expressed surprise and anguish that the board was more focused on changing school names for reasons of political expediency than on ensuring better education outcomes in a desperate situation.
Nothing wrong in changing names, he said, but is this the time to do it when parents and students are struggling to cope with the pandemic and its impact on education? Moreover, the process has been superficial and flawed, without involving the community and parents.
“It was not just the wrong time, but the wrong way to do it,” he said. “With billions of dollars in the school system in one of the wealthiest cities in the world we are struggling to get the basic rights.”
Raj is being helped in his campaign by his partner Autumn Looijen. Both had moved to San Francisco in Dec 2020 to join the ecosystem the city offers for start-ups. Both have now shelved their start-up ideas to run a grassroots campaign to recall the school board.
Looijen told indica, “Siva and I saw in our own family what a difference it makes to have open schools. My kids were happily learning in person down the peninsula, while he was stuck at home, depressed and falling behind. It was deeply unfair.
“Siva’s kids are my kids too, and it was heart-breaking to see them struggle,” she said.
The election decision will be made on Feb 15; mail-in ballots start on Jan 17. Three San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) board members have been named in the special recall election: Gabriela López, Faauuga Moliga and Alison Collins. According to the city’s Department of Elections, more than 500,000 vote-by-mail packets are on their way and voters should expect them starting this week.
On why only three are named in the recall election, Looijen said, “When we started the recall, only 3 members were eligible for recall — you need to wait 6 months after they are sworn in (in this case it would’ve meant waiting until July).”
Both Raj and Looijen believe the recall is important because every child in San Francisco deserves a world-class education – and that won’t happen with this board in place.
“This school board let kids fall behind during Zoom school, and has no plan to help them catch up,” Looijen said. “They didn’t spend money wisely and pushed families away, and now they have cut $125 million from our budgets. They treat parents like enemies when we all want is what’s best for our children.
“It will take more than the recall to get our schools back on track – but getting better leadership is a critical first step,” she added.
Raj said the worsening system at SFUSD is not because of a lack of money or talent, but a lack of political will. “For us, it was real learning in terms of understanding why it is going on. I never paid attention to politics in the past and have lived here (San Francisco) for work,” he said.
Raj, who came to the US in 2010, first lived in New York before moving to California to start a company. Before the pandemic hit, he was in tech health care, selling specialized bikes to health clubs and gyms.
He was working on another start-up with Looijen, a software engineer, experimenting with some ideas and apps to start a company until they decided on the recall.
Raj believes the SFUSD stayed shut because it had no plan for reopening in place. Private schools reopened in 2020 as did schools in the Bay Area and in Los Altos. They were ready because they had done the preparatory work in the summer of 2020.
In San Francisco, the school board was supposed to hire a ‘reopening consultant’ but rejected them. Raj said even superintendent Vincent Matthews was angry with the board, saying it was making it impossible to reopen.
Asked whether they had spoken to Dr Matthews, he said they did not have direct access to the superintendent. In any case, he is not the one making the decisions, it is the school board. The superintendent’s role is limited to the execution of the board’s decision.
San Francisco has a very diverse school district. Many of the students had little or no support at home. Some families had to go out to work and just giving a laptop was the starting point.
“I was lucky I was home and could supervise my kids and make sure they were on Zoom,” Raj said. “There were wi-fi issues and a lot of work. It was hard.” Those kids who belonged to disadvantaged families were simply left behind, he said.
“We found they were just not interested in reopening the schools, so we thought to do something,” he said, explaining the rationale for the recall move.
The SFUSD elementary schools reopened in April last year while middle and high schools reopened in the current academic year in August 2021.
Asked why the recall election has been called after schools reopened, Raj cited a number of reasons. “It was a huge learning loss for our kids,” he said, “and even today the board is not ready to acknowledge the learning loss has happened.
“They need to identify kids and put a plan in place to help them catch up with their peers, otherwise their future will be compromised forever.
“What would they (the students) do when they graduate and have no future to look forward to? We cannot let that happen,” he said.
Because of the prolonged closure, school enrolment has declined, he continued, leading to severe budgetary cuts that could lead to cutting of staff and teachers.
A third major issue is racism in the board. “In March we discovered that former San Francisco school board vice-president Alison Collins made anti-Asian tweets, which she refused to acknowledge until she was asked to resign, then sued the SFUSD schools for $87 million saying it violated her First Amendment Rights.
“The level of dysfunction happening here at (the SFUSD) is exorbitant,” Raj exclaimed.
Explaining why the three board members have been singled out, he said, “The three we are recalling have at every step made bad decisions. Instead of focusing on students’ education, they are focused on all kinds of gimmicks. They are more interested in furthering their political careers.
“They could have said sorry and offered to make corrections, but they have taken the opposite approach. The children are getting affected badly,” he added.
Igniting the recall campaign was not easy, given how tough it was to get signatures during the pandemic. Raj, Looijen and their supporters collected in-person signatures from April 1 through Sept 7. “In San Francisco, to get the recall on the ballot, we had to submit 51,325 valid signatures,” Raj said. “We got nearly 80,000.”
In July last year, the San Francisco Chronicle published an opinion poll showing 71 percent of San Francisco residents disapproved of the school board and 69 percent of public-school parents supported the recall.
Raj has received an outpouring of support from Mayor London Breed to former chair of the California Democratic Party John Burton.
“We are very much a grassroots operation mostly run by parents and a few teachers and people interested in public education,” he said. “We are non-partisan.” Almost 1,000 people volunteered to collect signatures for the recall petition. “We had people standing all over grocery stores and farmers’ markets,” he added.
Raj was hopeful of the result on Feb 15. “We have so many crises that need to be solved,” he said. “We feel confident and are out there every weekend talking to people and informing them.”
If all three members get recalled, then the city’s mayor will appoint three new members in their place.
As probably the first Indian American to initiate such citizen action and become a catalyst for change, Raj said, “This is very important for us. Education is central to Asian Americans and that is why so many come to America because we are educated.”
“Many of us come from poor backgrounds. We are in San Francisco, we have money because of our education and skills, and we want our next generations to get a similar opportunity.”
The campaign has also been endorsed by the Chinese American Democratic Club. “People are united and feel very strongly in this recall election,” Raj said.