San Francisco values education, says school board recall driver Siva Raj

Ritu Jha-

San Francisco voted out three members of the city’s school board for what critics said were misplaced priorities and putting progressive politics over the needs of children during the pandemic.

Fueled by the failure to reopen schools last year and unpopular moves aimed at advancing racial justice, citizens voted to recall three members of the San Francisco Unified School District board – President Gabriela López, Vice-President Faauuga Moliga and Commissioner Alison Collins – from their positions Tuesday.

While the board has seven members, all Democrats, only these three were eligible to be recalled. The other four had only been elected recently.

The recall campaign was led by Siva Raj(Above photo), an Indian American father of two who was upset when he saw his sons’ grades nose-dive due to the prolonged shutdown of schools while board members were busy changing school names.

Siva Raj and his friend, Autumn Looijen(Above photo), started the campaign which has now become the first successful recall in San Francisco since 1983, when an attempt to remove then Mayor Dianne Feinstein, now U.S. Senator, failed.

“The city of San Francisco values education,” Siva Raj told indica on the telephone. “We want our politicians to put our children first. I think the result gave a clear message to not just the school board but every elected official in the city that if you don’t put our children first you will be fired.”

Both Raj and Looijen said they were happy with the outcome. “I have been giving press interviews and now need a good sleep,” he said. “It was a long campaign, almost a year long, convincing residents the school board members have to go.

“We feel proud today, and not just for what we did but what the community accomplished,” he added.

Looijen said the campaign had been hard and collecting signatures during the pandemic was tough. But even people without kids had felt strongly about the situation and come forward to help, she said.

About their next steps, Raj said a lot of reform is needed and the school board seems to have lost focus from the goal of giving children a good education and preparing them for a successful life. “Their (the school board members’) unwillingness to focus on the job they have to do was an issue,” he said. The school district is facing a $125 million budget deficit.

“We have to bring the families together and make San Francisco attractive for public schools,” he continued. “So many kids are falling behind. My kids are struggling and we constantly hear kids are struggling not just with mental issues but academic as well. They are really struggling to balance.”

San Francisco Mayor London Breed said in a statement, “The voters have delivered a clear message that the school board must focus on the essentials of delivering a well-run school system above all else.”

She continued, “San Francisco is a city that believes in the value of big ideas, but those ideas must be built on the foundation of a government that does the essentials well.

“I want to recognize all the parents who tirelessly organized and advocated in the last year. Elections can be difficult, but these parents were fighting for what matters most – their children.

“There are many critical decisions in the coming months – addressing a significant budget deficit, hiring a new superintendent, and navigating our emergence from this pandemic.

“These are on top of the structural issues the district has faced for years that include declining enrollment and fixing our school assignment system to better serve families and our students.”

Breed, who had been supportive of the recall campaign, said the city would offer support to the school board to take up the tasks facing it.

“Our kids have suffered tremendously during this pandemic, dealing with serious learning loss and significant mental health challenges,” she said. “It’s time we refocus on the basics of providing quality education for all students while more broadly improving how this city delivers support for children and families.”

Opponents criticized the recall as a waste of time and money and the decision to change admissions criteria for Lowell High School proved enormously controversial.

Admissions to Lowell under the lottery increased representation among Black and Hispanic students. But critics of the decision, including many alumni and parents at the school, asserted that the change was anti-Asian. They also argued that it would water down the academic standards that had made the school a superb place for learning.

Anger was further driven by anti-Asian tweets made by Collins in 2016, before she was elected to the board. The tweets were only discovered last year. They accused Asian Americans of benefiting from the “‘model minority’ BS” and using “white supremacist thinking to assimilate and ‘get ahead’.” She also suggested they were not standing up to President Donald Trump, using a racial slur to describe them.

The school board voted to strip Collins of her position as vice-president, and Collins responded by suing the board, producing further turmoil that was unrelated to the education of children.

The Chinese American Democratic Club had urged voters to support the recall. The election, unlike many others in the city, appeared to galvanize Asian voters. Ann Hsu, a parent and organizer with the Chinese/API Voter Outreach Taskforce, said the vote was a repudiation of anti-Asian actions. She pointed to the Lowell decision and said the board had “bulldozed over our concerns”.

“The recalled school board members are paying the price for their actions that were blatantly discriminatory towards the AAPI community,” she said.

At the White House Wednesday, press secretary Jen Psaki declined to comment on the result but emphasized Biden’s support for open schools. “We understand where parents are coming from when they want schools to be open as well,” she said. “And the president recognizes the mental health impact it has on kids for them not to be open.”

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