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'All Political': SF Board of Education President Gabriela López on the Recall Effort Against Her, 2 Other Board Members

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A woman with long brown hair and a red and black woven masks holds a microphone in front of windows reflecting trees.
SFUSD Board President Gabriela López speaks during a rally at Lowell High School on Feb. 5, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

This article is part of a series of interviews KQED has conducted with all three San Francisco school board members facing recall elections in February.

For the first time in nearly 40 years, a recall is headed to the ballot in San Francisco.

Voters will be asked whether to keep or oust San Francisco Board of Education members Alison Collins, Gabriela López and Faauuga Moliga in three separate questions on a Feb. 15 special election ballot. If any are recalled, Mayor London Breed would choose their replacements.

The other four members of the board were elected last November, and therefore are not eligible to be recalled based on city elections rules.

Getting any recall on the ballot is tough, but a school board recall is an especially difficult proposition in normal times.

“The average voter doesn’t even think about the schools,” said Larry Tramutola, an Oakland-based political consultant who’s spent decades working on education-related campaigns. “You could stand on any corner in San Francisco, and despite San Francisco being highly educated, highly politically aware, if you ask 100 people who their school board members are, I’ll bet three can tell you who they are.”

But these are hardly normal times. The California School Boards Association said there are roughly 60 recall attempts this year. “This is far beyond anything that’s ever been seen in California before,” said CSBA spokesperson Troy Flint.

That’s in part because parents, forced to become more active participants in the educational process during distance learning, started paying more attention to school boards and didn’t like what they saw, whether it was delays in reopening schools for in-person learning, mask mandates or teaching critical race theory and ethnic studies, “even in California,” Flint said.

Many of these recall efforts have already failed or are likely to fail. But in San Francisco, critics argued the board prioritized initiatives to rename schools and overhaul admissions procedures at Lowell High School rather than what they called the far more pressing issue of reopening classrooms.

The grassroots momentum that created, plus some big donors, made for success. “When the recall ball starts rolling down the hill, it collects issues,” Tramutola said.

Now, opponents of the effort are preparing to mount a defense. The group NoSchoolBoardRecall has begun collecting donations, and Commissioner Moliga has launched his own campaign. Meanwhile, United Educators of San Francisco President Cassondra Curiel said the teachers union will stay focused on educating voters for now.

KQED education reporter Vanessa Rancaño spoke with San Francisco Board of Education President Gabriela López about the recall effort against her and her colleagues.

This interview from Oct. 25 has been edited for length and clarity.

Vanessa Rancaño: Do you draw a distinction between yourself and Collins and Moliga? And do you think voters should draw distinctions?

Gabriela López: That's a good question, and I really believe that they should view us as a board, because it really is a recall against the school board. There's a part of me that knows if they could do all seven they would have. There's been talks and attempts to do that as well. So in remaining united as we have been, considering the year we've had, that's important for voters to view as well because this is really part of a larger issue — on trying to take over school districts and school boards — that we're seeing across the country.

Mayor London Breed was pretty vocal about wanting schools reopened. She was openly critical of this renaming effort. How do you think about her role in this recall, as the official who would appoint a potential replacement? 

I think the underlying issue is that fact: the amount of control that the city and the mayor would have over these positions. And I completely understand the area around reopening schools and the issues that that created. But what people fail to remember is during that time, at the beginning of this year, it wasn't even that long ago, we still weren't in a place where people had access to vaccines, where we were out of the tier that allowed us to be in-person and to be safe, and that we weren't ready to put people in that situation when it wasn't clear yet. Once that opportunity opened up in April, then we began to do that work, understanding that younger learners, who were the most impacted, should get priority.

But this sense of just returning to return because of the pressure that people were giving us, or the fact that the city sued the school district — which I still disagree with — and trying to push these efforts to appease a voter base that honestly wasn't impacted by the pandemic in as many ways as other communities were who didn't want to return, is all political. The fact that people keep pointing to the renaming issue is another, for me, excuse to kind of point to that fact. And I say that because the renaming work had begun before members were even on the board. It was passed by a previous school board a couple of years back, and work had begun on a topic that hadn't been finalized yet.

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But it didn't take away from the planning that was occurring already to [reopen schools]. The fact that we had been meeting and organizing and getting all of the information ready for our families — it didn't take away from that. So in fact, the response to the renaming and using that as an excuse of us not focusing on [just] one thing was what created the distraction, in my belief, because we were still doing all of that. We hadn't taken a break over the summer before, like we do in regular years. We've been meeting almost on a weekly basis. ... In fact, [it] was all people were doing seven days a week.

What role do you think race plays in this recall push?

Obviously that's an important question, and I'm not going to say that we're not noticing that this is a recall against people of color, and it's against people who have also been doing a lot of work to support those communities across our city who are often not in these spaces. So, I do believe if it wasn't someone with my background, and I'll speak for myself, my experience, my understanding or cultural understandings, I don't think I would be getting as much pushback as I am now.

[This recall] is aligned in many ways with other issues that are happening across the country. ... People might disagree, but I think a lot of the issues that we're facing have to do with who's in a position of power right now, who isn't usually.

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One of the criticisms that I am hearing again and again from the recall proponents is this idea of prioritizing politics or ideology over kids. Some people say that the reopening delay hurt disadvantaged kids in the district the most, and that the board was posturing — doing these ideological things like renaming, and Lowell — rather than focusing on reopening, which they argued was the most concrete thing that could have been done to support the most vulnerable or marginalized kids in the district. What do you make of that?

What I certainly know is many of the criticisms that we're hearing I don't believe were on the ground in the communities most affected. When the pandemic started, a group of us in the Latino community formed the Latino Task Force, and a lot of our work was how do we support Latino communities who we know are most affected, least able to access resources, least able to take two weeks off if they get infected? And seeing that struggle ... I was surrounded by that every day just being on the ground, helping families navigate the tech platforms, hosting classes and being in their space, helping families sign up. I was seeing the real fear of being in a space that wasn't ready for them. I still hear about it, even though we're back now.

So to be told by a community of people who I know are privileged that we're not supporting the most marginalized ... it was honestly hard for me because a part of me knew that they weren't seeing it and living it every day. I heard stories of families who for eight months didn't leave their homes. And this idea of trying to force us to come back when people weren't ready, when the city wasn't ready, when the country wasn't ready, is something I would not be able to stand by.

[Returning to schools] was not safe until maybe April. And even then the schools weren't designed to support us in this way. And we have a prime example right now: One of our school sites — Buena Vista Horace Mann — is operating under horrible conditions that we've been learning about over and over, and families have that understanding. So to be told that we are returning to school buildings that aren't in the best conditions, but that we're going to be safe, especially during a pandemic, is really hard for people.

Do you see any validity in the anger expressed in this recall effort?

I, of course, do. I know that we are living through a horrible, stressful time, and to feel like your concerns aren't heard and the issues aren't being resolved, is infuriating. And I completely, completely understand that and believe that. My response to people who have been in that position has always been to be as open as I can, to be available to communicate, have conversations, maybe even explain further to get through what's being either miscommunicated or not communicated during our board meetings.

I think one thing that I keep hearing is, I don't listen to parents — and that's far from the truth. Part of my daily routine is talking to at least one parent. And those have just become habits that have grown in the position that I've created for myself in this role, and continues to be even when people are frustrated with our actions.

What have you found are the biggest obstacles to doing the sort of equity work you care about?

For me, it's really trying to educate people to see what we mean by this work, why we're pushing this work, why it's important to see who is affected, what they're telling us that the people aren't hearing during our meetings, and changing that. But I hear a lot of hate in the response. It reminds me of why I'm doing this work and why I need to keep pushing, but it's also very toxic and frustrating and tiring. That balance to keep going is really tricky.

Do you have greater political aspirations? Would you run again for the board? What's next?

To say it plainly, no, no, no. Obviously I've learned a lot. When I first began, I remember saying I was very, very grateful to be in this position. As soon as I became president, and this year and everything that came with it happened, that started to shift. ... It was just kind of a clear indication of why people say politics is dirty and why regular people — I consider myself to be a regular worker, an educator who really wanted to make an impact at a policy level — get drained out. When I ran, it was because people were supportive and encouraged me and motivated me to do it. And the reason why I kept doing that work is because of those people.

I never have [and] never will have aspirations for higher office, even though I know this position is set up for that. If you take a look at our Board of Supervisors, even the many who are in those positions now running for higher office, that is far from where I ever see myself being. My world is in education. ... I'm currently applying to Ph.D. programs to pursue a different part of this work. And this isn't going to change that or take away from that.

So, no, I don't have any aspirations for higher office. I'm not sure at this moment if I'll run again next fall for a second term. But I do fear that this experience is going to deter other people from doing that.

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