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Faced With Recall, Faauuga Moliga Distances Himself From Fellow SF School Board Members

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SF Mayor London Breed faces a man in a suit holding up his right hand.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed appoints Faauuga Moliga to the SF Board of Education on Oct. 15, 2018, on the campus of the June Jordan School for Equity. Breed has since supported the effort to recall Moliga, who is now the board's vice president. (Courtesy London Breed/Twitter)

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.

The push to recall San Francisco Board of Education members Alison Collins, Gabriela López and Faauuga Moliga is gaining momentum, with high-profile endorsements from state Sen. Scott Wiener and Mayor London Breed.

Voters will be asked whether to keep or oust the commissioners in three separate questions on a Feb. 15 special election ballot. If any are recalled, Breed would choose their replacements.

Recall leaders have said they would recall all seven board members if they could, but the other four commissioners were elected last November, and therefore aren’t yet eligible based on city election rules. There have been at least 55 recall attempts of California school board members this year, according to the California School Boards Association.

Meanwhile, the board’s defenders are getting ready to fight back. The group NoSchoolBoardRecall has begun collecting donations, and Moliga, the board’s vice president, has launched his own campaign. The teachers union has so far not undertaken a formal campaign, and its leaders said they will stay focused on educating voters, for now, though on social media the recall's proponents have accused the union of taking a more active role.

KQED education reporter Vanessa Rancaño spoke with San Francisco Board of Education Vice President Faauuga Moliga about the recall effort against him and his colleagues.

This interview from Nov. 15, has been edited for length and clarity.

Vanessa Rancaño: Do you see a distinction between yourself, Gabriela Lopez and Alison Collins in terms of whether any of you should be recalled?

Faauuga Moliga: There is a recall effort to recall the school board, but, you know, realistically, the school board is not being recalled, three individuals are. Our legislation and the work that we've done are very different, in a sense. Like our interests, things they pursue, they're just very different.

I constantly wanted schools to be open. I've constantly been working at addressing the budget deficit. And I can't speak for what Gabriela or Alison have done or what their interests have been around those things. I'm currently running the race to stop the recall of myself. I'm not running in tandem with Gabriela or Alison currently.

Mayor London Breed originally appointed you to the board. Now she's endorsing this recall effort. How do you think about her role in this?

I disagree with the mayor in terms of her reasoning to recall me, and I let her know that. Things that she's mentioned about my work, I just strongly disagree with. I was hoping she was going to stay out of it.

What role do you think race plays in the recall?

As the first Pacific Islander to ever run for the school board, it's critical. One of the reasons I ran is because Pacific Islanders were not doing well. And the reason why they were not doing well was because there's a lot of systemic barriers that have really been a hindrance for the growth of Pacific Islanders in the city. So having a voice at the table and being able to advocate for things like the Fa'a Sāmoa Initiative, the Samoa Community Development (Center) learning hub, those things just don't show up if you don't have a seat at the table.

In terms of being equitable and being able to serve all your constituents and families that live in the city, you have to have representation, especially for those groups that are marginalized the most. And so race, it really matters to public education.

One of the biggest criticisms from recall supporters is around the reopening of schools as well as feelings from parents of not being heard, the board not recognizing their suffering during the pandemic and their kids’ mental health issues. They point specifically to evidence of learning loss among the most marginalized students in the district. What do you say to them?

One thing that you didn't hear a lot during the pandemic publicly was voices from the marginalized communities. So for me, going out there and meeting with families in projects, indigenous communities, Black communities, Latinx immigrant communities and trying to figure out what are their needs (was important) because they're not the ones that are showing up at the school board meetings. They don't have that kind of access.

This thing around learning loss and the opportunity gap, they kind of go hand in hand. The same students that were facing challenges prior to the pandemic are the same students that were also impacted during the pandemic. Because these are the communities that are currently impacted. If we weren't able to get resources to them as a city and county and a school district prior to (the pandemic) it is going to be really tough for us to do it now. And so, as a school district, we did our best, we did a lot of things: we opened up lunches every day, breakfast every day, fed the whole entire city of San Francisco. We provided technology for all the kids that didn't have it.

I know things weren't perfect, and if people felt unseen during that time, I personally would just like to say we could have done better. I apologize if that was how people felt during that time, and I'm committed to continue to work and to make sure that all our families are heard.

In the context of the budget crisis, I hear a lot of criticism about the board’s fiscal stewardship. How do you defend your track record?

Now that we're coming out of the pandemic, we're finally able to address it in a way that makes sense for not only the school district but also our partners, including our labor partners. When I first came on, I knew we were going into a budget deficit. Repeatedly I said we have to continue doing things that are going to cost-save. It’s not an easy issue that we're working on right now, but I do feel confident that we're going to be able to get a balanced budget and not have the school district be taken over.

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Do you see any validity in the anger that's being expressed by some parents through this recall?

I do, and I understand. I've met with parents, sit down and talk with parents, especially the parents that have been feeling unheard. My hope is that we can work together now and in the future.

Do you have greater political ambitions?

It's never been my intention. My goal at the end of the day is to close the opportunity gap for Pacific Islanders, Black, Latinx and other students.

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

During the pandemic, I spearheaded this resolution around coordinated care. I'm a clinical social worker — the first thing you want to do during a crisis is be able to assess any situation. And so what the coordinator care did was, it provided the school district with the framework to be able to conduct wellness checks.

I spearheaded the Our Healing in our Hands resolution championed by the Chinese youth at the Chinese Progressive Association. We created a brand new wellness center at Balboa High School. We upped the number of mental health workers in the school district, increased the amount of therapists, plus (created) the peer wellness program. When the pandemic hit, those things were critical.

During the pandemic, I authored and passed the MediCal (Billing) resolution, which in 2025, is looking to draw in more than $25 million.

Through the Fa'a Sāmoa Initiative, we were able to build the first PreK-12 dual immersion Samoan school in the Bayview and it has the highest preschool enrollment in the school district right now. There's more work to expand that into other great levels. We were able to bring on staff to be able to run the Fa'a Sāmoa Initiative: we hired a policy analyst, there's also an HPR coordinator. Through the pandemic, they were able to get a peer mentoring program rolling, tutoring rolling, all virtual. They got a (Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Parent Advisory Council) for the school district.

Prior to the pandemic, educator housing was the number one issue, and so when I got on the school board, I was able to pass a resolution that targets three lots in the city to begin building teacher housing.

When we went into a budget deficit, the first thing I did was (ask) Where are we spending high dollars? Our transportation cost is astronomical. So I was able to roll out a resolution which is saving the school district $25 million within the next five years.

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