SF School Board Member Alison Collins Defends Herself Against Recall Effort

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San Francisco Board of Education Commissioner Alison Collins addresses her supporters at a rally in San Francisco on March 31, 2021. (MJ Johnson/KQED)

This article is part of a series of interviews that 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.

Meanwhile, the board’s defenders are getting ready to fight back. The group NoSchoolBoardRecall has begun collecting donations, and Vice President Moliga has launched his own campaign. The union representing San Francisco teachers said it opposes the recall effort, but for now will remain on the sidelines, with a focus on educating voters, according to its leadership. On social media the recall's proponents have accused the union of taking a more active role.

Recall leaders argue the board unnecessarily delayed reopening classrooms while prioritizing, and mismanaging, the renaming of schools and the admissions policy change at Lowell High School. But anger directed at Collins has been its own motivating force for some. Collins was stripped of her leadership position on the board over past Twitter comments resurfaced by recall proponent and Lowell alumna Diane Yap. In response, Collins sued the district for $87 million. A judge dismissed the suit, and Collins dropped her effort.

KQED education reporter Vanessa Rancaño spoke with San Francisco Board of Education commissioner Alison Collins about that controversy and the broader recall effort.

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

Vanessa Rancaño: Do you draw a distinction between yourself and Gabriela Lopez and Faauuga Moliga in terms of whether you should be recalled?

Alison Collins: No. We are all representing constituencies that have been underrepresented. We all come from community. We all value community voice. We may not always see eye to eye on how to get there. I think that is normal, healthy part of democracy, and I think it makes our board better that we do represent and reflect a variety of voices and constituencies.

I'm really proud of the work that we are doing because that expertise and direct experience inform the work that we've been doing, and it's allowed us to really bridge some of these persistent gaps that have been named in the past, but that we haven't been able to really address before.

Are you going to campaign with them?

I think most of what we've been doing is doing the work. One of the things that I think makes me the most sad about this recall effort is that it takes needed energy away from meeting the needs of our most vulnerable communities who are still struggling with the impacts of the pandemic. I would much rather be talking to you about, how do we address sexual assault in our schools? How do we fully fund education in California? This is happening nationwide with an unprecedented amount of recalls across the country. It is a political tactic, and it's unfortunate when politics gets in the way of us doing the work that we were elected to do.

How are you thinking about the mayor's role in this recall?

Obviously, education is always a political issue. Folks often want to use education as a talking point, you know, to engage with voters. Schools are always a very emotional issue. But we're the ones that are most closely connected to the communities that we serve.

I think four out of seven of us are credentialed educators. I always defer to the folks that are on the ground and are doing the work. And those are going to be the parents, parent leaders, students themselves and our educators that are in the schools. And those are the folks that we're listening to.

What role do you think race plays in this recall?

It’s not just about race. But I do think that when you look at some of the criticism directed specifically at the three of us ... having a president that's Latina, a vice president that's Black and both also being women as well. I do think there are different standards. I think where this really shows up is not in critiques of policies, but in critiques of people. They invariably feed into tropes of certain racial, cultural or gender groups.

For a lot of parents who are supporting this recall they are frustrated around the reopening of schools,  feeling like the board wasn't listening to them and ignoring concerns about learning loss and mental health issues. They argue, if this board is so worried about equity, why are they doing these “symbolic” things and not reopening, which would help the kids who are most likely to suffer learning loss during the pandemic. What would you want to say to them?

We represent all parents and I'm a parent who wanted my teenagers to go back for sure, but there were also families that reached out to us that were worried. Our number one priority was opening schools safely, not opening schools at all costs. I'm proud of the work that our district has done and I think it reflects a wide range of perspectives.

This idea about learning loss — every year, the parent advisory council — the [American Indian/Alaskan Native Parent Advisory Council], the [Community Advisory Committee for Special Education for SFUSD], the English Learners Advisory Committee —  present an official report to the Board of Education and there is one consistent thing that they say that their children need: they need to see that their community, history and culture is reflected in the curriculum. That motivates kids, so that has a direct impact on achievement. Anybody who's saying they're not focused on learning is actually just not aware or hasn't been involved because that's the work that we're currently doing.

I want to ask you about the tweet controversy. Looking back, how do you judge the way you handled that situation?

I'm very sorry that my words were used in a way that was hurtful to a community that was reeling. I'm very sad that my words were weaponized in that way. And they did cause people pain. During that time, I was listening to many folks and having really hard conversations with people.

This was about really just stirring up outrage. And I don't think that's productive for the Black community. I don't think it's productive for the Asian-American community.

My tweets, what I said, was not racist. My tweets addressed ongoing anti-Black racism at Lowell and throughout SFUSD. Anybody who's done racial equity work, they understood what I was saying. At the same time, I did not think that having (that) conversation during a time when Asian-Americans were really grieving (was appropriate.)

If we're going to talk about what I said, we should be looking at who surfaced what I said and what were their motivations in sharing old tweets about during a time when Asian Americans were going through a lot of fear and pain. If the impact of starting that conversation is more upset, that says a lot about what's really behind that conversation. And I think this is a part of a larger pattern that we see behind recalls going on nationally.

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In terms of your lawsuit, why — in the context of the district's financial situation, in the context of everything that you just expressed about the pain in Asian-American communities at that time — why was it important to you to sue?

I needed to protect my family, and I also needed to protect the work of the Board of Education and also protect students and families in our district and in our communities. What happened to me was an information attack and the goal of it was to prevent me and President Lopez and others on our board from doing this racial equity work. Specifically, it relates to Lowell.

If folks want to talk about lawsuits, there's a lot of lawsuits flying around, right? And there's a lot of people filing them, and a lot of those lawsuits are being lodged by folks who want to undermine progress for communities of color who are consistently fighting to make sure that their kids have access to high-quality schools and that their kids feel valued and visible in the schools.

I had the opportunity to continue my lawsuit and I chose not to continue it when school started because I wanted to focus on meeting the needs of families and students.

Do you regret filing it?

No, I don't, because it reaffirmed my presence on the board. And it also protected my family.

Looking back at the last couple of years, is there anything that you would do differently?

I lead with my heart, so making the right choice in some ways is easy, but it can be difficult at the same time in the sense that what is politically expedient isn't always the right thing. I'm doing what I was elected to do. I'm defending the right of all children to a quality education and specifically centering families that have a harder time getting access.

Do you have greater political ambitions?

No, I've been very clear. I think you're not supposed to say that or as a politician, but I'm an educator through and through. I'm a parent activist organizer through and through. I've been doing it for 20 years.

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