From left, San Francisco School Board Vice President Faauuga Moliga, Board President Gabriela López and Commissioner Alison M. Collins. All three face recall challenges on Feb. 15. (Individual headshots courtesy of San Francisco Board of Education)
The effort to recall three San Francisco Board of Education commissioners has divided the city.
Depending on the take, the recall is a coup attempt by a mob of venture capitalists and moneyed moms; a righteous crusade to save the city’s marginalized children run by a bootstrapping crew of political newbies; or a misguided effort to exorcize the demons of the last two years.
The effort to oust school board members Alison Collins, Gabriela López and Faauuga Moliga — the first recall effort to make it onto the city’s ballot in almost four decades — is a uniquely San Franciscan edition of the ire directed at school boards across the country. Parents have been pushed to the brink by COVID-era stresses, and many have felt abandoned by their public institutions — and are hungry for accountability.
Should Collins, López and Moliga be held responsible for the disarray largely wrought by the pandemic?
In San Francisco, anger over the handling of education during the pandemic launched a parent advocacy movement that surfaced the recall effort. That push has been fueled by long-simmering tensions, including a battle over who should have access to the city’s premier public high school and a years-old racial justice effort to rename certain schools — all of which have been highlighted by detractors as evidence of the school board’s ineptitude.
The prolonged debacle has garnered national media attention and hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations in support of the recall. Politicians have piled on. There have been lawsuits, allegations of racism and even death threats. And now, finally, it’s almost time to vote.
Ballots will be mailed Jan. 12. To help you understand how we got to this point, here’s a timeline of key events that have led to the Feb. 15 recall election. Good luck, voters.
May 22, 2018: School Board Resolution No. 184-10A1, “In Support of a Formal Process in the Renaming of San Francisco Unified School District Schools,” is unanimously adopted by board commissioners. Written in the wake of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., the resolution calls for the school renaming process to be led by a blue-ribbon panel selected by the superintendent.
Oct. 15, 2018: Mayor London Breed appoints Faauuga Moliga to the school board to fill a seat vacated by Hydra Mendoza-McDonnell. Breed has since announced her support for recalling Moliga, as well as fellow board members Alison Collins and Gabriela López, and will select their replacements if the effort to oust them is successful.
June 25, 2019: The school board votes to paint over a controversial mural at Washington High School. The 1936 "Life of Washington" mural, by Victor Arnautoff, had been criticized for its derogatory depictions of Native Americans and African Americans. The decision comes after a community advisory committee — consisting of local Native American community members, students, school representatives, district representatives, local artists and historians — recommends permanently removing the offensive content. But the board’s decision triggers a backlash from the school’s alumni association, art historians and local preservationists.
Aug. 13, 2019: The school board reverses course on the Washington High mural, voting 4-3 to cover the painting rather than permanently remove it. Board President Stevon Cook and board members Rachel Norton, Jenny Lam and Faauuga Moliga vote to cover the mural, while Alison Collins, Mark Sanchez and Gabriela López vote against it.
Summer 2020: A parental group called Decreasing the Distance, which forms to pressure the district to reopen schools, begins holding rallies and lobbying local and state elected officials. The group eventually evolves into the San Francisco Parent Coalition, laying the organizational groundwork to propel the recall.
June 24, 2020: In the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, the school board unanimously passes a resolution limiting police presence on campuses.
Sept. 24, 2020: About a month after the state moves San Francisco into the “red” reopening tier, allowing for the resumption of limited capacity TK-sixth grade in-person learning, the district shares an initial reopening plan. Under the plan, the city must meet certain public health indicators and have measures in place, including a COVID testing strategy, staff training and labor agreements. Once met, SFUSD says it will apply to the city to offer in-person classes for priority student populations.
Oct. 21, 2020: The school board adopts a change to a lottery-based admissions process at Lowell High School for the 2021-22 school year only, approving a policy presented by Matthews. With standardized testing and letter grades halted because of the pandemic, district officials say it's not possible to carry out the normal admissions process at Lowell. The elite high school’s merit-based admissions system has for decades been the subject of controversy, and the board's decision stokes anger among some parents and helps galvanize recall supporters.
Oct. 23, 2020: Racist and threatening social media posts attacking board members López and Collins appear online in response to the board’s unanimous vote to temporarily halt merit-based admissions at Lowell. Elected officials gather to denounce the harassment.
Jan. 4, 2021: A survey of SFUSD families finds that 57% of respondents plan to return their children to in-person learning once it is offered. But those rates vary significantly by race/ethnicity, with 80% of white, 62% of Black, 61% of Latino and 36% of Asian families opting to return.
Feb. 2, 2021: School board commissioners Collins, López and Matt Alexander and student delegates Shavonne Hines-Foster and Kathya Correa Almanza introduce a resolution that would permanently end the merit-based admissions system at Lowell High School and replace it with the same lottery system used at the district’s comprehensive high schools.
Feb. 19, 2021: Parents Autumn Looijen and Siva Raj launch a campaign committee in support of recalling López, Collins and Moliga — the only three commissioners who have served on the school board long enough to face a recall challenge, per city election rules. (Leaders of the effort say they would recall all seven board members if they could.)
Recall opponents brand the couple interlopers because Looijen’s children attend Los Altos schools, while Raj and his children only moved to the city from Pleasanton months before initiating the recall campaign.
March 31, 2021: Collins sues the school district and fellow board members for $87 million, claiming they unlawfully retaliated against her for the 2016 tweets and violated her free speech rights. She ultimately drops the lawsuit in September.
April 1, 2021: The “Committee to Support the Recall of Board of Education Commissioners, Lopez, Collins, and Moliga” (later renamed "Recall School Board Members Lopez, Collins, & Moliga") begins circulating petitions to qualify the effort for the ballot.
April 23, 2021: Lowell alums and other groups that oppose the move to lottery-based admissions sue the school board, alleging it voted in violation of the Brown Act, a state law requiring public access to local government agency meetings.
May 25, 2021: The campaign supporting the recall receives its first donation of at least $100. Previously, the campaign limited donations to under $100 in order to, they say, democratize their campaign and limit record-keeping responsibilities. In late August, venture capitalist Arthur Rock contributes $49,500 to the pro-recall campaign committee, the largest donation up to that point. Rock has contributed to organizations with ties to charter schools, including political advocacy arms of the California Charter Schools Association, and the EdVoice for the Kids political action committee.
David Sacks, a fellow venture capitalist, also chips in $49,500 for the recall. He previously contributed $180,000 to the campaign to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom and hosted a fundraiser in San Francisco for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Critics of the recall seize on the Rock and Sacks donations, labeling the campaign a coup attempt bankrolled by politically motivated outsiders.
Sept. 15, 2021: State officials tell SFUSD they are stepping in to oversee budget-related decisions in the face of a $125 million deficit. California Department of Education officials give the district until Dec. 15 to present a plan to address the shortfall. The news is made public the following month, emboldening recall supporters.
The superintendent’s budget-balancing plan, approved Dec. 14, would cut $50 million from school sites, resulting in the loss of about 360 positions and $40 million from the central office. The balance would be made up in savings and new revenue. López is the sole no vote.
Nov. 15, 2021: A second pro-recall campaign committee, Concerned Parents Supporting the Recall of Collins, Lopez, and Moliga, is formed to handle the messaging and media in support of the recall. Todd David, the former political director for Wiener’s state Senate campaign, is listed as the treasurer. Arthur Rock, the venture capitalist, chips in $350,000.