upper waypoint

How We Got Here: The Road to the Recall Election of 3 SF School Board Members

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

Black-and-white head shots of two women and one man.
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.

Sponsored

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.

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)

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.

Nov. 6, 2018: Gabriela López, Alison Collins and Faauuga Moliga are elected to the school board. The three, all people of color, have since focused much of their policymaking on the district’s historically underserved students.

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.

People take photos of a mural.
Members of the public snap pictures of the controversial 'Life of Washington' mural during viewing hours at George Washington High School. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

March 16, 2020: SFUSD schools close due to the onset of the COVID pandemic.

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.

July 15, 2020: SFUSD announces, per Superintendent Vince Matthews's recommendation, that classes for the 2020-21 school year will begin remotely.

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.

Related Stories

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.

Nov. 10, 2020: The School Names Advisory Committee provides an update to the school board, including a list of 44 school sites identified for possible renaming.

Dec. 18, 2020: The district pushes back its Jan. 25 target date to reopen the first 12 schools for in-person instruction because an agreement with labor unions hasn't yet been reached.

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.

Jan. 20, 2021: Students and staff at Lowell High School are exposed to racist, antisemitic and pornographic content during a school-wide online anti-racism lesson. In response, the school's Black Student Union leaders issue a set of 23 demands aimed at creating a safe environment for Lowell’s underrepresented students. The first demand calls for the school board to pass a resolution permanently ending merit-based admissions.

A young woman looks at the camera wearing a purple sweatshirt that says, &outclass of 21" with a raised fist in place of the number 1.
Shavonne Hines-Foster, a Lowell High School senior and student delegate for the district, stands outside her school in San Francisco on Jan. 29, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Jan. 26, 2021: The school board votes to move ahead with renaming 44 sites. The plan calls for the committee to review new names by April 19 and then make recommendations to the board. Commissioner Kevine Boggess is the only dissenter. Mayor Breed criticizes the decision.

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. 3, 2021: City Attorney Dennis Herrera sues the school district and its board, alleging they have failed to come up with a reopening plan that meets state requirements. Three days later, SFUSD and labor unions reach a tentative agreement on the health and safety standards for in-person learning. Still, on Feb. 11, Herrera files an emergency court order to reopen schools.

Feb. 9, 2021: The school board votes to permanently end merit-based admissions at Lowell High School. Commissioners Lam and Boggess vote against the resolution.

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.)

A man and a woman, smiling and arm in arm, stand at the corner of two walls stacked with election filing boxes.
Autumn Looijen, left, and Siva Raj, co-founders of the Recall SF School Board campaign, stand in front of boxes filled with signed petitions to put the effort on the ballot. (Recall SF School Board)

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.

Feb. 21, 2021: In an opinion piece in The San Francisco Chronicle, López, who recently became school board president, says the board will put the school renaming effort on hold to prioritize reopening classrooms.

March 5, 2021: SFUSD announces an agreement with the United Educators of San Francisco to resume in-person learning on April 12 for some of the district’s youngest students.

March 18, 2021: Attorney Paul Scott, representing high school alumni associations and others, sues the school board over its decision to rename 44 schools, following through on an earlier, February threat. The same day, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Ethan Schulman orders the district to either withdraw its renaming resolution or show good cause for why it has not done so at a hearing set for May 6.

March 19, 2021: A growing number of students, community members and local leaders begin calling for school board vice president Alison Collins to resign after the discovery of a series of tweets she wrote in 2016 disparaging Asian Americans. The tweets are resurfaced and circulated by recall supporter and Lowell alum Diane Yap, who herself has come under fire for past comments.

A woman standing in front of microphones at a news conference.
San Francisco Board of Education Commissioner Alison Collins addresses her supporters at a rally in San Francisco on March 31, 2021. (MJ Johnson/KQED)

March 25, 2021: The school board votes to strip Collins of her role as vice president. Commissioners Lam and Moliga, who authored the resolution, call for her to resign, saying she has failed to take responsibility for the harm she caused.

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 5, 2021: Superintendent Matthews announces his decision to postpone his retirement until June 30, 2022. The conditions of his staying on are laid out in a new contract approved by the board on April 20 that includes a requirement that it follow its own rules and stay focused on reopening. Recall proponents argue that replacing the three board members is key because the school board will select the next superintendent.

Related Stories

April 6, 2021: The board votes to rescind its decision to rename 44 schools, citing the lawsuit.

April 7, 2021: The board votes for all SFUSD students to have the option to return to full-time in-person school starting the first day of the 2021-22 academic school year.

April 12, 2021: Students in pre-K through second grade begin returning to the classroom, with third, fourth and fifth graders starting a week later. High school athletics resume. New York City schools had begun opening seven months earlier, while Chicago schools started two months before. Frustration among some parents over the pace of reopening in San Francisco is central to the recall push. On April 26, 2,000 middle and high school students in certain populations return to in-person learning, with some high schoolers joining in mid-May.

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.

A woman wearing a black mask kneels down next to a small girl wearing a blue mask who is holding a poster that reads "no to recall!"
San Francisco Unified School Board President Gabriela López poses for a photo with a young supporter at the launch event for the No School Board Recalls campaign on Nov. 13, 2021. (https://noschoolboardrecall.org/)

July 27, 2021: A judge overturns the school board’s 2019 decision to cover the mural at Washington High School, ruling in favor of the George Washington High School Alumni Association, who had sued the district and school board on the grounds that the district didn’t do an environmental review required by state law.

Aug. 16, 2021: SFUSD resumes in-person learning full time at all schools, five days a week.

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.

The district’s budget troubles date back years. In Feb. 2020, Matthews warned district employees of layoffs and “drastic cuts” totaling $26 million, citing rising costs that by then had outpaced revenues for years.

Week of Sept. 27, 2021: A judge orders SFUSD to pay $60,000 in legal fees related to a lawsuit over the renaming of schools.

Oct. 5, 2021: The board votes 6-1 to appeal a court ruling that found that the board violated state law when it decided to cover the Washington High mural. Lam is the only no vote.

Oct. 18, 2021: The San Francisco Department of Elections announces that all three school board member recalls qualify for the ballot, and sets a Feb. 15 election date.

Oct. 25, 2021: “Stop the Recall of Faauuga Moliga” political action committee is formed.

Oct. 30, 2021: A campaign committee to oppose the recall of all three board members, “No on Recalls of School Board Commissioners Lopez, Collins and Moliga,” is created.

A man wearing a green t-shirt and two women, one wearing a navy blue shirt and the other with a black jacket, yellow pin and shirt with a flowers stand on the street.
SFUSD teachers and school board recall opponents (from left) Alex DiCicco, Karina Hwang and Cynthia Meza stand outside Leonard Flynn Elementary School in San Francisco on Nov. 19, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Nov. 4, 2021: State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, announces his endorsement of the recall of all three board members. Five days later, Breed announces her endorsement of the recall.

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.

Nov. 17, 2021: A judge rules that the school board violated the Brown Act when it voted to do away with merit-based admissions at Lowell. The order leaves open the possibility of correcting the procedural error by putting the resolution on the school board's agenda with proper notice.

Dec. 16, 2021: The school board votes to maintain lottery-based admissions at Lowell High School for the 2022-23 school year. Matthews put forward the proposal in late November, saying there wasn't enough time to transition back to a merit-based system before the district’s Feb. 4 application deadline.

Sponsored

Feb. 15, 2022: The recall election.

lower waypoint
next waypoint
Carnaval San Francisco 2024: From the Parade Route to Parking, Here's What to Know‘My Octopus Teacher’ Filmmaker on Connecting to Our Wild SelvesPollster Sounding the Alarm About RFK Jr.'s Presidential CampaignAll You Can Eat: Yes, the Bay Area Does Have a Late Night Dining SceneKQED Cuts 34 Positions Amid Budget ShortfallState Supreme Court to Decide Fate of Prop. 22 … and the Gig EconomyUC Academic Workers’ Strike is Limited to Santa Cruz So Far. Here’s WhyPolice Respond to New UCLA Protest Camp as Academic Workers Expand StrikeNeighbors Rally to Support San Francisco Dog Walker Whose Home Was Gutted by Fire This WeekEver Seen A Koi Fish on the Sidewalk? Artist Explains Hidden Meaning