Siva Raj (left), David Thompson his son Lucas, and Kit Lam hug after hearing election results at an election night party in support of the San Francisco school board recall at Manny's in San Francisco on Feb. 15, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
The results of Tuesday's recall elections against three San Francisco school board members were incontrovertible: Voters overwhelmingly backed the removal of Alison Collins, Gabriela López and Faauuga Moliga from office.
What happens next for the board, the district and school politics in San Francisco, however, is less clear. New school board members will inherit the immediate tasks of managing the district and longer-term challenges of boosting enrollment and student achievement. The sudden fevered interest in local education, meanwhile, could reshape who runs for school board in the future, or fizzle out with the recall over and the pandemic receding.
The staggering changes wrought by the pandemic that abruptly shifted education from the classroom to the living room, and school board meetings from Franklin Street to Zoom, also amplified public interest and engagement in school issues, said Alida Fisher, a special education advocate in San Francisco, who called it "the blessing and the curse."
"I don't think that engagement will ever go away as long as we've got more visibility. I think transparency is good, visibility is good," said Fisher, a former school board candidate who opposed the recalls.
But for too many, she said, the election will be seen as a panacea for the district's plights.
"We've got all these other huge, huge issues that we need to tackle that are absolutely impacting what's happening in our schools, and yet what we're talking about is only these three people on the school board," she said.
The future direction of the board will be determined in part by Mayor London Breed's selection of three new commissioners, who could take office 10 days after the Board of Supervisors certifies the election results — likely in early March.
On Wednesday, Breed held a press conference outlining her process for selecting the new board members, emphasizing a focus on candidates who could manage the district's finances, and promising to focus on "all those kids who don't have advocates."
"There's been a lot of different kinds of people who have been involved in the push for this recall from all walks of life," Breed said. "And to attribute it to one group of people is really not fair to the work that so many of the grassroots people who have children in our public school system have done."
An early favorite for appointment to the board is Ann Hsu, the president of the Parent Teacher Student Association at Galileo Academy of Science and Technology, Breed's alma mater. As the chair of the district's Citizens' Bond Oversight Committee, she'd take office with knowledge of school finances.
In the weeks leading up to the election, Hsu led the voter registration drive of hundreds of Chinese American residents, along with noncitizen parents who were able to vote in the election.
Whoever Breed picks will face two immediate challenges: picking a new superintendent to manage the day-to-day affairs of the district, and dealing with an ongoing budget deficit. On Friday, the board announced it would extend the application deadline for the superintendent job through the end of March.
"It’s hard to tell how soon these new commissioners can get up to speed on items," said Laurance Lee, a recall supporter who writes a newsletter about the Board of Education. "That's a big concern for me if some of these commissioners are coming in without having followed these meetings in detail."
Furthermore, the district is facing a steady decline in enrollment that could further imperil school funding, which is largely based on attendance. And it must continue to address the longstanding and persistent achievement gaps between white and Asian students and their Black and Latino peers.
In November, the three seats opened by the recall will go back before voters.
Lee said he fears the city is approaching a "cliff of interest" in school politics after a recall election that, while contentious and headline-grabbing, only brought out roughly a third of city voters to the polls.
But others are more sanguine about the prospects of the recall setting in motion a continued attentiveness to the governance of city schools.
When he ran, unsuccessfully, for the school board in 2018, John Trasviña said he remembers meeting indifferent voters who sometimes mistakenly thought he was already serving as a commissioner. But now he expects that to change, he said.
"I think we're going to have a lot more engagement, a lot more attention, a lot more scrutiny," said Trasviña, who serves as head of the Lowell High School alumni association, and who rallied against recent efforts to scrap the elite school's merit-based admissions system — among the lightning-rod issues that fueled the recall campaign. "And really, that's the way it should be. The schools are incredibly important."
Josephine Zhao, another former school board aspirant, said the recall has particularly "awakened and empowered" Chinese voters in the city, many of whom were motivated by the admissions changes at majority-Asian Lowell, as well as controversial 2016 tweets written by Collins about Asian Americans. Election returns show stronger support for the recall in majority-Asian neighborhoods such as Chinatown, Visitacion Valley, the Sunset and Portola, as compared to citywide totals.
"The recall school board movement has actually tapped into some of the anger in the communities, that a lot of the Chinese and AAPI community do not feel that they have the respect from the school board members," Zhao said.
But other parents and advocates feel the recall tidal wave will discourage some potential future candidates from pursuing a seat on the board, or wash away the focus that the recalled members placed on pursuing equity for Black and Latino students.
In 2018, Collins, López and Moliga were three of the 19 candidates who ran for school board in San Francisco. Fisher, who also ran that year, remembers dozens more candidates filing initial paperwork to pursue a seat, a reflection of the Trump-era surge of civic participation on the left.
Could the specter of a vitriolic recall campaign add a new deterrent for school board participation — on top of the meager $500 in monthly pay? Fisher worries the board will risk losing "the teacher, the social worker voice" that López, Collins and Moliga brought into office.
With the ouster of those three board members, who championed issues like changing the admissions process at Lowell to boost Black and Latino enrollment, Cassondra Curiel, president of United Educators of San Francisco, said she's concerned future members won't "center those populations that have been historically marginalized."
"Do we see a swing happening to the center ... where folks don't advance, don't discuss and want to shy and hide away from those issues, from actions that would have visible physical and mental positive impacts on students?" said Curiel. "Surely, surely we might see that.”
San Francisco voters also will soon have a say in whether the recall process itself will continue to loom as a threat to sitting lawmakers, however rare. A measure placed this week on the June ballot by the Board of Supervisors would add more restrictions to who can be recalled, and prevent any mayoral replacements from immediately running again.