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SF School Board Candidates Try to Distance Themselves From 'Performative Politics' of Recalled Commissioners

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A woman holds a sign that looks like an invoice written out to SFUSD
SFUSD staff and supporters gather in front of the district headquarters in San Francisco on March 14, 2022, to protest mismanaged paychecks to district staff. SFUSD Board of Education commissioner candidates are seeking to distance themselves from the controversy and scandals that beset the previous board. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Throughout the pandemic, public acrimony dogged the San Francisco school board: There was acrimony over renaming schools, acrimony over when to let kids back into classrooms, and acrimony over admissions practices at one of SFUSD’s most prestigious high schools, Lowell.

Then, in February, angry, fed-up voters overwhelmingly removed three commissioners at the center of those controversies from the San Francisco Board of Education in a high-profile recall. 

So it stands to reason that most of the six candidates running for those same seats sought to distance themselves from the old school board at a recent forum for parents. 

At the Second District Parent Teacher Association forum last week, the candidates answered detailed policy questions posed by parents — many candidates voiced support for allowing students to take algebra classes in an earlier year than usual, for instance — but the message behind the message was as obvious as a blaring school bell. 

Ann Hsu, a tech industry businessperson who was appointed to the board by Mayor London Breed after the recall, plainly laid out those differences.

The school board is shifting to a new way of operating, “where we do not listen to the loudest, or we do not appease the loudest, voice in the room, but we really focus on student outcomes,” Hsu told parents in the forum over Zoom. 

Hsu has had her own difficult time with loud voices in the room when parents and community members shouted, “Racist!,” at one another during a contentious board vote to admonish Hsu, in August. The successful vote came after she made racist comments about Black and brown families; Hsu later apologized.

But Hsu wasn’t alone in delivering the message that the board’s focus needs to change. Lisa Weissman-Ward, an educator at Stanford Law School also appointed to the school board by Breed, took her own jab at the former commissioners.

“We want to govern, we want to be focused on process. We want the work of the board to be boring. We do not want to be making headlines for performative politics,” she said. “It doesn’t help our students, it doesn’t help our educators, it doesn’t help our caregivers, doesn’t help our community.”

In short, she said, she wants to make sure the school district’s budget “has a through line” to improved student academic outcomes. 

The way the school board ran the district previously “has not worked,” said candidate and commissioner Lainie Motamedi, another Breed appointee. That’s why the current school board made a commitment to spend at least 50% of school board time on student outcomes and student work, she said. 

“The previous board spent approximately zero time on that,” Motamedi told parents. 

Left unsaid, however, was that many of the so-called “performative” ideas the recalled school board members tackled were pushed heavily by students themselves. The Black Student Union of Lowell High School, for instance, pushed hard for a lottery system, claiming the merit-based admissions policy led the school to educate very few Black students at the prestigious school.

Despite a public rebuke of the change to Lowell High School’s admissions policy (which was ultimately changed back), equity was top of mind for all the candidates. 

Karen Fleshman, a candidate who is a consultant for youth-serving nonprofits in San Francisco, said she wants to be “laser-focused” on equity in schools, helping to create “a sense of belonging” by recruiting teachers from diverse backgrounds to help ground students.

“We have a big challenge with equity in the district going back from the beginning of the district,” Fleshman said, adding that although San Francisco has many job opportunities, “we’re not doing anything to connect and prepare our young people to that labor market.”

Fleshman said that’s where individualized learning plans come in, to help individual students connect to their career aspirations. 

Candidate Alida Fisher, a special education advocate, pushed for more recognition around one of the root causes of missing classes: bad transit service. She said that comes directly from parents in a working group aimed at addressing truancy.

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“What we found was Muni, you know, is a huge barrier for a lot of families. Especially post-pandemic, we still have lines that aren't running at full capacity,” Fisher said. “Many families feel blamed and shamed when the attendance officers are calling home. They’re not saying, ‘How can we help you?’ They’re blaming the families and threatening repercussions.”

One voice at the school board candidate forum stood out for not directly addressing remarks that called the old school board into question: Gabriela López. She was one of the three commissioners whom voters recalled, and is running to regain her seat. 

When asked by the PTA group how SFUSD builds trust with the community after its recent failures — including a payroll fiasco seeing teachers working without timely paychecks  Lopez walked a tightrope, seemingly addressing the critiques made by the new board commissioners, while not engaging in a tête-à-tête.

“I know that in the last couple of years, there's also been a lot of pain that has led to more mistrust in our school district. And as a former commissioner, my priority was to be in those communities, to hear from the people who are being harmed in bringing those messages and experiences to the school board,” Lopez said. “I also know that I can build on that by continuing to connect with people after harm is done. That's where we build trust.”

And while those payroll issues have garnered many headlines of late, with many condemning district management and warning of teachers suffering deep financial losses, at the forum, few of the candidates brought it up at all. 

Unlike other local races, the Board of Education race is not ranked-choice. However, voters can choose up to three candidates for three open seats.

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