America’s founding fathers got a reprieve Tuesday in San Francisco, when the city’s scandal-plagued school board formally suspended a plan to rename 44 schools as part of a racial reckoning that critics said went too far.
The city’s Board of Education, which convened on Zoom, voted unanimously to reverse its much-criticized decision to strip the names of a third of San Francisco’s public schools, which it said honored figures linked to racism, sexism and other injustices. Among them were schools named for presidents Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, writer Robert Louis Stevenson and Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere. A school named for longtime Sen. Dianne Feinstein was on the list as well.
Tuesday’s 6-0 decision means that the school board is rescinding its vote from January and will revisit the matter after all students have returned full time to in-person learning. It sets no specific timetable.
The renaming debacle was one of several self-inflicted controversies the San Francisco school board faced during the pandemic, along with numerous lawsuits and public ridicule.
Parents, students and elected officials blasted the board for some of its targets — and its timing. The decision in late January came while all of San Francisco’s public classrooms were closed because of coronavirus restrictions. They still are. Mayor London Breed, among others, called it “offensive and completely unacceptable” for the board to focus on changing school names rather than getting children back into classrooms.
Some of the city’s youngest students are expected to begin returning to in-person instruction this month after more than a year of distance learning because of the pandemic. There is no timetable for middle and high school students to return.
The renaming effort also was criticized for historical inaccuracies and shoddy research that included consulting Wikipedia rather than historians.
A renaming advisory committee wrongly accused Paul Revere of seeking to colonize the Penobscot people. It also confused the name of Alamo Elementary School with the Texas battle rather than the Spanish word for poplar tree.
“While we're at it, what about renaming San Francisco," columnist and city scribe Carl Nolte wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle after the vote, noting that the city was named by missionaries for a Roman Catholic saint. “Clearly that fits the guidelines for a new name."
Feinstein Elementary made the list because when she was mayor in 1984, a decision was made to replace a vandalized Confederate flag that was part of a longstanding display outside City Hall. When the flag was pulled down a second time, it was not replaced.
“It feels like truth won this time,” Seeyew Mo, head of Families for San Francisco, said about Tuesday's vote. His group opposed the renaming process and brought attention to the flawed research.
“I’m glad they’ve come to their senses — after lawsuits, and public pressure,” said Mo, who also objected to the board’s “top-down process” in which a small group made the decision without the wider school community. “A lot of people agree with the idea of revisiting names, but they just disagree with how it was done.”
The renaming process was led by a committee created in 2018 to study the names of district schools amid a national reckoning on racial injustice that followed deadly clashes at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Schools and institutions nationwide are evaluating whether to change names as the country reevaluates its heroes.
The committee in San Francisco determined that any figures who “engaged in the subjugation and enslavement of human beings; or who oppressed women, inhibiting societal progress; or whose actions led to genocide; or who otherwise significantly diminished the opportunities of those amongst us to the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” should not have schools named for them.
The result prompted an outcry in California that the net was cast too wide, and mockery on social media and right-wing news sites which decried political correctness gone awry.
Board president Gabriela Lopez said in February that the process would be paused until all children were back in school. Lopez acknowledged in a statement that mistakes were made in the selection of schools and said that when the board returns to the issue, it will engage historians for a “more deliberative process.”
Since the renaming vote, the board has faced multiple lawsuits. The city of San Francisco took the dramatic step of suing the school district and the board to pressure both to reopen classrooms more quickly. Another was filed in March by San Francisco attorney Paul Scott, whose children attend public schools, alleging the school board’s renaming decision violated California’s open meeting law and did not involve the community.
San Francisco Superior Court Judge Ethan Schulman issued a ruling calling on the board to do what the lawsuit requests — rescind the vote and dissolve the renaming advisory committee — or show by April 16 why it shouldn’t be compelled to do so.
The resolution voted on Tuesday did not address the criticism but denounced the lawsuit, saying it “wishes to avoid the distraction and wasteful expenditure of public funds in frivolous litigation.”
Tuesday’s meeting was also the first since the board voted last week to remove one of its members, Alison Collins, from her role as vice president and other titles over tweets about Asian Americans dating to 2016.
In the tweets, Collins said Asian Americans use “white supremacist” thinking to get ahead. She has resisted calls to step down and last week sued the school district and five of her six colleagues, accusing them of violating her free speech rights. She is seeking $87 million in damages.
Historian Harold Holzer called the school board’s first stab at renaming an “over correction.” Holzer disagrees with deleting Abraham Lincoln’s name from a high school, which the San Francisco committee said was due to the treatment of Native Americans during his administration.
“I know people want to be inspired and want not to be worshipping false idols,” said Holzer, a Lincoln Scholar and director of Hunter College’s Roosevelt House of Public Policy Institute. “But, honestly, to me there is still no better example of the American story at it’s highest level of idealism than Abraham Lincoln.”
In the midst of the Civil War in 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves in the Confederacy, among other achievements that included rising out of poverty to become president, fighting for equal opportunity and saving the country from splitting up.
“If Lincoln doesn’t win, we’re in big trouble,” said Holzer. “The achievements so far outweigh the mistakes. I think he deserves adulation.”
This story has been corrected to show that the city of San Francisco sued its school board, but the lawsuit was not filed by the mayor.