Tom Gallagher
3 min readMar 10, 2021

The San Francisco School Board and the public’s trust

A recent arrival to my email inbox urged support for members of the San Francisco School Board currently facing threat of recall. The Board has been the object of substantial, mostly unwelcome national attention over the past few years. Having previously voted to remove a WPA-era mural of George Washington from the high school bearing his name, it more recently opted to rename that school and 43 others, including Abraham Lincoln High School — at a time when students were not physically attending any of those schools. The email made no reference to any of that, however, instead calling for support of the Board’s “solid record of standing up to charter schools.”

The connection was that the recall effort was attributed to groups seeking charter school money and vouchers. Now, for those who view the for-profit charter school movement primarily as corporate America’s effort to establish a new private profit center based upon public funding, the sides are easy to pick on that one. At the same time, we have reason to ask why we should have to be called upon to spend time on this at this moment, as well as to further question the judgment of the School Board’s members.

To her credit, the Board’s President has acknowledged that “mistakes were made in the renaming process,” and has taken it off the table, seemingly until the city’s schools are reopened. But does the Board fully appreciate the importance of maintaining the public’s trust? To the list of those who think it doesn’t, we can probably add the parents and alumni who felt that the Board gave short shrift to public opinion in its seemingly brusque, fast-track decision to end the selective academic admission policies of Lowell High School, the oldest public high school west of the Mississippi.

There may be a helpful analogy to the Board’s situation in the way government laws and regulations not only prohibit conflict of interest on the part of public employees, but also the mere appearance of conflict of interest. The reasoning here is that even the appearance will cause people to lose confidence in government. Likewise, from a political standpoint, office holders appearing to act frivolously, or showing little interest in the public’s voice will run the risk of themselves being given similar short shrift when the next election comes.

The Board had to know that any school name-changing decision that included removing the name of Abraham Lincoln would prompt nationwide derision and mockery and should have been prepared for it. The argument against maintaining Lincoln’s name has to do with the role of the man known as the Great Emancipator of slaves in regard to the execution of participants in an unsuccessful native American uprising. If given the chance, the Lincoln High School community might have produced the type of thoughtful consideration of the intersection of the nation’s two great original sins that was absent from the Board’s deliberations. But that was not in the cards. Likewise, the Board embarrassed itself by seemingly relying upon shoddy committee research that would never have merited an A grade in a high school history class. And so far as conducting serious discussion on the merits of the long tradition of an academically advanced school such as Lowell — not that either.

Unfortunately, the appearance of shoddy governance has spillover potential to damage the viability of other candidates for other offices, who are seen to generally hold views similar to Board members. But to be fair, they are not the only ones advancing arguments that might benefit from more careful consideration. For instance, the above mentioned email opted to present the situation in racial terms, as an attempt to recall “San Francisco’s majority progressive Black and Brown school board” that was fueled by “white/white adjacent moderate parent groups.” (I have made a note to learn just what a “white adjacent” group is — possibly like off-white paint?)

A friend worries that this brand of muddled politics could lead California to “a huge backlash like the late Seventies.” But even well short of that, the mere fact that its own supporters fear that the Board’s missteps may lead to renewed impetus for charter schools shows the damage already done by the appearance of foolish behavior in high places.