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Amid 'huge tension,' San Francisco set to formally suspend renaming of public schools

Back in January, the San Francisco Board of Education voted 6 to 1 to rename more than 40 schools as supporters cheered the board for "unapologetically" targeting historical figures they deemed racist, including Abraham Lincoln.

That set off a political furor that subjected the school board to local and national ridicule. On Tuesday, that same board is expected to approve a resolution that would officially suspend renaming efforts.

The school board will return to the renaming issue later — after students are back in classrooms full time, the board's leader stated Monday.

"There is a hope and opportunity to uplift communities that are often underrepresented," board President Gabriela López said. "It deserves more full attention than we're able to give right now."

For months, the school renaming controversy has roiled the city, distracting local leaders from the COVID-19 pandemic, angering parents eager for classrooms to reopen and putting school board members — some of whom face a potential recall by voters — on the defensive. The board's action Tuesday may tamp down some anger but will leave unresolved the question of what names are culturally appropriate in San Francisco, a city whose name originated from Spanish colonialists.

It was back in early 2020 that a San Francisco Unified School District committee convened, tasked with considering whether to change school names allegedly associated with slaveholding, colonization or oppression.

After about 10 meetings, the committee of parents, students, educators and community members suggested that the full school board rename 42 schools — a third of all public schools in San Francisco — including those honoring individuals such as Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

When the school voted to change the recommended names, Jeremiah Jeffries, a teacher and leader of the renaming committee, was elated.

"We are unapologetically going after white supremacy, white supremacist symbols, and making these changes that people have been demanding for years," Jeffries said at the meeting.

A torrent of criticism erupted nationwide. Some local residents decried the renaming panel's research, which relied in part on Wikipedia articles, and alleged the board did not adequately include community members in the process. Many within the school communities supported the panel's efforts and celebrated the prospect of a host of new school names.

Former President Trump weighed in, retweeting a Daily Caller article about the recommendation and calling it "Crazy!"

Then the lawsuits rolled in.

First, the district's timing on reopening led to the extraordinary circumstance in which the city of San Francisco sued its own school district, trying to force the board's hand to bring students back to in-person learning. Students will begin returning to classrooms next week, and López said the board is committed to bringing them all back by fall.

Then a group of disgruntled high school alumni associations and community stakeholders, led by attorney Paul Scott, threatened to sue, alleging the school board violated the Brown Act, which governs how public meetings are run, and denied due process to school community members.

Soon, López announced that the board would pause the renaming process in February, and the efforts ground to a halt, according to Tuesday's proposed resolution. But the group led by Scott made good on its promise to mount a lawsuit against the district, to force it to make the announcement legally binding. The court ordered the district to change its resolution, or show evidence why it hadn't done so, by May.

The resolution up for a vote Tuesday afternoon called it a "distraction" and "frivolous litigation."

"It's more than ironic to read their characterization of our action as frivolous, when it's manifestly the sole reason they finally capitulated and agreed to do what the law requires," Scott said. "I suppose it would have been a positive step forward if they had taken responsibility for their conduct."

López emphasized that the school district is still committed to the work of renaming, but will do so with more community input from school administrators and families this time.

San Francisco is a famously left-of-center city, with many residents supporting the national crusade to expunge white supremacists from public monuments and institutions. But the optics and timing were bad, especially for political leaders such as San Francisco Mayor London Breed. She condemned the school board's efforts in October to rename schools without first reopening them, stating that priorities were skewed amid "this once-in-a-century challenge."

Breed came under fire for the sequence of events, even though the city does not control the school board or its reopening decisions. The mayor has since sought to distance herself from the school district, including a more recent spat involving board Vice President Alison Collins, a Black woman who posted anti-Asian tweets in 2016 and has refused calls to resign because of them.

Collins addressed the issue in a blog post and said the tweets were "taken out of context."She has since sued the district and several of her board colleagues.

"It is just a mess, and it is embarrassing and it's disgraceful," Breed told reporters when asked about the dispute at a news conference last week.

To some, the furor reflects widening fault lines within San Francisco, a city where self-described liberals can be marked as moderates or even conservatives, said Eric Jaye, a longtime political consultant.

Although there is a "cadre" of San Franciscans who believe the name changes are essential, he said, "they are a minority. Most San Franciscans are not represented by the school board and don't understand why we are spending time and money fighting over the names of schools that are closed."

At the same time, he noted, San Francisco has long been out in front of causes that once seemed extreme but are now mainstream.

"Universal healthcare. Marriage equality. Banning smoking. Go back 30 years and there is a strongly consistent record of SF leading the way, for good and for bad," Jaye said.

Through much of the pandemic, San Francisco and the Bay Area have been praised for their handling of the health crisis. But lingering school closures in recent months have caused "deep frustration" and "huge tension," said state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), "the likes of which I have not seen."

"It set people's hair on fire," he said.

Wiener said he had nothing against renaming schools. After all, Army Street was renamed Cesar Chavez Street decades ago, and Douglass Elementary School, named after a nearby street, became the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, after the slain San Francisco gay rights leader.

"School renaming done the right way would have been a righteous move that a lot of us would have supported," Wiener said. "But it was done in a sloppy way." He cited the example of Sanchez Elementary School in the Castro District. It was slated for renaming because the school committee mistakenly thought it was named after a conquistador. Actually, it was named after a street.

Scott, the lawyer representing residents in the renaming lawsuit, said the school board's anticipated action Tuesday appeared to meet the requirements of the court that heard the case.

"The entire city has come together against this renaming resolution," he said. "Rarely do you see this kind of unanimity among the political folks running the city, as you see here."

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