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San Francisco school board recall continues to put political spotlight on education

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(SAN FRANCISCO) — As school board meetings across the nation become increasingly contentious, parental pushback over COVID-19 related regulations and virtual learning has brought things to a head in San Francisco. There, voters are headed to the ballot box Tuesday to decide the fate of three school board members in an unprecedented recall election.

San Francisco School Board President Gabriela López and board members Faauuga Moliga and Alison Collins could all be recalled Tuesday.

The recall effort began in January of last year as tensions rose during the pandemic with parents claiming board members misplaced priorities, focusing their attention on social issues rather than pandemic reopening strategies at a time when many other school districts were open.

In April, board members dropped their plans to rename a third of the city’s public schools honoring historical figures linked to injustices following backlash from parents. The board said it would revisit the plan after students returned to in-person learning.

“They would spend the first seven hours talking about renaming schools or they would spend the first seminar talking about whether a gay dad was diverse enough to be on the Parent Advisory Council,” Autumn Looijen, campaign co-lead at Recall the SF School Board, told ABC News. “These things are important. But when you’re facing this urgent crisis, they’re not what you should be focusing on.”

Each member will be voted on individually and it only takes a simple majority for the recall to be successful. If the recall goes through, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, who backs the recall, will be in charge of appointing replacements to serve out their remaining terms until an election is held for the three positions in November.

The recall is energizing an influx of voters. As of Monday, more than 500,000 mail-in ballots were issued and more than 115,100 ballots were returned, according to the San Francisco Board of Elections.

Among those voting are noncitizens, who are eligible to vote in local school board elections in San Francisco.

In this election, noncitizens in San Francisco are taking advantage of that right more than ever. At least 258 noncitizens are eligible to vote and over 120 have already cast their ballots in this historic election. That’s a significant increase from the previous school board election in 2020, when only 31 noncitizens voted.

However, it’s not just those that live, work and have children in San Francisco getting involved in support of the recall. Financial documents show the election has largely been funded by donations from big donors who don’t have children in the public school district.

Campaign finance records show some of the biggest financial contributors are 95-year-old billionaire Arthur Rock and PayPal COO David Sacks, who contributed close to $400,000 and more than $74,000, respectively.

The large contributions from the super-wealthy are a sticking point for many against the recall.

“Everyone who is following this campaign knows that billionaires are trying to buy out public education outright,” Frank Lara, executive vice president of United Educators of San Francisco, said in an ad encouraging people to vote “No” in Tuesday’s election.

The recall efforts continue to thrust the topic of education into the spotlight as it increasingly becomes integrated into political playbooks. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin seized on the issue during his successful run for governor following comments from Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe that parents shouldn’t be telling schools what to teach during a debate.

It is a trend that is not lost on Collins as she reflects on how she got to the point of fighting for her job.

“Honestly, I think that’s part of a national trend that we’re seeing. There’s an unprecedented number of recalls and also just outrage campaigns happening around school boards,” Collins said to ABC News.

In 2022, 25 school board recall efforts are being launched against 66 officials nationwide, according to data tracked by Ballotpedia. There are six in California alone. It follows a year where more than twice the average of recalls were launched at 92, according to Ballotpedia.

Now, López, Moliga and Collins wait for polls to close and votes to be tallied on an election viewed as another referendum on strict COVID policies heading into the midterms.

Tuesday’s election is the first time since 1983 that San Francisco voters are considering removing an elected official from office, which is when then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein survived the recall vote.

Looijen and fellow parent Siva Raj’s efforts, which started around a kitchen table last year, are showcasing the new avenues parents are taking when it comes to their children’s academic futures after some say virtual learning upended student achievement.

“I think there’s a common thread that public education is a vital government service. It’s one of the critical public services that we expect in any of these situations. And when you take that away, you will have angry, frustrated parents. It’s guaranteed,” Raj said.

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