By Thomas K. Pendergast
Board members guiding San Francisco’s school district might consider the fate of murals on the life of first president George Washington at his namesake high school settled, but opponents of the plan to cover them are responding like Revolutionary War hero, John Paul Jones, when he said he had only begun to fight.
Two groups opposed to the San Francisco School Board’s plan to cover the murals at George Washington High School, the George Washington High School Alumni Association and the Coalition to Protect Public Art (CPPA), are firing back with volleys of a lawsuit and a ballot measure. At the same time, the one open seat on the board up for grabs in the coming election is being contested by two candidates who oppose covering the murals, after the incumbent voted to cover them.
The lawsuit was filed by the alumni association against the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD )challenging a vote last August by the school board to cover the 13 New Deal-era murals in the high school’s lobby with solid panels on the grounds that the district did not conduct an environmental review before making its decision, as required by California law. The lawsuit wants the court to order the school board to set aside its decision to remove the murals from public view because, they allege, the board did not follow the proper procedure required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
“We are pursuing every legal, political and other possibilities that will preserve and protect the murals,” the association’s Vice President Lope Yap said. “We have many grounds to file a lawsuit and the first one is a CEQA lawsuit.”
Requests for response to the lawsuit from school district officials and members of the school board received no reply as of press time.
According to an article in the San Francisco Examiner, however, SFUSD spokesperson Gentle Blythe said “there is no basis for the assumption that the (school board) will not exercise good faith throughout this process. The District is committed to evaluating all possible options to accomplish our goal of addressing the harm and impact of this mural on our students, in full compliance with the law.”
In the Examiner article Blythe is quoted as calling the lawsuit “premature.”
But Yap said the school board was premature when it first unanimously voted to destroy the murals by painting them over and then changed that decision in August by voting to cover them with panels instead, all of which was done before they went through the CEQA process.
“The way the law works is you’re supposed to follow the CEQA protocols before you even make a decision like voting, Yap said. “They have it backwards. And I had mentioned this to them many times, that (the board members) need to follow CEQA protocols…. And they arrogantly said ‘no, we’re doing it our way.’ They did it, from our perspective, illegally.”
He said that within the CEQA process there is a requirement for public comment and participation, but the board did none of that.
There was, however, an 11-member panel called the Reflection and Action Group made up of parents, artists and teachers, who held four meetings about the murals, all of which were open to the public. Yap was also a member of that group and was the lone dissenting vote that opposed destroying or covering the murals. He says that group does not count for a couple of reasons.
“That was just recommendations to the board. That is not part of the CEQA protocol,” Yap said. He also said many members of that group were determined to destroy the murals by painting them over from the first meeting.
“This entire process was pre-cast,” he said. “They already had a conclusion. They were just going through the motions. Those that created this panel, this group, those that participated, in their own words … they revealed their pre-disposed disposition.”
Requests for comment from several other members of that panel received no response by press time.
The murals are controversial because they include images of Afro-American slaves that Washington owned and pioneers walking past the corpse of a First Nation (Native American) warrior, with the first president standing off to the side and pointing the way forward. Critics of the 83-year-old murals say these images do not belong in a high school because they traumatize some students.
In a vote of 8-1, with two abstentions, the group concluded that the art “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy, oppression.”
Meanwhile, the CPPA is moving forward with gathering signatures to put a ballot measure before the voters that would essentially take the decision out of the board’s hands entirely, although they have moved the targeted election from March to November of 2020. They are currently working on the language of the ballot measure.
Jon Golinger has brought other ballot measures to voters in the past, and he explained why he and other members of the CPPA will be gathering signatures for this one.
“At the moment it doesn’t appear that the school board intends to change course on their own,” Golinger said. “As was the case when they voted to destroy the murals, that’s unacceptable to the people in our coalition. They’ve set their course and they’re doing their environmental evaluation for a decision they’ve already made to cover up the murals.”
Golinger described the decision to move the vote to November of 2020 as “tactical” because they were planning on the March ballot when the board voted to destroy them by painting over them in June.
“Once they backed down from irreversible and immediate destruction we have a little more time to bring this to the people,” Golinger said. “And that would give us more time to educate the public, gather our forces, get the signatures, etc.
“The only reason the school board backed down from destroying the murals is because of the massive public attention on this issue,” he said. “We want to ensure that, should they proceed in the coming months on the current course, we’re going to make sure there’s a giant, bright spotlight on this decision and how it gets made, and hopefully, ultimately achieving a better outcome.”
One seat on the board is up for election on Nov. 5, now held by Commissioner Jenny Lam, who was appointed by SF Mayor London Breed after Supervisor Matt Haney was elected to the SF Board of Supervisors. Lam voted for destruction of the murals in June, but then voted with the majority in August to cover them up instead.
Two candidates have announced they are running against her, at least partly based on her mural votes.
Kirsten Strobel said she was “shocked” by the board’s unanimous decision to paint over the murals in June, then later she found out that Lam was running unopposed after being appointed.
“Between being really fired up about the destruction of public art and … just the whole idea that someone would just be able to waltz into something without having to defend their position, that just didn’t seem right to me,” Strobel said.
She was asked what she thought about the more recent decision to cover up the murals instead of destroying them.
“I think it was reactive to the outcry from the community and possibly from myself and another fellow entering the race,” she said. “They then decided to hold the vote shortly thereafter. That seemed suspicious, that they might have realized some of their political careers were in jeopardy.
“I still think they haven’t gone far enough in dealing with the real issue that the school has been dealing with for at least 50 years. It just seems lazy to me that their first instinct was to destroy and then the second one was just to cover it up.”
The other candidate running against Lam, Robert Coleman, did not respond to a request for comment. However, the Examiner quotes him as calling the board’s decision “embarrassing and should be reevaluated,” adding that it showed a “breakdown of a reasonable decision making process.”
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