Commentary: The City’s Cynical Attack on SFUSD

The City’s Cynical Attack on the San Francisco School Board

By Julie Pitta

We’re nearing the one-year anniversary of the City’s first shelter-in-place order. In the early weeks of the pandemic, I walked the neighborhood each evening, serenaded by a makeshift orchestra of pots and pans, a tribute to first-responders and a symbol of unity during the most trying of times.

Richmond residents, masked and socially distanced, carried on with their lives despite the constraints placed on them by a virus that is unpredictable, and often savage. Among the sacrifices all San Franciscans were willing to make was closing our public schools.

At this one-year mark, the mood has soured. Frustration has provoked an ill-advised call to resume in-person instruction at San Francisco’s public schools. That cry reached a crescendo just as the pandemic was doing its worst, and the city was struggling to obtain an adequate vaccine supply. Pandering to the public outcry, City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed a lawsuit against the school district, alleging it had violated the state’s constitution and equal rights laws by failing to offer in-person instruction. 

The school district determines how best to educate all San Francisco Unified students. To do so, it must consider the well-being of the children in its care as well as that of the educators and staff it employs. 

Complicating any return to in-person instruction is the sorry state of San Francisco’s public schools. Underfunded for years, our schools are in poor shape. CDC guidelines call for good ventilation to prevent the spread of the virus, but many San Francisco schools are in such disrepair that windows cannot be opened and air purifiers, in a system that lacks money for even the basics, simply don’t exist.

After June, the district must navigate reopening without the leadership of Superintendent Vincent Matthews. Matthews’ retirement, announced days after the United Educators of San Francisco and the Board of Education reached an agreement to return to in-person instruction, adds another complication to an already challenging plan.

It’s important to note that the demand for physically reopening public schools is not unanimous. When asked, many San Francisco Unified families, particularly those considered lower-income, say they aren’t ready to return their children to brick-and-mortar classrooms.

As tensions escalated, School Board President Gabriela Lopez and Vice President Alison Collins, two women of color, became the targets of death threats, attacks that are inexcusable regardless of the perceived provocation. Critics claim they allowed the board to become distracted by a project to rename public schools. In fact, renaming is part of the board’s efforts on racial equity which began three years ago. It merits further consideration.

And, it was never an either/or proposition. The board’s equity work did not prevent reopening. Safety did. Without widespread vaccination, reopened public schools will become hotbeds of disease transmission, spreading COVID-19 into the general population. Only now are teachers being vaccinated. But the process has been anything but smooth.

The City’s misguided lawsuit is an attack not only on the school board, but on our City’s educators who have behaved heroically during the pandemic. The school district found the resources to hand out computers to low-income families and helped those same families connect to the internet while teachers moved to online instruction with little training. At the same time, educators, so underpaid that few can afford to live in the city in which they work, were also dealing with the often-devastating consequences of COVID-19.

Now, San Francisco Unified must defend itself against a lawsuit brought by the city attorney and the mayor in a cynical attempt to placate the loudest, and often the most privileged, among us. City Attorney Herrera has stated he will challenge any plan that ties school reopening to vaccine availability.

The health of students, educators and district employees must come first. The science is clear: Resuming in-person instruction without vaccinating teachers and staff places their lives at risk. And children aren’t immune to COVID-19’s frequently debilitating side effects: The CDC recently reported that a significant number of kids, who have been exposed to or contracted COVID-19, are suffering from a life-threatening inflammation of the heart, brain, and kidneys.

I don’t deny that San Francisco’s public school students are hurting. So are their parents who are struggling to keep kids engaged with online learning while managing households under increasing pressure. But attacking the school board and the union that protects the interests of public educators won’t ease their pain.

The early days of the shelter-in-place were scary. And yet, I’m nostalgic for a time, not so long ago, when it looked as though San Franciscans would stick together and emerge from this crisis bloodied, but unbowed. 

Julie Pitta is a member of the governing board of Richmond District Rising. Richmond District Rising builds electoral and political power for working class people, people of color, and other historically oppressed communities to ensure a progressive, liberated and equitable Richmond DistrictShe can be reached at

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7 replies »

  1. The author writes: “Critics claim they allowed the board to become distracted by a project to rename public schools. In fact, renaming is part of the board’s efforts on racial equity which began three years ago. It merits further consideration.”

    The first meeting of the Schools Renaming Advisory Committee took place on January 30, 2020. I would suggest that the author ask School Board President Gabriela Lopez and Vice President Alison Collins what they were doing for two years.

    The Richmond Review posted online my Letter to Editor titled “Do Not Rename Lincoln High School” on December 9, 2020. The principal reason that the Schools Renaming Advisory Committee voted by consensus to rename Abraham Lincoln High School was the role of President Abraham Lincoln in the execution of the “Dakota 38.”

    I ended my Letter to Editor with the following postscript:

    Professor Michael Burlingame was the winner of the 2010 Lincoln Prize for his two-volume work on Lincoln, titled “Abraham Lincoln: A Life.” Professor Burlingame devoted five pages of his scholarly work to the 1862 Dakota Sioux Indian uprising and the subsequent actions taken by President Lincoln, titled “Magnanimity: Dealing the Minnesota Sioux Uprising.” (“Abraham Lincoln: A Life,” Vol. Two, pages 480-84.)

    The introductory first paragraph contains the following important historical fact: “They (the Dakota Sioux Indians) killed hundreds and drove over 30,000 from their homes. It was the bloodiest massacre of American civilians on U.S. soil prior to September 11, 2001.”

    I would be willing to bet one “Abraham Lincoln” (i.e., a $5 bill) that there is not a single member of the Renaming of Schools Panel, appointed by authority of the elected San Francisco School Board, that is aware of this important historical fact regarding President Abraham Lincoln’s actions in consequence of the 1862 Dakota Sioux Indian uprising.

    As the author, why don’t you ask School Board President Gabriela Lopez and Vice President Alison Collins if each was aware of this important historical fact regarding the “Dakota 38” issue when each of them voted in the January 26, 2021 meeting of the School Board to authorize the Renaming of Abraham Lincoln High School for just cause.

    Then, post their answer as a comment to your own Letter to Editor published by the Richmond Review online.

    I am willing to bet you one “Abraham Lincoln” (i.e., a $5 bill) that you will not get a meaningful answer to this SPECIFIC question: “Were you aware that the Dakota Sioux Indians killed hundreds and drove over 30,000 from their homes and that this was the bloodiest massacre of American civilians on U.S. soil prior to September 11, 2001?”

    President Abraham Lincoln authorized the execution of only the “Dakota 38,” who had been found guilty either of rape (two) or participated in massacres (not battles). President Lincoln commuted the death sentences of 264 Native Americans sentenced to execution following military trials in Minnesota.

    Honesty seems to be in short supply on the San Francisco Board of Education. You will find that to be a fact.


  2. I don’t understand the writer’s defense of the BOE. There are many complications in the underfunding of schools in San Francisco and quite obviously the board seriously neglected their obligation to support the education of the City’s children.

    This Renaming was sloppy, feel-good, and a badly mismanaged project.

    You might want to blame Prop 13 or the unions, but these are not relevant to this. The anger against the BOE is from the tone deaf way the Renaming was pushed through without adequate (and promised) public involvement, and the lack of truthful and deep research of the serious charges against historic figures, which added insult to injury. It also would have put a heavy financial burden on the schools already seriously underfunded and unprotected.

    And using the color card in defense of Ms Lopez and Ms Collins is, at best, very misguided, and at worst, diminishes the power that charge should have.

    The outcry over way the Renaming was handled had nothing to do with color or race, but is about the bad management of it and extremely poor communication in trying to defend it.

    Parents and students would welcome a sincere discussion and education about the importance of names and the context in which to view historic figures. But first and foremost, we need to focus on improving the way education is being delivered to students now and in the future.

    The BOE owes the students and parents an apology, and, if sincere about their error, should make a much stronger effort to competently address the areas blocking the safe reopening of schools.


  3. Sadly, the two previous comments are completely caught up in the now tabled renaming issue rather than the points eloquently made by Ms. Pitta. Our BOE has had to confront an impossible predicament in having to manage a seriously underfunded, badly maintained school district. How do we accommodate the myriad needs of our students, teachers, administrators, support staff, janitorial staff, etcetera? What about the families who aren’t ready to return? What about the teachers who can’t return? Who is going to attend to the medical (physical and mental health) needs of the children? The non-existent nurses? The non-existent counseling staff? Yes this has been a tough year for the children. We make it worse by telling them what a hard year it’s been, how far behind they are. Let’s support our kids by telling them how lucky they are to have professionals who care about them! Thank you for this thoughtful piece.


  4. Some people see a crisis as an opportunity to hyper-criticize; others rise above and make the best of a bad (some would say impossible) situation. Thank you for this.


  5. We all care about our kids and their education. The kids are lucky that they have parents and a community that care for them, not just the professionals on the BOE. But they need more than luck.

    The BOE needs to come up with real proposals and work with the unions to reopen the schools safely.

    The truth is hard — it has been a terrible year. But problems don’t get solved unless we admit that they are there first. It is a big challenge, but it still needs to be addressed, one step at a time. That is their job and our job.


  6. Before reading this article, I thought the school board was the reason SF schools aren’t open. Now, I think it’s more complicated. Reopening schools isn’t just unlocking the doors. I’d like to see schools open as soon as it’s safe for students. And teachers and staff have the training and resources to keep it safe. Seems reasonable the City Attorney suing the school board SF isn’t helping. More likely the lawsuit will delay school reopening.


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