Press Release

Press Release: George Washington High School Alumni Association Victor Arnautoff Mural Victorious CEQA Court Ruling Statement Release


San Francisco School Board Violated California Environmental Law

San Francisco Superior Court Orders School Board to Void Illegal Actions to Destroy or Cover Historic Arnautoff Murals

September 28, 2021, For Immediate Release. On September 24, 2021, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo entered Judgment in favor of the George Washington High School Alumni Association after hard-fought litigation spanning two years. Judge Massullo ruled that the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) and the San Francisco School Board violated California environmental laws. The judge ordered issuance of a Peremptory Writ of Mandamus requiring that the SFUSD and the School Board void their unlawful actions to destroy or cover the historic Arnautoff Murals at George Washington High School.

Superior Court of the State of California for the County of San Francisco Case No. CPF-19-516880

George Washington High School Alumni Association vs. San Francisco Unified School District and the San Francisco Unified Board of Education

Judgment Granting Petition for Writ of Mandamus

“The Board and SFUSD failed to follow the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act. The Board is ordered to set aside all actions and approvals relating to destroying or removing murals from public view.”

Peremptory Writ of Mandate

“You (SFUSD and School Board) are hereby commanded to void your actions and approvals adjudged in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) due to pre-commitment to paint over, cover and/or remove from public view the historic Arnautoff murals at George Washington High School; to wit, (1) the formation, actions and recommendations of the Reflection and Action Committee whose core objective was to “[m]ake recommendations for action to the Superintendent and Board of Education of SFUSD about the murals”; (2) the adoption of Resolution 196-25S01 dated June 15, 2019; and (3) the adoption of Resolution of 198-13S01 dated August 13, 2019.”

Excerpts from Judgment

  • The Court finds that Respondents [SFUSD and School Board] ignored CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) in pursuit of a predetermined result: the administrative record is devoid of any evidence that Respondents followed or even attempted to follow the requirements of the law.

Judgment Exhibit A, Page 2, Lines 4-11

  • “…the purpose of CEQA is not to generate paper, but to compel government at all levels to make decisions with environmental consequences in mind.”

Page 25, Lines 19-21

  • when considering the Board and SFUSD’s meritless position, the Court wonders if they are looking at the record they filed in this proceeding. Quite contrary to the Respondents’ (SFUSD) claim, the Court finds that the AR (Administrative Record) overwhelmingly supports Petitioner’s [the Alumni Association’s] reading of the evidence.”

Page 28, Lines 22-25

  • “The hallmark of our system is that whether it concerns the President of the United States or a local school board, the rule of law – the process – is more important than the result. Because Respondents did not follow the procedural requirements of the law, the Court must issue the writ.”

Page 2, Lines 17-19

  • “Commissioner Alison Collins was the next Board member to address the public. ‘So when people say it’s really important to remember history, my question is, you know, who needs to remember it, right? Like who needs reminding. I don’t need reminding.’”

Page 17, Lines, 9-10 and 13-15

  • “At that (June 25, 2019 School Board) public meeting two members of the Board, sitting in their official capacity wore tee shirts advocating for their position. Gabriela Lopez wore a tee shirt that said “Take It Down” and Commissioner Faauuga Moliga wore a tee shirt that said “Resistance.”

Page 18, Lines 13-15

  • “The option to paint over the mural, which had been recommended by the [SFUSD-selected Reflection and Action] Committee was estimated to cost

$600,000 and take up to three plus years to complete, including CEQA review [according to SFUSD staff].

Page 16, Lines 19-21

  • “Respondents’ [SFUSD] position that they needed to use the word ‘removal’ in the August 13, 2019 resolution because they needed to define a project for CEQA is yet another glaring example of Respondents holding themselves above the law.”

Page 38, Lines 5-7

  • “…Dewey Crumpler, the artist who painted the Multi-Ethnic Heritage murals in the 1960s was not invited to be on the Committee. In a June 10 letter to the Board, Dewey Crumpler stated when he accepted the commission to paint the Multi-Ethnic Heritage murals, he did so on the express agreement that neither one of the murals – Arnautoff’s or his – would ever be destroyed.

Pages 30-31, Lines 26-27 & Lines 1-2

■               CONCLUSION AND ORDER

“The Board and SFUSD failed in their primary duty to follow the requirements of the law. California, as a matter of long-standing public policy, places enormous value on its environmental and historical resources and the People are entitled to expect public officials to give more than lip-service to the law designed to protect those resources.”

Page 41, Lines 22-25

Statements from George Washington High School Alumni Association in Response to the Court’s Decision and Directives,

Said John F. Rothmann, President, George Washington High School Alumni Association:

  • “It’s time to PUT STUDENTS FIRST. It’s time to educate, not polarize. It’s time to learn from our past and, together, make a better tomorrow.”
    • The George Washington High School Alumni Association always believed these fresco murals, painted in 1936 when the School was built, can and should be used to educate every child in San Francisco’s school system with a real, unabridged history.”
  • “This high school, presently recommended for landmark status, is home to a national art history treasure. Let’s protect it and learn from it.

Said Lope Yap, Jr., Alumni Association Vice President:

  • The School Board-directed process was biased, incomplete and exclusionary.”
    • It is time to incorporate these internationally-recognized fresco murals in the school curriculum.”

Said Erika Lovrin, former Principal of the high school, in 2010, about Arnautoff’s fresco murals.

“As you really go through and learn about the artwork and what the artist was thinking about, the history comes alive and that’s the experience that we want the students to have here. We would like to see that they could share that with past alumni and the community so that they can know the treasure that we have here in the school. The grandeur of these murals is fantastic. Many of the students who have come to Washington are proud of these murals. They come back and they say we’re so happy they’re still here and are being preserved.”

Statements from Artists, Muralists, Art Conservators, Art Historians and Authors

“I applaud the work of the GWHSAA in their tireless efforts to preserve the Arnautoff murals. Regrettably, opponents of the murals have been largely indifferent to what the murals actually teach us, preferring to view isolated images out of context. Hopefully, the intervention of the San Francisco Superior Court will give opponents an opportunity to consider their previous actions and inspire reflection resulting in a respect for the mural’s historical significance.” Matt Gonzalez, Former President of The San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

“Arnautoff’s work, like all great art is able to speak to students and community, even if it creates difficulty – that’s when education begins.” Dewey Crumpler, Assistant Professor of Art, Art Institute of San Francisco. As a young muralist, he was selected by the Washington High School Black Student Union and retained by the SF Board of Education in 1970 to paint contemporary response murals to Victor Arnautoff’s “Life and Era of George Washington” murals. Four years later (1974), Crumpler’s Multi- Ethnic Heritage murals were honored at a ceremony hosted by the School Board and Washington High School.

“This ruling is great news for historic preservation and for the City of San Francisco. Victor Arnautoff’s murals represent one of the largest installations of 1930s social realism works in the Bay Area and deserve to be saved for everyone.” Therese Poletti, Preservation Director, Art Deco Society of California.

The Washington High School frescoes are important works on so many accounts, not the least being a statement of their time. They remain a treasure for us today, and I maintain, for future time. San Francisco would be poorer without the voice of Victor Arnautoff. The murals of the 1930s, the era of the WPA and the New Deal, draw our attention to similarities of government and society today. We can still see ourselves in them, and they need to be remembered as we chart our own future. The Arnautoff murals are frank, and they dignify the humanity of the races portrayed. Victor Arnautoff was a believer in the struggle for human rights of all people.” Anne Rosenthal, Art Conservator who prepared an Arnautoff Mural Condition Report for SFUSD in 2010.

“As Arnautoff’s biographer, I was concerned that, from the very beginning of the Reflection and Action Group’s process, the artist’s intent was consistently misunderstood, misrepresented, or ignored by SFUSD. Victor Arnatouff’s work told an important and critical story of our Nation’s history, and today, the students at George Washington High School and our community have much to learn from it.” Robert W. Cherny, Professor Emeritus of History, San Francisco State University and author, Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art.

“The ruling last Friday is a historic victory for Indian Country. It dealt a blow against the 21st century’s manifest destiny; the continued attempt to erase the American Indian images, symbols, and names from our country’s landscape.”

Johnny Learned, American Indian Center of the Great Plains

“The 1936 murals of Victor Arnautoff were an artistically accurate if symbolic history of George Washington then as they still are today. They depict the greatness of our first President yet do not shy away from the existence in that era of slavery and the destruction of Native Americans. These murals serve as a continuing “teaching moment” to the young adults who attend this institution of higher learning. Great art illuminates and encourages thought and the exchange of ideas…censorship does neither. Present and future students of George Washington High School are fortunate to have the Arnautoff murals as part of their learning experience.” Robert Flynn Johnson, Curator Emeritus, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

“The SF Superior Court ruling last Friday on the protection of the Arnautoff murals at George Washington High School, is a great, clear path to preserving this important cultural asset for future generations. This civic dialog will be remembered as part of our cultural evolution and better understanding of the mural’s intention and revelation.” Susan Kelk Cervantes, Founding Director Precita Eyes Muralists Association, Inc.

Like the best of New Deal art, Victor Arnautoff’s provocative mural cycle roughens the smooth mythologies of America’s past. Then, as now, it had its critics for doing so. The court has affirmed that however uncomfortable the artist’s message may be, it embodies not only his guaranteed freedom of expression but the critical thinking that should be a cornerstone of democratic

education. It thus deserves its long-honored place at George Washington High School for its exemplary teaching value. Dr. Gray Brechin, Project Scholar of the Living New Deal, U.C. Berkeley Department of Geography

*     *      *      *     *

For further information, interviews or statements, contact Lope Yap, Jr., Vice President, George Washington High School Alumni Association at (415) 755-5271 or or Alumni Association counsel Susan Brandt-Hawley, Brandt-Hawley Law Group,


Case Number: CPF19516880


For more information on the Arnautoff murals and their architectural context, see the document and images presented in the National Park Service’s “Historic American Buildings Survey” (HABS) available at the Library of Congress at: George Washington High School is the only San Francisco public school honored by inclusion in this prestigious collection.

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