By Thomas K. Pendergast
The San Francisco Unified School District’s (SFUSD) Board of Education will appeal a San Francisco Superior Court ruling regarding the way the Board decided to cover murals at George Washington High School was illegal.
After a closed-session discussion, the Board voted 6-1 to appeal the Court’s ruling, with Commissioner Jenny Lam voting against.
The district’s plan to cover the controversial “Life of George Washington” murals at his namesake high school with solid panels was derailed last July after a judge ruled that the way the district went about it violated state law.
The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) lays out the rules for substantial changes to public buildings, including murals, a process the Board was supposed to follow first before making any decisions.
Instead, the Board did precisely the opposite.
“The Board and SFUSD failed in their primary duty to follow the requirements of the law,” wrote the Honorable Judge Anne-Christine Massullo of the San Francisco Superior Court. “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 laws designed to protect those resources.”
In August of 2019, with a 4-3 vote, the Board backed off from a previous unanimous vote to cover more than a dozen fresco murals in the lobby area of the high school with paint, which would have permanently destroyed the artwork. It opted instead to preserve them, but cover them over with some kind of solid material, like panels.
The artwork is controversial because it includes images of Afro-American slaves that Washington owned and showed pioneers walking past the corpse of an indigenous man, with the president standing off to the side and pointing the way forward. Critics of the 85-year-old murals say these images are not appropriate for a high school because they traumatize some students.
Artist Victor Arnautoff painted the series when the building was completed in 1936, during President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal era. The project was funded through the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA), which created many public schools and libraries throughout San Francisco and the nation, including this school.
A Russian immigrant who became a communist after studying art under the renowned muralist Diego Rivera, Arnautoff practiced “social realism” with his art, which often contained critical social commentary from a leftist point of view.
Members of the Reflections and Action Committee that called for the destruction of the murals, however, said the artwork does not represent SFUSD values and that the depictions in the mural “glorify slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy and oppression.”
But in the court decision, Judge Massullo agreed with the George Washington High School Alumni Association (the petitioner who brought the lawsuit) that not only did the Board not follow CEQA laws, the method for recruiting this committee was also skewed to get a certain outcome.
The Board could have opted to accept the court’s decision and then do an Environmental Impact Report first, as required by the law, before revisiting the issue and potentially making the same decision again to cover them over.
An email request to the district seeking comment on this decision was not returned by press time.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the district has already spent $148,000 defending the mural case, which, if the appeal is successful, they hope to get back.
Board Commissioner Kevine Boggess told the Chronicle that the district hopes to get a better judgment and not have to pay court costs related to losing.
In an email response to this story, Commissioner Matthew Alexander explained his position.
“I believe it is appropriate that public art should change with the times,” Alexander said. “The SFUSD’s stated values are student-centered, fearless, united, social justice and diversity-driven; our art should reflect those values. Moreover, it is important for all students, especially students from marginalized communities, to feel safe in school.”
But, he did have a caveat of sorts.
“Personally, I would like to see the Washington murals removed. But, I do not believe it is feasible or appropriate for the Board of Education to spend time debating and deciding the fate of every piece of public art in SFUSD,” he explained. “In my view, the Board should set guidelines for public art and layout processes by which school communities can make their own decisions within the boundaries of those guidelines.”
The decision to appeal was made during the same meeting as the Board was told that the State of California’s Department of Education might take over running the district due to their ever-worsening financial situation.
“As a governing board, you have both the responsibility and the authority to act to balance your budget and ensure the district’s finances are stable,” said Michael Fine of the state’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team. “If you fail to act accordingly, then the CDE’s interventions will progressively increase, potentially to the point where your governing authority is set aside.
“When you’re in a declining enrollment situation with the loss of revenue associated to the declining enrollment, we have to take a whole different approach to it,” Fine said. “Where you start to trim as a result of that absolutely is at the classroom level because you have fewer kids that you’re going to provide direct services to.”
He noted that the California Department of Education demanded the Board do something about its budget situation a year ago.
“You’ve got multiple things going on, including current influences,” he said. “There was time a year ago to start this process but it hasn’t really gotten off the ground in what we would consider being an adequate manner. And so now you’re crunched.”
Adding to the “crunch,” the Board now faces a recall election for three of its members: President Gabriela Lopez, Vice President Faauuga Moliga, and Commissioner Alison M. Collins. A petition to recall them was certified by the City in mid-October and they will face the voters at the ballot box on Feb. 15, 2022.
The district is also out a total of $200,000 after it was required to cover $60,000 in legal costs in another case involving violation of the Brown Act during the debates over renaming 44 schools throughout the district, and also did not pursue $125,000 in attorney fees after a judge threw out an $87 million lawsuit filed by Collins against the Board, according to the Chronicle.
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