Supervisors Debate City’s Recall Election Rules

By Thomas K. Pendergast

Three school board members of the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) face a recall election this month and now funding issues for such recall elections plus a proposal to amend the San Francisco City Charter related to recall elections in general have emerged. 

Board President Gabriela Lopez, along with commissioners Alison M. Collins and Faauuga Moliga are the focus of a recall election on Feb. 15.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors recently appropriated $3.25 million to pay for this particular recall election. They also have agreed, with Mayor London Breed, to forgive a $26 million loan to the cash-strapped district, which faces a $125 million deficit while they also look for a new superintendent, plus the California State Department of Education is threatening to take over the district. 

On the positive side, the SFUSD will receive a one-time windfall of $123.4 million from the Proposition G — Living Wages for Educators Act parcel tax, which was passed by San Francisco voters in 2018. Funds from the parcel tax had been withheld from the SFUSD pending the outcome of a lawsuit challenging the voter-supported initiative.

The California Supreme Court finally resolved the matter when it declined to consider an appeal of two prior court decisions, thus affirming the validity of Proposition G.     

“Mayor Breed is proposing to foot their part in the amount of $3.25 million,” District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin said at a December supervisors’ meeting. “In addition, that the $26 million the City loaned the school district will be forgiven.”

“Our school district is in the most dire straits that it has ever been,” District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen responded. “We have had some highly public, in many ways embarrassing moments over the last couple of years with our school board. 

“But the state of our school district is a much deeper problem … 80 to 90% of our students in elementary schools on the east side of the city are failing. They’re not at grade level in basic subjects,” she continued.

“I’m really frustrated with the district in a million different ways. We need a new type of leadership over there. But right now we’re just talking about dollars and cents. They can’t afford this $3 million. We have a surplus in the city,” Ronen said.

“I am against all recall (elections),” said District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan. “I think it’s time to really think about how these types of recalls have been used as a tactic against our democracy. So for us to allocate funding to support that effort on a policy matter, it is very difficult for me to support that. 

“However, at the same time, as we have learned over the last few months, the deficits for the San Francisco Unified School District is just disheartening and it’s very challenging for all students in the classroom,” Chan said.

“I would like to see us move forward with providing support to the school district at this critical moment,” District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar said. “This is extremely important to me and my constituents and the entire city to ensure that our schools are able to recover from the difficulties of the past few years and really get back to thriving.”

The board ended up approving the appropriation on a 10-1 vote with Peskin voting against. 

Meanwhile, a charter amendment related to the SFUSD and recall elections is now in the Rules Committee and if it makes it out of that committee, will be on its way to go before the supervisors. If approved there, it will either go before voters at the June 7 special election or in the November general election. 

The amendment would change the City Charter to extend the ban on the initiation of recall petitions from six to 12 months after the official has assumed office; prohibit the submission of a recall petition to the Department of Elections if the subsequent recall election would be required to be held within 12 months of a regularly scheduled election for the office held by the official sought to be recalled; and provide that any person appointed by the mayor to fill any vacancy created by a recall may not be a candidate in the subsequent election. 

As the proposal stands now in its current form, if it gets put on the ballot for the special election in June and wins that vote, it would apply to the general election in November and the mayor’s appointees would not be allowed to run. 

The current law says the mayor’s appointments would be able to run again in the November general election and so this will remain the case if the proposed amendments to the City Charter go to the voters in that election. 

At least one supervisor has expressed skepticism about this proposal.

“Democracy works when people know what they’re voting on,” District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman said. “Part of the problem with school boards and college boards, assessor and some of these other offices is very few people actually know who they’re voting for. This appears to me (that) it is certainly a shift away from the mayor for a set of offices and I’m curious why that’s an important thing to do.”  

“It’s an expression of fear of democracy,” said John Trasvina, former president of the Lowell High School Alumni Association but speaking only for himself. “If the school district is going through a crisis, which many people believe it is, the mayor should put in the person she feels is most qualified. 

“Why would we then say ‘this person is not allowed to go before the voters to endorse that choice for four years?’”

Joel Engardio, who organized and led the petition to put the school board recall on the ballot, noted that the last such San Francisco election was in 1983 to recall then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein, so he called the proposed City Charter amendment a solution in search of a problem.  

“How many recalls have there been in San Francisco in the past 40 years? One. And it failed when it went to the voters,” Engardio said. “People are claiming that these recalls are undemocratic and aren’t representing the will of the people, but these proposals are actually disenfranchising voters,” he said. “These proposals are truly undemocratic because the recall is democracy. It is the ability for the voters to have a say when the elected officials go off the rails. And this school board is the definition of going off the rails.”

But many question the need to do a recall election now if the commissioners are all up for re-election in November. And Engardio has an answer for them.  

“Because if we wait until November, this school board is going to hire a new superintendent in their own likeness, and we can’t have that because this school board has demonstrated that they are not on the side of parents and families in San Francisco,” he said. “It’s vital that we get rid of this school board now so a new school board – a rational, competent school board – can hire a rational, competent superintendent.”

In the Richmond Review newspaper, John Trasvina was incorrectly identified as being associated with Abraham Lincoln High School. Instead, he is the former president of the Lowell High School Alumni Association. We regret the error. 

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