Seven hours into a public meeting held Tuesday on Zoom, the Board of Education of the San Francisco Unified School District voted 6-0 to rescind its controversial Jan. 26 resolution to rename 44 district schools. The vote also effectively disbanded the School Names Committee, an advisory panel that recommended the specific schools to be renamed.

The vote puts to rest for the time being an acrimonious fight over the board’s decision to rename schools that bear the name of individuals the board found to be slaveowners, subjugators of indigenous people, or responsible for racist, sexist or other offensive conduct.

Among the schools targeted were those named after Abraham Lincoln (cruelty to indigenous people), George Washington (slaveowner), and Dianne Feinstein (alleged support for the Confederate flag).

The Jan. 26 renaming decision — made while district schools were closed because of the pandemic — was widely mocked as reflective of a woke school board more interested in “cancel culture” than in educating the district’s 57,000 students.

The outcry was so loud that on Feb. 21, board President Gabriela Lopez — then barely six weeks in the post — penned an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle admitting to mistakes in the process and pledging to suspend work on the renaming project until district students were back at school in-person.

Her concession did not end the matter.

Public outcry

Several alumni associations and graduates of the affected schools demanded that the district go further and formally rescind the resolution and dissolve the panel. When the district failed to respond, they filed suit in the Superior Court for San Francisco County.

Their petition alleged that even though the renaming process was suspended, “Petitioners will suffer irreparable harm, for the names of 44 schools will remain on an official public list that damages their reputations by characterizing their names as morally incompatible with San Francisco’s values.”

On March 18, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Ethan P. Schulman issued an “alternative writ of mandate” which directed the district to vacate the resolution and disband the panel or attend a hearing on May 6 to explain why it failed to do so.

The basis for the petition was an alleged series of mistakes in the preparation of the report that formed the basis of the contested resolution. The petition said that the renaming panel was biased and its research slipshod.

“We sent them multiple letters explaining the legal failings of both the process and the notice and that bore no results. So, we finally had to file a lawsuit.”

Paul D. Scott, attorney for plaintiffs

For example, the petition alleged that the research relied on Wikipedia articles and casual commentary, not scholarly research. Noting, archly, that district students are cautioned not to rely on Wikipedia in their school papers, the petition alleged that was the primary source for the panel’s decisions.

The petition also alleged that the panel did not include any historians, because of a mistaken view that they were unnecessary to the determinations being made.

A central contention of the suit was that the panel looked to see if the individuals committed one of seven categories of offensive conduct but did not consider the historical context or whether the individuals had done other virtuous acts that outweighed their offensive views or conduct.

The suit also challenged the board’s decision to adopt the panel’s report. According to the filing, the board failed to comply with the open meeting law because the public notice of the meeting described the resolution as merely identifying schools for “potential renaming,” not stating that the identified schools would lose their names, and further public input would be limited to new names.

The petitioners also alleged that alumni of the schools were excluded from the panel’s consideration of the names, even though alumni “manifestly represent by far the greatest number of people with a direct interest in the name of the school they attended.”

Board fires back

Despite rescinding the naming resolution, the board did not have kind words for the lawsuit.

The background section of the new resolution stated that the “Petitioners’ lawsuit is nothing more than a transparent attempt to thwart a lawful and duly-noticed action with which it disagrees.”

The resolution went on to say that board “wishes to avoid the distraction and wasteful expenditure of public funds in frivolous litigation.”

Paul D. Scott, counsel for the plaintiffs, dismissed the contention that the litigation was frivolous. “That’s more than a little ironic, since (the lawsuit) is the sole reason that they are actually capitulating and repealing their resolution. We sent them multiple letters explaining the legal failings of both the process and the notice and that bore no results. So, we finally had to file a lawsuit.”

A list of the 44 schools that the San Francisco Board of Education targeted for renaming because their namesakes have been linked to various types of oppression. (Photo illustration)

Scott said he is handling the case as a pro bono matter.

Scott said that he is not opposed to renaming schools as a general matter. He noted that “the school board has renamed schools before in the city, and it’s happened all across the land and it can be a really productive, positive process. And somehow, just by being as bullheaded as they have about this, they’ve ended up undermining their own cause.”

He said that renaming can be done in a positive way and he called attention to the renaming of Haight Elementary School in Alameda to Love Elementary School. “it was an organic process that started from the school itself, where there was a concern … and everybody who was a stakeholder, the alumni, the kids, the parents, the teachers had an opportunity to vote.”

Despite the fact that the resolution was not considered until after 10 p.m., more that 20 members of the public spoke on the issue, some telling the board to stick to their guns, others describing the renaming process as flawed.

The resolution, as adopted, said the board shall revisit the renaming issue “only after all students have returned to in-person learning for 5 full days each week.”