Monday, January 17, 2022

Endorsements (with bonus rant): San Francisco school board recall election February 2022

Total Recall!

There are three races on this ballot, but one is much more important and attention-getting than the others, and will get the bulk of this post.

Let's do the easier ones first:

State Assembly District 17 special primary
: Bilal Mahmood

This is ironic. The position is open because David Chiu, who beat Chris Campos for an assembly seat in 2014, decided to take the San Francisco City Attorney job last fall, as he would have been term-limited out of the assembly this year. Thus we have four elections for this seat this year: this February primary and an April general election between the top two in this primary (all four are Democrats) to fill a seat that will be on the ballot AGAIN for the regular June primary and November general election. Incumbency is really powerful in San Francisco, and now Campos might get incumbency 8 years later because Chiu quit early.

Campos, a former member of the Board of Supervisors, is running against current Board member Matt Haney; early polling shows these two in the lead. This sucks because they are the two worst candidates. Campos is considered more liberal than Haney, but the progressive San Francisco Bay Guardian -- which hates Chiu -- refused to endorse Campos in 2014. Haney is a "progressive" NIMBY; he recently voted to delay approval of a 250-bed homeless shelter even though the second phrase of his campaign website says he supports "housing more homeless." When he was president of the school board in 2016 (something he doesn't even mention in his four-page election flier), Haney is the joker who first proposed renaming schools named after racists like George Washington. It's probably not great for him to be on this particular ballot (you'll read a lot more about the school board below) but all he has to do is finish second and he'll get a shot in April.

I am torn between Mahmood and Thea Selby. Read about Mahmood here. Though he worked in the Obama administration as a policy analyst, Mahmood has no experience running for office. Selby has been on the community college board since 2014, and to her credit it has improved from being the most-irresponsible government agency in SF during her tenure. I slightly prefer Mahmood's stands on issues including housing and a potential Green New Deal. Either is better than the other two.

UPDATE: The Chronicle endorsed Mahmood! I'm stunned and pleased. And also validated: I made my choices by reading their positions and watching a debate, but the Chronicle has the resources to interview the candidates and the expertise to parse all their past decisions. I hope this is the push Mahmood needs to make it to the runoff.

Assessor-Recorder: Whatever

JoaquĆ­n Torres was appointed to this job in February 2021 and is running unopposed for election to a full term. I have no idea if he's any good at the job, but it doesn't matter because he only needs one vote to win. Here's his website.

Now the main event:

San Francisco School Board Recall Election (Propositions A, B and C): Yes, Yes, Hell Yes! TOTAL RECALL!

Here is the TLDR version of this election endorsement:

Vote to recall all 3 of the San Francisco school board members on the ballot for these reasons:

* The school board that includes these three was more interested in renaming schools that had been named after racists like Abraham Lincoln and George Washington than in coming up with a school reopening plan.
* The board still has never come up with a plan for students to make up for all the lost learning
* The board has not paid any attention to its budget, building up a huge deficit. In December it was finally forced to approve an immediate $90 million in cuts in an attempt to avert a state takeover.

* The state might have to take over our schools! What more clear evidence could you ask for that this board is incompetent?

* These three were never the choice of a majority of the electorate in the first place.
* Alison Collins, after her racist tweets from 2016 were exposed, tried to take $87 million out of the school budget and put it in her own pocket.
* Collins' ally, board chairperson Gabriela Lopez, has led the board through its era of complete incompetence. She has shown us she cannot do the job
* Faauuga Moliga is not as bad as Collins or Lopez, but he hasn't shown that he's part of the solution. Removing him will give a more competent administrator a chance to do a better job.


Recall these three: Collins, Lopez and Moliga

I have a lot to say about this recall election, so if you lose interest just go back to the TLDR version. I want to look at how the board got this bad, and what might be done to get a more professional school board in the future.

I also want to wring my hands about recall elections in general. I don't think they're good for American democracy unless required by malfeasance or egregious incompetence. Generally I won't vote "Yes" on a recall even if I dislike the office holder. And whether the recall succeeds or not, these three seats are also up for election in November.

But this recall is very necessary, just to get Alison Collins out of a job that nearly every city political leader asked her to resign from two years ago because of her anti-Asian racism

Having already staked out a position that even Abraham Lincoln was not sufficiently anti-racist,
the school board had little choice but to strip Collins of her title as Vice President.

Collins turned around and filed a lawsuit for $87 million, attempting to redirect about 7 percent of the annual school budget into her own bank account. She failed, but undermined the schools anyway. Her lawsuit was ridiculous, but it cost the school district $110,000 to fight it.

Collins could file something like this again, at any time. She needs to go. A school board member who thinks it's OK to sue the school district for $87 million because her feelings were hurt cannot stay in a position where she has any influence on how money for schools is spent.

Collins is the headliner here, but there are many other reasons this recall is happening, and her lawsuit isn't the main one. I'm not going to touch on most of them; this official site for recall proponents does an excellent job, and I recommend that you read it. While you're there, check out the who's who of local politicians from both left and center (we have no right) who support this recall.

Instead, I want to talk about how these three people got elected to a job they have proven they are unqualified for.

The 2018 election had 19 candidates for 3 school board spots. Collins got the most votes of any candidate -- 15% of the votes cast. Lopez got 13.7% and Moliga got 13.2%. This meant relatively easy wins for them: the next closest candidate, Phil Kim, got 9.3%.

If those numbers were quadruple, I would have serious qualms about voting for this recall. But here's a statistical fun fact for you: at least 2/3 of people who voted in the 2018 school board election DID NOT CHOOSE ANY OF THESE THREE CANDIDATES.

In other words, they were not the choice of a majority of voters. Not even close. 817,920 votes were cast in the school board election. Between the three of them, they amassed 342,153 votes -- not even close to half, and many people voted for more than one of them for reasons I will explain below. They were chosen by a minority of voters: less than one in seven voters in the cases of Lopez and Moliga.

That's how democracy works in a crowded race. But my point is that there was no "will of the people" to install these three on the board. (I'm going to revisit the "will of the people" argument when District Attorney Chesa Boudin's recall election comes up later in 2022.)

So, how did they get elected?

Let's credit the three of them for good campaigning. Here's a nice story about how Lopez became the youngest elected official in San Francisco.

We wanted our own AOC; we love AOC in San Francisco. But AOC is uniquely brilliant, and unfortunately, the job of school board chairman for a huge, combative school district turned out to be too much for this 27-year-old schoolteacher, though you gotta admire her moxie.

Collins, an educator for 20 years, won in part because she had the support of the teachers' union. Moliga had widespread support from the city's liberal organizations. That's how you get above 10% of the vote when that's all that's necessary.

What did the media have to say about them? Glad you asked: that was a problem.

There are only two major publications in San Francisco that do detailed election endorsements, and one of them, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, went out of print several years ago and continues to exist online only for endorsements. We should be very grateful to SFBG editor Tim Redmond (who now runs the site 48 Hills) for this pro-bono work. I always appreciate that the Guardian interviews all the candidates and parses the issues. I find the Guardian's endorsements very helpful in making up my own mind.

However. The Guardian is very left-wing. In elections where the city is paying attention, the Guardian's "clean slate" endorsement is never enough to win. Former Mayor Willie Brown once said (I don't remember the exact quote), "In San Francisco, the left can muster 40% for every election. That's always enough to lose." Brown is right: though considered very left-wing for California, he was the centrist candidate in San Francisco, as was Gavin Newsom, as was Kamala Harris, as was London Breed. For citywide offices, the centrists almost always win. (Chesa Boudin is an important exception.)

But what about when the city is not paying attention? That's the problem with school-board races: only very involved people pay attention, which means a committed minority -- in this case as little as 10% of voters -- can win even if their views don't represent the city as a whole.

That's when we need the city's only remaining newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, to step up and give us guidance. The Chronicle has always been fairly pragmatic with its endorsements. It also has easily the most resources for this: it has an editorial board to interview the candidates and reporters to research them. For elections like the school board, where I know very little about the candidates, I like guidance from the Chronicle.

But the Chronicle doesn't provide much coverage of school board races, perhaps because it still sees its coverage area as regional and not local, and it doesn't want to parse the school board races in Napa and Livermore, etc. More irritating is that periodically it puts its endorsements behind its paywall. This makes no sense, because Chronicle endorsements are a public service -- the newspaper could make this community better by telling us how to vote in these obscure races.

The Chronicle's 2018 school-board endorsements are not behind a paywall, but they weren't easy to find on the site at the time either. And the endorsement editorial is only six paragraphs long, with only four paragraphs about the candidates. It's not a compelling argument, unfortunately, though personally I voted for the Chronicle's choices anyway. We wouldn't be having this recall if more people had done so; none of them won.

Chronicle people will tell you that the newspaper and the website SFGate are separate entities, though owned by the same company. Fine. Hearst Corporation, you have a civic responsibility to bring these two entities together when it comes to election endorsements, which could be posted on SFGate, but are not.

When the Chronicle hides its endorsements and short-plays them, that gives the Guardian, as well as special interest groups (which in San Francisco are usually very left-wing) much more power. I look at these winning candidates' vote totals -- 15%, 13.7% and 13.2% -- and see an election that a committed group of ideologues can win. And in fact, Collins, Lopez and Moliga all got the Guardian's endorsement.

This was the case in the past with the community college board; left-wing ideologues ran the community college district into the ground, blowing its budget and nearly losing its accreditation. That situation started to get better when the Chronicle started paying attention.

We need you, Chronicle! Please don't abandon covering local politics, and please stop minimizing the impact of your endorsements.

UPDATE: The Chronicle endorses this recall. (But I couldn't find this on the Chronicle website; I follow a Chronicle staffer who tweeted it.)

So Collins, Lopez and Moliga were basically elected by the far left, and they immediately went to work to please their small constituency, ordering a historic mural of George Washington destroyed in a decision that was overturned by a judge:

Then they went after Lowell High School, which has been the one gem of the San Francisco public school system: a merit-based school that allows the children of working-class families to have the same high-quality education that private schools offer. The board voted to basically destroy it by opening up admissions on a lottery basis. If you don't have the best students, you're not going to have the best school. Their theory is that it's unfair that some kids get a better education than others, so everyone should have the same subpar education. You can't call it socialist thinking because even the Soviet Union found ways to get its brighter students into technical programs. It's more akin to sibling jealousy: if I can't have something nice, you can't have it either.

The Lowell issue was the one that sparked parents to begin gathering signature for a recall. I agree with the parents on this, but I wouldn't vote to recall the board members based on Lowell alone. The board members can argue that they represented the wishes of the people who voted for them (though that brings me back to pointing out that at least 2/3 of people who voted in the election did not choose any of them.)

If anyone is reading this looking for anything that might reflect national politics, first of all, it's schools not reopening during the pandemic, but hopefully by November that won't be an issue anymore. Otherwise, it's Lowell. I've been thinking about this a lot in the wake of the Democratic Party's hand-wringing over losing the Virginia governor's election. That election turned on education issues, but exit polls showed that despite GOP posturing, fear of Critical Race Theory didn't move as many voters as expected.

That would be the case here. If San Francisco had a referendum on teaching Critical Race Theory to kindergartners, it would pass by a large majority; we're not afraid of it. But take away a merit-based admissions policy and voters revolt. Keep that in mind, national Democrats.

The school renaming issue was the final straw for many voters; it was what induced me to sign the petition. During the pandemic, the board spent many hours discussing renaming 44 schools instead of coming up with a plan for reopening the schools. That's a clear sign that the current school board doesn't care about education; only about left-wing politics. And even after they spent a year on the project, the board couldn't get its facts straight! They put Paul Revere on the wrong side of the Revolutionary War, and blamed Abraham Lincoln for allowing 38 Santee Sioux to be hanged when in fact he pardoned and thus saved 262 Santee Sioux in the incident. (Not to mention that when regarding Lincoln's legacy, is this the only incident that matters?)

How can you tell people how to teach history when you can't understand it yourself?

I plan to vote against all of the current school board members when they come up for re-election, with the exception of Kevine Boggess, who voted against the school renaming.

But let's get back to the recall. Because of her lawsuit, Collins has to go, as soon as possible; she's a danger to the school system. Lopez has been president of the board during this period of incompetence. She is in over her head. Perhaps the board would have been better served by making someone else president, but they chose Lopez and she has failed at the job.

How badly? The school board spent an entire year not addressing its budget deficit; instead, the board assigned the deputy superintendent who oversees the budgeting process to the school renaming project. By the time the board realized it needed to make cuts, the cuts had to be more sudden and extreme than they might have been if Lopez had put the item on the agenda earlier. Teachers protested outside the board meeting against the budget cuts; it makes me wonder how many of them intentionally chose candidates who would ignore fiscal issues (this happened with the community college board). Lopez voted against the cuts, saying she was "cornered into accepting a proposal." You were in charge! You should have done something earlier!

Public school enrollment is down 4.7% since fall 2020, and private school enrollment is up 1.1%. Some parents have left the city, and unfortunately more parents have decided they must pay for education because the public schools couldn't put together a plan to open for so long, and still don't have a plan to make up for missed education. That's a failure.

I will also vote to recall Moliga, but the argument against him is the weakest. The only knock against Moliga is that he hasn't been part of the solution.

But I will vote against him because this is a rare chance to get three pragmatists on the board at once. Mayor London Breed, a centrist, will appoint replacements for whichever candidates are recalled. It is so hard, for structural reasons, for a pragmatist to get elected for this school board; look at the failure of all of the Chronicle's endorsees in 2018. The most influential media for school board races -- the Guardian -- endorses ideologues. If 48 Hills supplants the Guardian (please don't give up, Tim, we need you for the ballot questions), it will be the same.

As long as a candidate can win a board seat with just 13% of the vote, this board will be owned by the city's activist progressives. Our schools will have great equity initiatives, but not much focus on education.

If Mayor Breed nominates three replacements, they can run in the November election as incumbents, and maybe that will give them the edge to stay on the board. They would be in the minority, but it would be amazing to have, on an ideological board, a pragmatic faction. So, sorry Moliga, but if we recall you, we can do better.

And if we recall all three, maybe we will bring some seriousness to a board that has been very silly.

Also, a reminder: if you don't like the current school board, it was assembly candidate Matt Haney (see above) who started them down this path, a fact he would rather not have mentioned.

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