On Tuesday, the San Francisco School Board vote 6-1 that 44 schools around the city, honoring everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Paul Revere to Dianne Feinstein, would be renamed under a storm of controversy.
The movement to rename the schools began last year, led by first grade teacher Jeremiah Jeffries. Fired up by the George Floyd protests and some name cancellations and renaming in places such as UC Berkeley, Jeffries came up with 44 schools that were named after people who were slave owners, had a part in slavery and genocide, were part of human rights violations, or were known racists or white supremacists.
Under that criteria, schools named after former presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and Herbert Hoover are on the list, as well as one school named after either Theodore Roosevelt or Franklin Roosevelt. Joining them are national anthem writer Francis Scott Key, Paul Revere, author Robert Louis Stevenson, and early Californian explorers such as Junipero Serra, Jose Ortega, and Vasco Nunez de Balboa.
Many generally being seen as left friendly were also included, such as Sierra Club founder John Muir and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the later of whom was included for replacing a weathered confederate flag once as Mayor in 1986.
School board members for renamings, Mayor, many other lawmakers against renaming decision
Supporters of the change noted that many of the people being replaced did not care ‘that black lives mattered’. Board members who voted noted similar reasoning, expressing that it was a message for San Franciscans.
“This is a moral message,” said school board member Mark Sanchez on Tuesday. “It’s a message to our families, our students and our community. It’s not just symbolic.”
Others took a more nuanced stance and said that schools should not be named after people, similar to other school systems across the nation who use geography or numbering systems to name schools.
“We should not make heroes out of mortal folks,” stated board member Kevine Boggess. “I think we need to examine our naming policies across the district and really consider how the way we go about naming schools reflects our true values.”
However, the movement and Tuesday’s vote brought a large uproar, with both Democrats and Republicans alike condemning the decision. Mayor London Breed, well-known for her civil rights views, blasted the renamings, saying that they are unnecessary and that the school board should be focusing on reopenings in the city and keeping children safe instead.
“It’s offensive to parents who are juggling their children’s daily at-home learning schedules with doing their own jobs and maintaining their sanity,” noted Mayor Breed in October. “It’s offensive to me as someone who went to our public schools, who loves our public schools, and who knows how those years in the classroom are what lifted me out of poverty and into college. It’s offensive to our kids who are staring at screens day after day instead of learning and growing with their classmates and friends.”
On Wednesday, she reiterated her view in a statement, saying “This is an important conversation to have, and one that we should involve our communities, our families, and our students. What I cannot understand is why the School Board is advancing a plan to have all these schools renamed by April, when there isn’t a plan to have our kids back in the classroom by then.
“Let’s bring the same urgency and focus on getting our kids back in the classroom, and then we can have that longer conversation about the future of school names.”
While the board voted on the name change on Tuesday, they did not discuss any new business around COVID-19 measures or reopenings.
The price over the change has also brought ire from budget watchdogs. With the school district approaching a $200 million deficit this year, sign replacement has been estimated to cost over $400,000. And with other renaming costs, in everything from new logos, replacement uniforms and stationary, and several other associated costs, it would cost the district at least another $1 million.
Majority of San Franciscans against school renamings
Citizen’s groups against the change also noted that historians were not consulted on the name changes, did not weigh the historical figures faults with the good they achieved, noted that the board members had used shoddy research methods such as using Wikipedia to back up their claims, and did not allow for community input despite the board members saying that this was for the community’s benefit.
Dawna Nelson, who is a part of a carpool group for children at a few of the affected schools told the Globe that the Board severely overestimated how much people side with them.
“We took an informal poll. Not just people in our group, but by asking other parents, teachers, even people who lived in the neighborhoods. Out of several hundred random people we asked, only 12 were for the changes. 12. Out of nearly 400.
“Now, we aren’t Gallup or anything like that, but that was surprising. Yet the board refused to even entertain that that many people didn’t want the changes.”
Other groups noted similar problems, such as the Board giving erroneous information about the people they are removing from school names. Families for San Francisco, a school reopening group, put out a paper this month that found the renaming committee’s work to be “deeply flawed”.
“It’s deeply disappointing that the School Board paid zero attention to community input, even to the point of ignoring factual corrections,” said Families for San Francisco executive director Seeyew Mo.
Questions over the figures achievements were also heavily questioned.
“It’s true that some founding fathers held slaves, and yes, that part of their past should not be ignored,” added New York-based historian Andrew Young to the Globe. “But they forged amazing things for this country, inspired hope, and did a lot of good. It should be nuanced, especially in the case of Abraham Lincoln. He did hold some views against Native Americans, but he also held fair for the day views on minorities and helped stop slavery in major ways. Not to mention keeping the country together in the end.
“It’s one thing if the person you are renaming something after is irredeemable, like Confederates who were literal traitors and backed slavery. But history is never black and white and each school should be discussed individually in front of panels and groups to decide with input from communities. San Francisco had one panel where they often got facts wrong just to make a statement. That’s shameful. They’ll be in for a surprise when they start researching the history of civil rights leaders or others for replacement, because I can tell you as a historian, they aren’t saints either.”
Schools will have until April to come up with new names for schools in the city if the decision holds. It is unknown at this time what kind of scrutiny the names will go under.
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