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SF school board faces lawsuit over school renaming process

A lawsuit filed in San Francisco Superior Court on Thursday says the San Francisco Board of Education flunked its assignment on renaming schools.

At issue is the process the board followed in determining which San Francisco Unified School District schools bore the name of individuals who did not deserve to be so honored, whether because they were slaveowners, subjugated indigenous people, or were responsible for racist, sexist or other offensive conduct.

By resolution dated Jan. 26, 2021, the board voted 6-1 to adopt a report submitted by The School Names Committee that targeted the names of 44 district schools for removal, including those named after Abraham Lincoln (cruelty to indigenous people), George Washington (slaveowner), and Dianne Feinstein (alleged support for the Confederate flag).

The board’s action drew wide criticism and on Feb. 21, board president Gabriela Lopez admitted that there were mistakes in the process and pledged to suspend work on the renaming project until district students were back in school after a year of distance learning.

While some thought her mea culpa ended the matter, a local lawyer representing several alumni associations and graduates of the affected schools filed a petition challenging the renaming process.

On the same day the petition was filed, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Ethan Schulman issued an “Alternative Writ of Mandate” which directed the district to vacate the resolution and disband the naming 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 for the contested resolution. The petition contends that the naming panel was biased and its research slipshod.

For example, the petition alleges that the research relied on Wikipedia articles and casual commentary, not scholarly research. The petition notes archly that students in district schools are cautioned not to cite Wikipedia in their school papers, yet that was the primary source for the panel’s decisions.

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 disclosing that the identified schools would lose their names and further public input would be limited to new names.

Lawyers for the petitioners include San Francisco attorneys Paul Scott and Lani Anne Remick, and also one of the legal profession’s biggest hitters, Laurence Tribe, the Carl M. Loeb University Professor, Emeritus at Harvard Law School.

Tribe — a veteran of more than 35 arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court — graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School (at the age of 16) before going on to become a noted constitutional scholar and advocate.

The district has not publicly stated whether it will rescind the contested resolution and dissolve the naming committee or appear at the May 6 hearing to contest the petition.

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