During a marathon meeting of the San Francisco Board of Education Tuesday evening, the board members voted overwhelmingly to rename more than a third of the city’s public schools, citing the names’ association with racism, white supremacy, the oppression of Native Americans and other wrongs.
In all, 44 schools will be renamed, per the board resolution approved in a 6-1 vote at the nearly nine-hour meeting. About two hours were dedicated to deliberations on the renaming plan, a process that began in 2018 amid a national reckoning on Confederate monuments.
The renaming process has garnered global attention for its rejection of certain people considered American heroes, or at least significant historical figures. A viral December article in the U.K.’s Daily Mail referenced a “woke renaming committee” taking “aim” at American presidents. San Francisco Mayor London Breed has opposed the resolution’s timing, calling it “offensive” to parents and students facing closed schools. State Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco said he agreed.
“Some schools clearly should be renamed,” Wiener said in a Twitter post Wednesday. “But this flawed process should have waited until schools reopen & we control the virus.”
I agree with Mayor @LondonBreed. Some schools clearly should be renamed. But this flawed process should have waited until schools reopen & we control the virus.
It’s not reasonable to expect engagement from school communities when so many are struggling with remote learning. https://t.co/agB9R3X5sW
— Senator Scott Wiener (@Scott_Wiener) January 27, 2021
Two Jewish Americans, both of them former mayors, will have their names struck from schools according to the resolution: Adolph Sutro, a Gold Rush-era entrepreneur and city benefactor, and Dianne Feinstein; the first female mayor of San Francisco and long-serving U.S. senator. Dianne Feinstein Elementary School, known as DFES, opened in the Parkside neighborhood in 2006.
Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, named for the Jewish gay civil rights leader, will not change.
Sutro Elementary’s renaming is connected to an incident in 1897, when a Black man named John Harris was denied entry to the Sutro Baths because of his race. Harris sued Sutro, and won. DFES will be renamed primarily because of a 1984 incident when then-Mayor Feinstein defended the flying of a Confederate battle flag as part of a historical display at City Hall. After protesters tore the flag down, Feinstein replaced it before ultimately deciding to remove it under pressure from activists.
Jeremiah Jeffries, who chaired the volunteer School Names Advisory Committee that made recommendations to the board, referenced Feinstein’s problematic “record overall” but said the Confederate flag incident alone “was enough to meet the criteria.”
The names of eight U.S. presidents will be struck from school buildings: Lincoln, Washington, Hoover, Roosevelt (both Teddy and Franklin D.), Garfield, Jefferson, McKinley and Monroe. None survived the scrutiny of the board and the advisory committee.
“Change is a good thing,” said Matt Alexander, a school board member who supported the resolution. He said he grew up thinking of Abraham Lincoln as an “idol” but later learned, for example, of the “Dakota 38,” the Native American men whom Abraham Lincoln ordered hanged in the aftermath of the conflict known as the Dakota War of 1862.
“Lincoln High School is a really different place today” than it was when it opened as a predominantly white school in 1940, Alexander said. “Maybe it’s time to… have the name reflect our values today, our values as a people, as a multicultural city, as a progressive city where everyone truly belongs.”
Like many high schools across the city, Lincoln is predominantly nonwhite; today it is majority Asian and Latino, according to figures from U.S. News & World Report.
Roosevelt Middle School was named for the 26th president, Teddy Roosevelt. Notes from advisory committee deliberations say he opposed civil rights and suffrage for African Americans. FDR held a number of “racist policies/views,” including his support for Japanese internment camps during World War II, according to the committee.
The district is asking parents, students and staff to work together to submit suggestions for new names; public input is also welcomed on the SFUSD website. School communities have until April 19 to submit their renaming preferences, which will be reviewed by the advisory committee.
The S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, which had encouraged Jewish community pushback against the proposal, said in a statement Wednesday morning that it “strongly disapprove[d]” of the decision by the school board.
“The lack of nuance in their recommendations, which equate the names of murderous conquistadors with Abraham Lincoln and Dianne Feinstein, and the absence of consultation with our community on Jewish names in question, is deeply concerning,” executive director Tye Gregory wrote to J. “We will continue working with Jewish parents and students to ensure public schools are safe, welcoming and inclusive.”
A group of parents at DFES is petitioning the school board and other city officials to preserve the name. One of the parents, Sarah Stettler, for whom Dianne Feinstein is a trailblazer and a role model, spoke at the meeting.
“I was a public school student in San Francisco schools, and Dianne Feinstein came to speak in my class when she was mayor,” Stettler said. “She really inspired me to be able to do anything.”
The school board’s decision was not unanimous — commissioner Kevine Boggess voted no, saying he was opposed to the practice of naming schools after people in the first place. “It’s not helpful for us to make heroes out of mortal folks,” he said.
The decision comes as San Francisco schools remain closed to in-person classes due to the pandemic.
The board did not yet have a total cost estimate for the renaming plan, but Deputy Superintendent Myong Leigh said a typical signage replacement project costs approximately $10,000, or a total of $440,000 for all 44 schools. New school attire and other paraphernalia would present additional costs.
Board President Gabriela López said she viewed the renaming project as an “opportunity for our schools to… feel a sense of pride in their chosen name.”
“This in no way erases our history,” she said. “We cannot forget the past. But we can honor the work that has been done to dismantle racism and white supremacy culture. I’m excited about the ideas schools will come up with.”