San Francisco Unified School District students walking to class on the first day of school, Aug. 17, 2022. (Photo/Instagram @londonbreed)
San Francisco Unified School District students walking to class on the first day of school, Aug. 17, 2022. (Photo/Instagram @londonbreed)

S.F. school board backtracks on Muslim holidays until new ‘calendering process’ is developed

With a fourth lawsuit in two years bearing down on the district, the San Francisco school board voted on Tuesday to hold off on a plan to close schools and administrative offices on two Muslim holidays until a new “calendering process” is developed.

The plan to recognize Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha — which fall on different days on the Gregorian calendar each year — came last month after a concerted and at times highly emotional campaign lasting more than a year by a San Francisco Arab advocacy organization and Muslim students, many of whom spoke during the school board’s public meeting this week.

The students, reading from written remarks, said during public comment before the vote that they were frustrated, disappointed and angry at the board’s decision to “turn its back on its social justice mission.”

The new resolution will “stay” implementation of the Eid measure until the district superintendent formulates a new process for “acknowledging days of cultural significance” and sends it to the board for approval.

“Muslims may be a minority, but we matter,” Galileo sophomore Aisha told the board Tuesday. She noted that her appearance at the meeting was a homework assignment for her AP world history class. “Eid to us is Christmas to you,” she said. “How would people feel if they had to wake up groggy on Christmas mornings, upset that they have to go to school instead of spending time with family?”

The Arab Resource and Organizing Center also participated in the public meeting, as a handful of its members leveled sharp claims of racism, Islamophobia and “white supremacy culture.” AROC is a supporter of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel and has sparred with Jewish community groups in the Bay Area before. A representative of the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace spoke, too.

“The fact that you all are held hostage by racist and Islamophobic lawsuits speaks to a bigger issue in the city of San Francisco,” said Lara Kiswani, executive director of AROC. “This entire process has been extremely disrespectful to our community.”

Screenshot of San Francisco school board at its regular meeting on Aug. 23, 2022.
Screenshot of San Francisco school board at its regular meeting on Aug. 23, 2022.

The S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council said last month, after the resolution passed, that it was concerned about the process and felt Jews had been “sidelined.” A representative from the Hindu American Foundation, Samir Kalra, also felt the recognition of religious holidays “should be done in an equal manner,” he told J.

Still, JCRC had not threatened a lawsuit and said it had little interest in doing so. That action was taken by attorney Paul Scott, a former Department of Justice trial lawyer who now predominantly handles whistleblower cases out of a downtown San Francisco office. Scott, whose children attended public school in the city and who last year successfully sued the district over its controversial plan for renaming dozens of schools, said he pursued the suits out of intellectual interest and shared deep concern over Muslim students facing Islamophobia, cited as a reason for the initial Eid resolution, but is “trying to see that our local institutions conduct themselves in a lawful manner.”

On Wednesday morning, the JCRC released a statement clarifying in broad language that it had not taken a position “opposing Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha,” and said JCRC “strongly reject[s] the framing of this issue as a Muslim-Jewish one.”

“We admire the advocacy of Muslim students and families working toward the same kind of inclusion our own community hopes to achieve,” according to the statement from Adriana Lombard, JCRC director of public education.

Jewish parents at SFUSD will be meeting with Superintendent Matt Wayne and the board after the High Holidays in a “townhall meeting,” the JCRC added, as part of the process.

Legal opponents of the Eid resolution said it represented a clear-cut violation of California’s constitution, which forbids government from showing preference for one religion over another, and that it may run afoul of the U.S. Constitution. The San Francisco school district currently does not name any religious holiday for closures (Christmas is part of winter break).

Scott also alleged the board violated the Brown Act by not sufficiently notifying the public of the nature of the resolution before acting on it, while another attorney, Robert De Vries, wrote to district officials that the “unconstitutionality of these two new school holidays is not a close call.”

Still, commissioners supported the measure at their meeting on Aug. 9. On Tuesday, many of the same commissioners acknowledged — some reluctantly — that they faced serious legal vulnerabilities and the last thing the district needed was another lawsuit.

Mark Sanchez, a board member who said he “wholeheartedly” supported the initial Eid resolution, was emotional describing his vote to place a stay on it. He delivered a searing rebuke.

“I’m so sorry that this has been necessary. Your advocacy is not lost on me,” he said, speaking to supporters of the Eid holiday resolution. “I understand very well the legal challenges we are facing,” he added. “I’m prepared to support the resolution [to stay], but I do so feeling as though I’m held hostage by racist and Islamophobic forces who make up a minority of our forward-thinking city.”

Another board member, Lainie Motamedi, addressed the legal considerations. “As a parent I’ve watched the district enter, and unnecessarily prolong, avoidable lawsuits,” said Motamedi, appointed by the mayor earlier this year following a successful recall campaign of three board members. “The calendering process really isn’t best embarked upon by the board. It is the role of the superintendent and the administrator.”

The resolution passed on Tuesday tasks the superintendent with creating a plan to recognize “culturally significant holidays” and presenting it to the board by Jan. 31 for approval. It calls on Wayne to devise “best practices” for “communication around” those holidays, for incorporating them into the SFUSD curriculum, for ensuring “students are not disadvantaged” for taking time off, and for determining what holidays “if any” should be added to the academic calendar “based on the values of diversity, equity and inclusion, student-centered outcomes, and compliance with the law.”

The motion passed 6-1, with the lone “no” vote coming from Anne Hsu. Hsu, also a mayoral appointee after the recall, opposed both the first Eid resolution and the one to place a stay on it. To Hsu, Tuesday’s resolution didn’t go far enough and she worried that the district still remained vulnerable to a lawsuit.

By the next day it appeared her worries were unwarranted, as Scott told J. he was satisfied with the measure as passed.

“I am happy to see the Board recognizes that it made a mistake and is taking the steps necessary to fix it,” Scott wrote in an email. “The resolution adopted by the Board makes it clear that they will not implement any new holidays until SFUSD follows an appropriate process and the Board casts a new vote. So whether or not they label it rescinding or putting the resolution on hold doesn’t matter.”

To the claims that his efforts were rooted in Islamophobia or racism, he added, “Those people obviously don’t know me.”

“The same issues would arise if the Board passed a resolution only recognizing Good Friday or Yom Kippur,” he wrote. “The problem here is the Board failed to do its job properly and did a disservice to the students and their families by not having an appropriate process.  If they had just done their homework, this entire issue could have been avoided.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misattributed a quote from an S.F. school board member. The quote was: “I’m so sorry that this has been necessary. Your advocacy is not lost on me … I understand very well the legal challenges we are facing … I’m prepared to support the resolution [to stay], but I do so feeling as though I’m held hostage by racist and Islamophobic forces who make up a minority of our forward-thinking city.” The quote was delivered by Mark Sanchez, not Matt Alexander.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.