As a low-level, unpaid, elected position, school board races often take a backseat to other elections.
On top of the Democratic attempt to take back control of the midterms and a governor’s race, San Francisco voters are weighing a slate of three new supervisors and a monumental ballot measure in Proposition C that could prevent and reduce homelessness.
But if local politics have a tough time garnering attention as it is, it’s even tougher for school politics in a city with roughly 54,000 students enrolled in San Francisco Unified School District.
Still, San Franciscans who do recognize the importance of local elections should look harder at the school board race — if they have the will to sort through the jaw-dropping 18 candidates who’ve thrown their hat into the ring to hold one of the three open seats. It’s going to be a historic race: None are incumbents and some could be firsts for the seven-member board. Martin Rawlings-Fein and Mia Satya would be the first openly transgender commissioners, Gabriela Lopez and Monica Chinchilla are Latina, and Faauuga Moliga is the first Pacific Islander to run.
“I’ve never seen this many candidates,” says Commissioner Mark Sanchez, who was first elected in 2000. “In these races, the default slate tends to be what the teachers union endorses.”
The United Educators of San Francisco has endorsed Moliga and Alison Collins and, in a rare consistent pairing of candidates, so did the Service Employees International Union 1021, the League of Pissed Off Voters, and the National Union of Healthcare Workers. The two are heavily involved parents in the district, as well as educators in their own right, and have also garnered the joint endorsements of supervisors Jane Kim, Malia Cohen, Sandra Lee Fewer, Hillary Ronen, Rafael Mandelman, Aaron Peskin, and Norman Yee.
“Part of the reason we connected is because he’s been doing the work, too,” says Collins, a member of the district’s African-American Parent Advisory Council, of Moliga. “If good people don’t run, if it’s just political people who want to be political. … I just want to make sure that the work continues.”
A source of frustration for parents is the tendency for politicians to use the School Board as a stepping stone to a higher political office, slowing down progress on education from a body that’s already run by elected volunteers. Fewer, Yee, and Kim are current supervisors who once served on the board.
But candidates like Moliga, Collins, SFUSD teacher Gabriela Lopez, and City College academic counselor Li Miao Lovett — who the teachers union and the League of Pissed Off Voters also endorsed — say they root their change-making passion in education.
“I’m not anyone who has experience in this world other than education, and I really want to stick with that,” Lopez says. “It’s time to take a stand.”
With just over $10,000, Lopez has less money on hand than other top candidates. Chinchilla has raised the second-most with $54,000, Michelle Parker is next in line with nearly $36,000, Phil Kim raised about $24,000, Moliga has $25,000, and Collins has about $22,000.
With the influx of money, voters may see some names advertised more than others, but the influence of endorsements is not to be underestimated. Lopez, for example, has the backing of several local Democratic clubs, the San Francisco Berniecrats, and the San Francisco Tenants Union. She’s vowed to take on issues like the achievement gap, the school assignment system, affordability for educators, and expanding language services.
Chinchilla, Lovett, and Moliga have listed community-based schools as the main part of their platform while Moliga is resolute in having SFUSD pay more attention to mental health. Lovett calls to expand the district’s teacher-training program and increase hours for paraprofessionals.
On top of improving transparency by breaking down language barriers for parents, Collins identified school safety as a main priority. She takes the call beyond physical safety to include emotional and cultural support by addressing implicit bias and investing in K-12 ethnic studies curriculum.
Bringing emotional and cultural sensitivity is also a priority for Rawlings-Fein, one of two openly transgender candidates, who was motivated to run on behalf of his kids as well as trans students. That was even before Josephine Zhao, who raised more than $77,000 and still holds endorsements from high-level politicians like Mayor London Breed and state Sen. Scott Wiener, was forced to drop out after making anti-transgender statements.
“I was hurt and wounded to find out that a fellow candidate was using my identity as a wedge issue, but I wasn’t surprised,” Rawlings-Fein says. “My hope is that as a trans community, we can push for educating the full board on the evolving nature of gender and identity to help all of us understand that people’s identities are not up for debate, discussion, or voting.”
Although Zhao announced earlier this month she would drop out of the race, the deadline to withdraw her name from the ballot passed on Aug. 31 and she has not publicly promised to decline a seat should she be elected. The ordeal attracted more attention to a school board race than usual, but candidates don’t feel it distracted from the issues at hand.
Still, there remains one more wild card in school board politics set to come after the election: if Commissioner Matt Haney wins the District 6 Supervisor race, a mayoral appointment would take his place. With 18 candidates running, kids have no shortage of options that San Francisco voters will soon vet for them.
Ida Mojadad is a staff writer at SF Weekly.
Imojadad@sfweekly.com | @idamoj