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San Francisco School Board Rescinds Controversial School Renaming Plan

The San Francisco school board has put on hold controversial plans to rename 44 schools until students are back on campus after more than a year of virtual learning during the coronavirus pandemic.
Jeff Chiu
The San Francisco school board has put on hold controversial plans to rename 44 schools until students are back on campus after more than a year of virtual learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

The San Francisco Board of Education will ultimately keep the names of dozens of public schools in a case of high-stakes second thoughts.

The board had moved to forge ahead with a controversial plan to change the names of 44 schools that honor figures linked to historical racism or oppression. But on Tuesday, the board voted unanimously to suspend the effort when it approved a resolution saying it "wishes to avoid the distraction and wasteful expenditure of public funds in frivolous litigation."

The reversal was met with relief and enthusiasm by disparate critics united in their opposition to the project. Conservatives characterized the effort as cancel culture run amok, while liberals decried the woefully poor research conducted by the blue-ribbon panel that led to the lengthy list of school names to be changed.

For instance, President Abraham Lincoln, whose legacy is defined by the emancipation of Black slaves, was included on the list because of a decision to allow the execution of 38 Santee Sioux who were found guilty of raping and murdering white settlers. But, critics say, the panel did not take into account that the state of Minnesota would have executed 300 Santee Sioux had Lincoln not intervened on their behalf and commuted their sentences, sparing all but the 38 who were hanged.

Also, SFist reported, "the board committee mistakenly assumed that Alamo Elementary School was named for the Texas battle and not for the Spanish word for 'poplar tree'; and they cited incorrect history about Revolutionary War figure Paul Revere trying to steal land from the Penobscot people of Maine — the 1779 Penobscot Expedition he took part in was actually an unsuccessful battle with the British who had landed in Penobscot territory and 'captured' it a month earlier."

San Francisco Mayor London Breed has for months rebuked the board for prioritizing the project amid the coronavirus pandemic shutdown.

"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," Breed said in a January statement.

"Our students are suffering, and we should be talking about getting them in classrooms, getting them mental health support, and getting them the resources they need in this challenging time."

Other critics, including attorney Paul Scott who filed a lawsuit against the district on behalf of the Abraham Lincoln High School of SFUSD Alumni Association, say the board failed to involve the community in the process.

"This approach of basically suggesting that they have the corner on morality and dictating to everyone else, from the top down ... that is not an acceptable approach," Scott toldNBC News.

Board President Gabriela López noted the complaints in February, saying the process began in 2018 and predated the pandemic.

"I acknowledge and take responsibility that mistakes were made in the renaming process," she said in a statement.

López added that the board would pursue a "more deliberative process moving forward, which includes engaging historians at nearby universities to help." She also noted the renaming committee had been indefinitely suspended. She said the school board would devote its energy to getting students back to in-person learning.

Elementary school students are expected to begin returning this month. The board passed a resolution Tuesday committing to full-time, in-person class for all K-12 students at the start of next school year in August.

It will not revisit the renaming until that happens.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.

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