Judge’s ruling is a setback for SF school board’s attempt to change admission policy at Lowell High School

The San Francisco school board broke state law when it voted the end of a century of competitive academic admissions to Lowell High School, a judge ruled Thursday, inflicting yet another legal setback on the district school in difficulty.

Superior Court Judge Ethan Schulman said the district “has clearly failed” to follow the state’s Brown Law, which requires officials to provide full information on the agendas of council meetings. administration on the actions to be considered.

The agenda list regarding the change in admissions policy gave “totally inadequate notice to parents and others that the board was considering eliminating Lowell’s merit-based admissions policy,” said declared the judge in his decision. “The board could have easily complied with the law, and it knew how to do it, but it didn’t.”

The board voted 5-2 to repeal the policy in February, replacing it with the same lottery-based system used in other district high schools.

The school board will review the court’s decision regarding Lowell within the next 30 days and will have more information than the impact of the decision, district officials said in a statement.

The judge rebuked the council in its ruling, saying critics sent the district at least four letters informing them of the Brown Law violation and asking them to correct the failure, but “the council never responded to these letters “.

“If he had done so, he could have remedied the fault long ago and would no longer be faced with the problems he complains about,” said the judge.

The decision was the latest defeat in court following controversial school board decisions that failed to follow proper process.

In another case, Schulman found that the council had violated Brown’s Law when it voted to rename 44 school sites, forcing the district in September to pay the plaintiff $ 60,000 in attorney fees.

The board also lost a lawsuit challenging its decision to cover up a controversial mural depicting the life of George Washington, a Depression-era mural that included images of white settlers marching over a dead Native American and slaves. in a field. Superior Court judge Anne-Christine Massullo ruled that the board failed to comply with environmental impact regulations, forcing council members to overturn the decision, a decision the district has made. decided to appeal.

The district was successful in defeating an $ 87 million lawsuit brought by board member Alison Collins who accused five other board members of violating her First Amendment rights when they removed her from vice-chairmanship of the board and committee positions after the discovery of anti-Asian tweets she made before her election. A judge dismissed the lawsuit before the first hearing. Board members declined to sue Collins for the more than $ 115,000 in legal costs associated with the lawsuit, which the judge said had “no basis.”

The lawsuits have cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney fees, as well as those of some plaintiffs.

The school board will review the court’s decision regarding Lowell within the next 30 days and will have more information than the impact of the decision, district officials said in a statement.

The Lowell Alumni Association, which was part of the lawsuit against the district, said the judge’s ruling confirmed the school board had used a “flawed process.”

“San Francisco students and families deserve transparent, inclusive and fair public meetings,” the group said in a statement.

Schulman did not ask the district to reinstate competitive admission, leaving open the possibility that the school board could take the same action after giving sufficient notice to the public.

“I put aside this resolution (from February). What the board does as a result is up to the board, ”Schulman said in a brief hearing Wednesday morning. But he agreed with lawyers for opponents of the school board’s action that his order could have the effect of restoring the school’s merit-based policy, at least temporarily.

Voters in the city could also play a role if they recall three of the seven board members in an election slated for February. Lowell’s admissions are a problem in the election, along with a budget crunch leading to a $ 125 million deficit next year and the board’s now-abandoned plan to rename 44 schools which board members say were emblems of slavery and colonization.

Lowell’s admissions policy has resulted in relatively low enrollment of black and Latino youth in the 2,600-student school. Public notice from the board of trustees for the February meeting said it would act “in response to the systematic and ongoing racism at Lowell High School,” but said nothing about the change in admissions policy.

Supporting documents attached to the agenda included the resolution demanding the change in admissions, but Schulman said that was not enough.

The Lowell Alumni Association, Friends of Lowell Foundation and Asian American Legal Foundation sued the district and school board in April, asking the court to overturn the ruling and reinstate the old policy.

Lawyers for the school board urged Schulman to leave the new admissions policy in place even if it was adopted inappropriately. They noted that Lowell had suspended his long-standing policy in the 2020-21 school year during the pandemic, and that the new policy went into effect on October 25 with the start of admissions applications in 2022-2023. . Ordering an immediate change would be unfair to new applicants and cause financial hardship for the district, lawyers said.

If so, Schulman replied in his ruling, “the district and the board have only themselves to blame.”

Bob Egelko and Jill Tucker are editors of the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] [email protected] Twitter: @BobEgelko @jilltucker

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