After running a grassroots, female-led campaign for one of three open seats, Gabriela Lopez became the first bilingual Spanish speaker and youngest woman ever elected to the San Francisco school board last month. However, the achievement is a double-edged sword, as Lopez is now forced to choose between holding her seat on the board and keeping her current job as a bilingual fourth grade teacher at Leonard Flynn Elementary School.
According to the city’s education code (35107), “an employee of a school district may not be sworn into office as an elected or appointed member of that school district’s governing board unless and until he or she resigns as an employee. If the employee does not resign, the employment will automatically terminate upon being sworn into office.”
This law isn’t exclusive to San Francisco, either.
“The law pertaining to an employee needing to resign in order to serve on the Board of Education is not an SFUSD [San Francisco Unified School District] policy, it is state law,” said SFUSD spokesperson Gentle Blythe.
Lopez was not only aware of the law, but used it as a platform for her campaign.
“I think this poses a problem on its own as far as SFUSD employees pursuing something like this in the first place, if it means sacrificing their work and not being able to be in the community you’re set to serve, which is what my platform was,” Lopez said.
The founders of the Teachers 4 Social Justice organization encouraged Lopez to run for the school board after seeing the candidates who had filed papers up to 18 months in advance. Lopez said they were concerned after seeing the list of people in the running.
“These are people who don’t have experience in schools, who don’t work with youth, who have never worked with youth, who would be very detrimental,” she said. “People like that made other people feel very worried about who could potentially lead schools.”
Lopez cited former candidate Josephine Zhao specifically. Zhao raised more money than any other candidate, but was found to have made transphobic comments about bathroom rights and eventually dropped from the race.
Throughout the campaign, Lopez continued her work and utilized a teacher volunteer group to help spread the word because they had no money for advertising, she said.
“We essentially had no support and we had the least amount of money raised,” Lopez said. “It was led by women who, many times, were told ‘no’ or not to do it.”
Lopez is still fairly green to San Francisco, however. A Los Angeles native, she was raised by her mother who immigrated from Mexico. She grew up in “West Side” schools, surrounded by affluence, because that is where her mother cleaned houses.
She was usually the translator for her mother at school conferences and saw the shortcomings of education for children who were treated differently because of their backgrounds. This is what inspired her to teach.
“There’s not a lot of respect in education and we know it’s clear you’re not going to get paid a lot,” Lopez said. “So many people were trying to persuade me to do something else but I felt like this was the space I needed to be in.”
She began teaching at a charter school in Los Angeles as a fifth grade Spanish immersion teacher during an era where teachers were losing their jobs and no contracts were being granted to teachers to across the state.
In 2016, she came to San Francisco to begin teaching as a bilingual teacher for fourth graders in the Mission District. Lopez “loops” with her students, meaning she stays with them as their teacher through their fifth grade year as well.
In addition to teaching, Lopez drives Lyft with her GMC pick-up truck to supplement her salary. If she takes the school board position, Lopez will have to leave her job that already leaves her living on a budget. The elected school board position pays a $500 stipend each month.
“That is no way of surviving in this city,” she said of the stipend. “If money is a struggle, pursuing something like this is not an option.”
Orientation for the school board has been postponed until after the new year and Lopez has been told that, as of now, she will have to leave the district in order to serve.
“A lot of people kind of ignore the school board but they have a lot of power and a lot of control,” she said. “If communities know that and enough of us can be out and represent that then that is what we should be doing.”
Story by: Sadie Gribbon