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Ruling: SF School Board Violated Law by Covering Controversial Mural



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The ruling is the latest setback for the San Francisco school board that has been plagued by scandal and controversy. (Shutterstock)
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The San Francisco school board violated state law when it voted to cover up a 1930s mural that critics said is racist and degrading in its depiction of Black and Native American people, a judge ruled Tuesday.

Superior Court Judge Anne-Christine Massullo said the board failed to conduct an environmental impact review before it voted in 2019 to cover up the sprawling mural at George Washington High School that depicts the life of George Washington, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Mixed Opinions About the Mural

The 1936 mural was painted by Victor Arnautoff, one of the foremost muralists in the San Francisco area during the Depression. In addition to depicting Washington as a soldier, surveyor and statesman, the 13-panel, 1,600-square-foot mural contains images of white pioneers standing over the body of a Native American and slaves working at Washington’s Mount Vernon estate in Virginia.

New Deal scholars have argued that Arnautoff, a Russian-born communist and social critic, critically depicts unsavory aspects of American history in his work. But as early as the 1960s, some students at George Washington High School have argued that the mural’s imagery is offensive and racist.

Supporters argued it could play a role in educating people about America’s racist past and covering it up would be censoring art and history.

The board first moved to paint over the entire mural but later decided to cover it with panels or curtains. The projected cost of the project has mushroomed to about $900,000, the Chronicle said.

Board Failed to Conduct an Environmental Impact Review

In her ruling, Massullo said the board was required to order an environmental impact review that included studying alternatives before making its decision.

“The hallmark of our system is that whether it concerns the President of the United States or a local school board, the rule of law — the process — is more important than the result,” Massullo said in her ruling.

She said “a result-oriented board was determined to take down all 13 panels” of the mural and ordered the board to set aside its votes.

“California as a matter of long-standing public policy places enormous value on its environmental and historical resources,” she wrote in her ruling.

Members Can’t Take Further Action Until September

District officials told the Chronicle that they were reviewing the decision. Members can’t take any further action until at least September.

The ruling is the latest setback for a board that has been plagued by scandal and controversy. After a public outcry, the board this year suspended plans to strip 44 schools of names ranging from U.S. presidents to Sen. Dianne Feinstein. The effort was blasted for historical inaccuracies and shoddy research as well as poor timing.

The board also has faced numerous lawsuits, a looming budget deficit and public outcry about getting children back into classrooms after months of online learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

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