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Post-recall S.F. school board rescinds vote to cover controversial Washington High mural

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 6/23/2022 By Jill Tucker
a group of people standing in front of a crowd: FILE —Vanya Akraboff (l to r) of Sausalito and Jeff Nemy discus the 1936 mural depicting the life of George Washington by San Francisco artist Victor Arnautoff at George Washington High School as Jean Amos of San Francisco views it during a public viewing on Thursday, August 1, 2019 in San Francisco, Calif. © Lea Suzuki/The Chronicle

FILE —Vanya Akraboff (l to r) of Sausalito and Jeff Nemy discus the 1936 mural depicting the life of George Washington by San Francisco artist Victor Arnautoff at George Washington High School as Jean Amos of San Francisco views it during a public viewing on Thursday, August 1, 2019 in San Francisco, Calif.

The San Francisco school board voted Wednesday to nullify a previous board decision to cover up a controversial mural at Washington High School. The move followed nearly three years of legal battles, debate and controversy.

In a 4-3 vote, the board followed a judge’s order to vacate their previous decision to cover the historic fresco, which features the life of George Washington and includes images of slavery and white settlers stepping over a dead Native American.

The original controversy over covering the mural, which grabbed international headlines, pitted the issue of racial equity against artistic freedom and historic preservation at a time of reflection over race and reparations for historic atrocities and public displays associated with America’s ugly past.

The board majority initially voted to paint over the mural in 2019 before reversing course and deciding to cover it up with curtains or panels. That decision was challenged in court and the district lost. The district then appealed, but later decided to settle the case and abide by the judge’s ruling.

A judge determined the district violated laws requiring an environmental impact report prior to voting on a course of action, requiring the district to “void” the decisions. The district planned to do an environmental review, but not until after the board’s decision.

The judge went so far as to chide district officials, citing the amount of evidence showing they violated the law, including information in their own filings.

“When considering the Board and SFUSD’s meritless position, the Court wonders if they are looking at the record they filed in this proceeding,” the judge wrote in her decision, adding the evidence “overwhelmingly” supports the George Washington High School Alumni Association, which had filed the suit.

The 1936 fresco, painted on wet plaster, is the work of Russian artist Victor Arnautoff, and part of the Works Progress Administration public art program under President Roosevelt’s New Deal employment projects. The 1,600-square-foot “Life of Washington” mural features multiple panels with scenes from the life of the first president.

Lam, Motamedi, Weissman-Ward and Hsu voted to undo the previous vote to cover the mural.

Sanchez, Alexander and Boggess voted against the measure.

Board members did not comment on their votes.

The decision means the mural must remain on view, although the board could decide in the future to conduct an environmental review and then decide on the fate of the artwork.

Mural opponents, including current and former Washington students, said they didn’t want a daily, painful reminder of the enslavement and massacre of Black people and Native Americans.

The board’s vote Wednesday complies with the judge’s orders as well as a settlement with the George Washington High School Alumni Association, which filed the mural lawsuit.

It was the second vote Wednesday in which four school board members allied with Mayor London Breed rescinded a controversial school board policy. Motamedi, Weissman-Ward and Hsu — who were appointed by Breed following the recall of three school board members — joined Lam, Breed’s former education adviser, on both the mural vote and a bombshell decision to return Lowell High School to merit-based admissions.

Jill Tucker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: jtucker@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @jilltucker

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