Interview transcript: Faauuga Moliga

This is a transcript of an interview with “Civic” host Laura Wenus and school board member Faauga Moliga, part of our February 2022 nonpartisan election guide. Though “Civic” will broadcast only nine minutes of each commissioner’s interview to give each equal airtime on our program, we are making transcripts of the full conversations available. These transcripts have been edited for clarity.  

Faauuga Moliga is a Samoan Pacific Islander who arrived in San Francisco when he was a year old and grew up in public housing. As a member of the San Francisco Board of Education, he is the first Pacific Islander to hold an elected seat in the city. He was elected in November 2018. 

Laura Wenus   

So, at the time of this recording, San Francisco is seeing a huge spike in coronavirus cases. I think our seven-day average is more than 1,000 cases right now. Hospitalization is staying low, but there’s still hundreds of teachers and support staff who have been out in recent days. What is the school board doing, let’s start with right now, to address this wave in cases? 

Faauuga Moliga   

So, we’re in a position now where we’re constantly working with our labor partners and also city and county partners to be able to continue to provide safe and reliable resources so that educators and all our students are able to continue attending in person learning. We are communicating with the community in terms of test sites and encouraging folks who want to get vaccinated — and are not — to get booster shots, and we’re monitoring this as a school district and making sure that we’re able to attend to the needs of our schools at this current moment. We’re in a killer situation with the spike, but we are also anticipating that it’s going to settle down in a couple of weeks, as noted by the Department of Public Health. And so, in the meantime our staff has been deploying central office workers to school sites to fill in some of the gaps that are needed. And so far, we haven’t been needing to close any schools, so we’re really happy about that. And then also, we’re receiving test kits from the state that we’re distributing to students so that folks will have test kits on hand to be able to test. But testing sites are open. We have ongoing testing availability for staff at 555 [Fulton St.]. And we’re continuously in conversations with our labor partners to make sure that we’re able to provide staff with the necessary means and support so that they feel safe and are able to attend work in a manner that respects their overall health. 

Laura Wenus   

Do you get the sense that they are feeling safe? Because educators just held a press conference recently calling for more testing availability, because of concerns over safety in classrooms. 

Faauuga Moliga   

Yeah. I think right now it’s a very unprecedented time for, not only the city of San Francisco, but for the country. So, there are legitimate concerns and stressors for individuals. But I think for us as a school board, and as the vice president of the school board, actually, it’s important for me that we’re moving us in a direction where we’re constantly in communications with our partners to make sure that we’re able to hear those needs and do our best to be able to meet those needs at the same time. But it’s a difficult time, definitely, for certain individuals. And also there’s a lot of hope in terms of how we’ve been able to handle the pandemic here in San Francisco with our low COVID rates and the research that’s going around it. The information that we’re continuously receiving about omicron gives us hope that we’re moving in a direction that is productive and also mindful of how everybody is currently experiencing the pandemic. 

Laura Wenus   

Just to be clear, does the school board have the decision-making power to open or close schools or send people back to distance learning? 

Faauuga Moliga   

The school board, at this moment, we work with the superintendent to make sure that if any schools, or any decision at that magnitude needs to be made, that they’re made in conjunction with the school board and the superintendent. In partnership, we decide on what’s the best direction for all our students and families and staff.  

Laura Wenus   

Okay. So it’s likely that this is not going to be our last wave of COVID. Should voters look at what you’re doing now as an indicator of how you’ll handle future waves, if you remain on the board? 

Faauuga Moliga   

I would say that to me is not how folks should assess the current February 15th election. I think the issues at hand, that were made by the proponents of the recall, are the issues that should be measured, in terms of recall, because the recall is being brought forward based on past claims of folks who feel like the Board has made decisions that certain individuals are not happy with. And so, for me, when you talk about a recall, recalls are about specific actions at a specific time, right? And so, it’s not like a regular election, and the bar for evaluating these types of scenarios really comes down to, for me, looking at the claims that are being made and measuring individuals and their contributions, based off of these claims as a way to make a decision off of, if people decide if they want to support a recall or not. But how we continue to move forward? You know, I think that, to me, it’s a tough question to ask someone who is being recalled like myself, because the future is not said and done yet. And so I’m getting recalled for things that have already happened. 

Laura Wenus   

Alright. I mean, but you’re trying to not get recalled, right? You want to continue serving on the Board? 

Faauuga Moliga   

Correct. So, the goal right now is to defeat the recall, right? And as folks are looking at the measures, for myself, my actions have been very consistent with the work that I’ve done, prior to the recall, during the recall, prior to the pandemic, during the pandemic, and moving forward. And my gut feeling is that people are going to be able to align, and see that the track record hasn’t swayed from what I’ve been doing since I’ve been on the school board. And so, the work that I’ve been lifting up fighting this recall is going to continue to show moving forward with me continuing to be on the Board. It hasn’t changed. My focus has always been around making sure that our most marginalized community is getting the attention that they need. Specifically, around our Black, Latinx, Pacific Islander, and our immigrant Asian community.  

And then also, as a clinical social worker, mental health is a very important avenue that I’ve been pioneering on the school board. And so, those things for me are not going to change and they’ve been steady, and the same, prior to this recall. And as we move forward, you’re going to continue to see that that’s going to remain the same.  

The budget issue, as well, is an area that I’ve tackled since I’ve gotten on the school board and that’s not going to change.  

The one area that I’ve zeroed the focus in on since I’ve been on a school board, which has shifted, is bringing on new leadership in terms of the superintendent. And so that’s high on my priority list — making sure that we run a thorough process that is inclusive, and that also allows us to go out there and find a candidate, and a new leader, for our San Francisco Unified School District that’s going to be able to help staff and the school board and our partners move forward in a direction that’s going to get us our goals. But in terms of the work moving forward for me, it’s going to continue being around those issues I’ve been focusing on since I’ve been on the school board. 

Laura Wenus   

I’m glad you brought up the budget, because one of the main complaints that I see about the school board, including from people who support the recall, is about budgeting. And I wanted to ask about a recent decision around the budget. There were sort of two competing proposals: one from district staff and one that was brought forward a little bit later by two commissioners. I’m wondering which of those you supported and how you’ll be approaching budget discussions going forward, if you stay on the board? 

Faauuga Moliga   

Yeah. So the budget conversation has been present for some time now. It’s an issue that has accumulated over the years, within probably the last five, maybe six years in the school district. And the school district, prior to me coming on to the school board, has been dealing with the infrastructural deficit, so they’ve been deficit spending. And when I got on the school board, my first year, I was a part of the budget committee. And it was highlighted that we were going into a budget deficit, which was going to accumulate over the next three years. And I think the first number was 70, and then they said the year after you’re gonna go to 90, and then you’re gonna go to 100, right? And so, it’s steadily been doing that based off of the projections that they gave me the first year that I came in. So when I got on the school board we were already in a budget deficit. And a lot of that has been, what folks have said, is infrastructure things, right?  

I’ve also been working with the expert advisor that was provided for us through the CDE — through the state. And some of the recommendations, which, for me moving forward, that I’m going to be working with the school district to kind of settle, is we have four different formulas in terms of how we manage funding streams. So, off the top of my head there’s LCFF, and then we have the weighted student formula, and then it’s MTSS, correct? And then there’s one more, right? How do you take the four and merge them together so that there is just one? And so that’s one of the recommendations. But for me, when I came on the school board, that was highlighted. It’s been one of my priorities also, to manage it, including the superintendent search.  

And so, one of the things that I started doing was really just looking at contracts. And it was brought to our attention that our transportation contract was really high at the time. And so, I did some work around the transportation contract and passing legislation around it to be able to support the school district and cost savings. And so, we were able to do that successfully and now the school district is going to be able to save up to, I think it’s $20 million in the next five years, off of the new transportation system that we have. In addition, it also created a streamlined bill schedule to support educators in terms of professional development, which is a good thing.  

And then I also worked on the Medi-Cal resolution, which also is going to be generating new revenue for the school district. Medi-Cal is a federal funding pipeline which allows the school district, and also city/county partners and CDLs, to draw down funds when it comes to social services. And prior to me coming onto the school board, it was bringing in a little bit under a million dollars per year. And so in 2025, that fund is going to  go up to $5.5 million based off that work. So, these are several ways that I’ve been working on trying to address the budget deficit, and also trying to create new revenue for us to be able to tackle this issue.  

But getting back to your question, in terms of the options that were on the table, there were two budget proposals that came to the school board. We had several school board members who wanted to provide an alternative look at the budget, and they did some research and were able to bring it to the school board. And we were able to look at it and see what was actually feasible for the school board. For me, my decision and where I put my vote into, was supporting the budget that was developed by the other school district staff, which was a pretty sound and thorough process. And a lot of that for me was this conversation in this relationship I built with the expert to really understand what the CDE was looking for in terms of us providing a budget that was actually going to be doable. And so that budget just so happened to be the budget that was presented by staff. Therefore, it was actually a budget that we, at the end of the day, most of us agreed on — that would put us in a position that we could put a budget forward, that was one, doable, and then also the biggest barrier that we took out of the way was limiting our risk of getting us taken over by the state.  

But again, for me, a lot of this decision that was made was really around understanding more of the process and working with the expert in terms of diving into the details of the current proposals that were being presented. 

Laura Wenus   

Just to circle back to the school opening issue. I mean, again, one of the things that the proponents of the recall are criticizing is that the school board was not moving fast enough to reopen schools. I’ve seen you say before that you were trying to reopen schools pretty much from the start. Would you say that that will continue to be your priority to keep schools open? Or are you taking a different tack now? 

Faauuga Moliga   

No, most definitely, definitely. I strongly believe that our schools need to be open. The schools are the most effective place for our students to learn. Again, as a clinical social worker it’s been refreshing to see us open our doors so that we could also be able to, as I say in social work terms, “put eyes on kids” — human eyes, right? To be able to really see how kids are showing up so that we could connect individuals to services. And so, for me, with the reopening and keeping schools open, that is my intention, and that is my work, to be able to do that, alongside making sure that we’re doing it in a way that is safe for our staff and also that it is a place where families could trust and bring their kids to school feeling that they’re also safe and also getting educated. 

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