SAN FRANCISCO - A three-year battle over whether Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps belongs in San Francisco schools ended Tuesday night with a 4-3 vote by the school board to restore the military leadership program weeks before its scheduled expiration.
More than 200 supporters and opponents of the program crowded into the school district headquarters to make their final pleas to the board. And their arguments were as emotionally charged as they were when the fight began in 2006.
"To some of you, this is a political issue," Balboa High School sophomore Malik Douglas told the board. "But to me it's a personal issue. Represent our opinions instead of yours."
Board members Rachel Norton, Hydra Mendoza, Norman Yee and Jill Wynns voted to keep the program. Jane Kim, Kim-Shree Maufas and Sandra Fewer voted against the program.
The board's vote reverses a controversial 2006 vote to get rid of JROTC in the city high schools. The armed forces, the board then argued, should not be in public schools, and the military's discriminatory stance on gays made it unacceptable.
The 90-year-old program was scheduled to phase out in less than a month.
Students cheered and hugged each other following the vote, many clutching cell phones as they called family and friends with the news.
While the program will continue to be offered in city high schools, it was unclear whether JROTC courses will qualify for physical education credit next year. The board will likely address that issue at some point during the summer.
"We can make this program work if we want this program to work," Norton said.
Douglas and other JROTC cadets told the board the program offers them motivation and direction during what can often be tumultuous adolescent years.
But Michael Wong, a member of Veterans for Peace, said JROTC offers "classic military leadership intended for war."
The meeting grew so tense that at one point board President Maufas cleared the room to restore order during public comment after the Rev. Amos Brown refused to adhere to a one-minute time limit.
The decision to get rid of JROTC made San Francisco's the nation's first and only school district to dump the program for political reasons. The controversy put the city in the national spotlight, with its peacenik image once again mocked and debated by political pundits. What followed was an only-in-San Francisco political soap opera. Local NAACP leaders joined ranks with Republicans and the city's left-leaning voters to urge the district to save the military leadership program, passing Proposition V in November.
On Tuesday night, students who fought for the program waited for more than five hours to see their three-year lesson in real-life civics end in victory.
The students filled the board chambers to capacity as they crowded into seats, on the floor and along walls, some doing homework while they waited for the vote. Others spilled out into the lobby, where a television broadcast the meeting.
Prior to Tuesday's meeting, four board members said they were prepared to reinstate the program. The four who voted to get rid of JROTC three years ago are no longer in office.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein expressed her support for the program through a representative and urged the board to reinstate JROTC.
Three years ago, about 1,600 high school students were enrolled in the JROTC leadership courses at seven district high schools. Students could earn either physical education or elective credits for the courses, and the district split the $1.7 million cost with the federal government.
Enrollment dropped to about 500 students this year after the school board voted last year to eliminate gym credit, saying that it was unclear whether the courses met state requirements for physical education and that the district was vulnerable to a lawsuit.
State education officials confirmed this week that local school districts have the authority to offer PE credit for JROTC courses.
The JROTC program was initially scheduled to phase out in 2008, but the board extended that for a year after the district failed to come up with an adequate alternative. A pilot ethnic-studies course was a last-minute replacement in the fall, but it attracted few students and was never meant or designed to take the place of JROTC.
Recent anti-military efforts in California
November 2008: Arcata and Eureka voters pass measures blocking military recruiting within city limits.
January 2008: Berkeley City Council passes resolution calling Marine recruiters "unwelcome intruders," which council members rescinded within weeks.
December 2006: U.S. Navy moves warship commissioning ceremony to San Diego, saying San Francisco is perceived as anti-military.
November 2006: San Francisco school board votes to phase out JROTC from city schools.
July 2005: San Francisco supervisors reject efforts to house the battleship Iowa as a waterfront museum, saying the peace-loving city is no place for a warship.
May 2005: Anti-military students storm military recruiting tables at a San Francisco State University career fair.