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Incumbent Gary Yee (above) faces Ben Visnick in the District Four school board election. Photo courtesy of Gary Yee.

Former union leader challenges incumbent in school board election

on October 27, 2010

Compared to the ten Oakland mayoral candidates this election year, the city’s upcoming school board election may seem an understated race. Although three of the seven board members are up for re-election in November, only one seat is being challenged.  Incumbents David Kakishiba and Christopher Dobbins have no opposition, and so will automatically retain their school board seats. But Gary Yee, the current board president, has an opponent who is also a longtime adversary—former teachers’ union president Ben Visnick.

Oakland school board members are formally called Directors, and do in fact help direct hundreds of millions of dollars for education. They serve on committees such as Safety, Human Resources, and Ethics; and vote on items that affect the quality of education for the Oakland Unified School District’s 37,000 students and 2,000 teachers.  School board members are also responsible for listening to and representing the voices of schools, parents, and students within their district.

The school district provides a stipend of about  $800 per month, and pays health care premiums for all board members. But Yee, who has been on the board since 2002, says that this was not a major factor for him in seeking the job. “I’m on the School Board not because I have political aspirations or because of the modest benefits of a health plan and stipend, but because it’s my duty,” Yee said, adding that he sees the position as a way to give back to the community.

Yee was born and raised in Oakland, and has been an educator for the past 30 years. He was a third grade teacher at Cleveland Elementary School, located east of Lake Merritt near Park Boulevard, before going on to serve as an assistant principal at Franklin Year Round School and then principal at Hillcrest School. Like his fellow school board director Alice Spearman, he is a graduate of Castlemont High School in East Oakland.

As board president, Yee’s duties include ensuring that the school board follows its rules and policies; chairing and facilitating board meetings; and assigning Directors to committees. “People don’t necessarily understand how time-consuming and personally involving [being on the school board] is,” said Yee. “I wish people understood that more about the position.”

Like Yee, Ben Visnick is an educator who has worked in Oakland schools for the past 30 years. He began teaching as a substitute at Frick Junior High in Oakland in 1977, and has also taught at Calvin Simmons and Madison middle schools. Visnick currently teaches history and driver’s education at Oakland High School. For six years, Visnick served as the President of the Oakland Educators Association (OEA), the district’s teachers’ union, which has endorsed him in his campaign to represent District Four, a large geographical area that includes Montclair and the Maxwell Park neighbohood in Oakland.

One of Visnick’s main campaign tenets is the need to increase teacher retention in OUSD.  Visnick argues that the best way to do that is by raising teachers’ starting pay from $39,000 to $70,000.  “We only have to look at Oakland’s Fire Department and our Kaiser/Sutter nurses to see how competitive salaries recruit and retain other members of the helping professions,” Visnick declares on his campaign website.

Visnick has been openly critical of Superintendent Tony Smith’s interactions with the Oakland teacher’s union in the past. “Tony Smith claims to be pro-union, but then he imposes a contract on teachers and then he can’t understand why they are questioning his authority,” said Visnick. “He’s like Teflon man. I say we need to hold him accountable.”

Visnick proposes financing the pay increases by imposing an income tax on all Oakland city residents earning more than $106,800 in gross wages. Visnick opposes merit pay, which would reward teachers based on standardized test scores, but believes the district should instead create other financial incentives for teachers to remain in the district for at least five years.

Yee’s campaign has also touched on the issue of teacher salaries, but frames it in a slightly different context. “I believe that adequate compensation is one important element for teacher retention,” said Yee in a recent position paper, “but without [teacher development, effectiveness, and retention], it is not enough.” Yee has come out strongly in favor of Measure L, a parcel tax that would provide and additional $20 million for the district to spend on site-based salaries, as a way to increase teacher salaries.

Despite his call for higher teacher salaries, Visnick does not openly support this fall’s Measure L, which he says is flawed due to the fact that the ballot proposition, if passed, would tax every property owner the same amount, regardless of the value of their property.  He also objects to the measure’s plan to share the tax-raised money with charter schools.

“Oakland has 34 unregulated charter schools which receive extra state and private foundation funding,” Visnick said as a part of his campaign’s five-point plan. “They enroll 8,000 students compared to 38,000 in the unified district.  Consequently, the vast majority of Oakland’s children depend on limited local, state, and federal monies in our district schools.”

Yee disagrees. “This is not about supporting the charter school movement, but about how to improve the Oakland public schools,” he said in a recent interview with Great Oakland Public Schools Information Center. “We need to find a way to allow or have people who are in the charter school movement help to inform the improvement of the Oakland school system.”

Yee added that he believed that the charter school movement, though benefitting some families, was not a good thing for the district as a whole, saying, “it siphons off many of the parents who would have been the most helpful in improving the system.”

Yee and Visnick have disagreed on OUSD’s budget matters in the past. In June, when the Governor’s revised budget considered cutting early childhood education, Visnick urged board members to reject the balanced budget presented to them, even if it meant risking the district’s recently regained governing powers. By contrast, Yee has identified maintaining a balanced budget as one of his main priorities, and was a part of the board’s decision to cut $122 million from OUSD’s budget for the 2010 school year, which translated to 650 staff layoffs across the district.

Yee has said the cuts were necessary for fiscal solvency, and obligatory in order for Oakland to retain control of its public school system.   “I was a governing school board member for about 6 months, and then we asked for a loan from the state and got state administration,” he said, recounting the state takeover of the district, which began in 2003 and ended in 2009. “My experience was more or less in exile for six years, until we figured out how to get some measure of local control back.”

Yee says that eliminating the district’s remaining structural deficit – about $13 million – will require increased revenues from sources such as better school attendance (schools receive funding from the state and federal government based on average daily attendance), reducing expenditures by consolidating facilities, and “cooperation from everyone.”

Visnick’s agrees that the district needs money, and his campaign is proposing taxes on every airline tickets and shipping container that leaves the Port of Oakland, including Oakland International Airport and the Container Terminals, in order to finance enrichment programs such as art and music, in elementary schools, and pre-vocational classes in middle and high schools.

District Four contains 11 elementary schools and two middle schools, according to the OUSD website. In addition to deciding between Yee and Visnick for school board representative, District Four voters will elect one of seven candidates vying for its city council seat, which will be vacated by current city councilperson and mayoral candidate Jean Quan.

“Being a school board director is a demanding job that opens one up to a tremendous amount of scrutiny and criticism for relatively little compensation or glory,” said OUSD Director of Public Relations Troy Flint. “It takes a person who is willing to look beyond some of the hostility that is directed at the position and make a change for students while working within a very bureaucratic system. We’re grateful to anyone who is willing to express an interest.”

Image: Incumbent Gary Yee (above) faces Ben Visnick in the District Four school board election. Photo courtesy of Gary Yee.

Check out all of our Oakland elections coverage on our Campaign 2010 page.

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  1. peter on October 27, 2010 at 4:39 pm

    Wow that’s awesome that Visnik want to raise taxes. Too bad the school district has no control over taxes. So what would he actually do if elected? Hmmm.

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