School board candidates present backgrounds, qualifications
on October 31, 2014
Three Oakland school board members are vacating their spots on the Board of Education this fall, making room for a field of first-time school board candidates racing toward the November 4 election.
The terms for Christopher Dobbins, District 6; David Kakishiba, District 2 (and Board president); and Anne Campbell Washington, District 4, end January 5, 2015. The multiple elections add another uncertain element to a school year that already includes a new superintendent, a new school funding formula and a ballot measure that will, if passed, expand Linked Learning academies and internships offered at high schools.
Dobbins had planned to run for re-election–he even donated $5,000 to his campaign fund in June. But he did not receive the required number of signatures in time.
The school board candidates come from different occupations; they include a lawyer, a former OUSD teacher, and a program officer at a nonprofit, to name a few. Some of their campaigns have more contributions from labor union Political Action Committees (PACs), and some have more financial backing from Great Oakland Public School (GO Public Schools) and its PAC.
The candidates have had to think about effective ways to handle the money that could come from passage of Measure N, a $120 per year parcel tax that is also on the ballot and would fund the expansion of OUSD college preparatory classes and internship programs.
Oakland North contacted the candidates by phone and asked them about their backgrounds, what they believe makes a good school board member, and how they can ensure voters Measure N money would be spent wisely. The ranked-choice voting elections for school board, along with other city government positions, will be held on November 4.
Running to replace Kakishiba, a 12-year board member who is not seeking re-election, are Aimee Eng, a senior program officer at the Thomas J. Long Foundation; and William “Bo” Ghirardelli, the president and executive director of a nonprofit, Greenside Development Foundation. Although both names will appear on the ballot, Ghirardelli said he is not actively running a campaign.
After he filed to run, he said, a lot “came up” at Greenside, which he needed to deal with; he has since removed his campaign website.
Eng was raised in Orinda, and, according to her campaign website, has a master’s degree in education from Stanford. She said District 2 is “incredibly diverse,” making it important for a good Board member to understand the specific needs of each school site. Because of her current job–at the Long Foundation she oversees education grants, including ensuring the money is being spent effectively–Eng is used to playing an oversight role, she said, qualifying her to watch over the money generated from Measure N, if it passes.
“That’s the lens that I bring to the school board, the experience as a funder to various programs, including programs in the district,” Eng said.
Eng has been endorsed by GO Public Schools, and has received a $500 contribution from the education nonprofit.
Nina Senn works as an attorney at her own year-old practice. Born in upstate New York, she moved to Southern California with her family when she was five, and came north to attend UC Berkeley. In addition to her legal work, Senn is a mediator and said she has brought restorative justices programs to Montera Middle School.
Senn, who has received contributions totaling $3,800 from labor unions and their PACs, said unions trust her because she supports their values. Senn said she has “personally advocated for union members when I felt like they needed some extra support.” The Oakland Education Association (OEA), the teachers’ union, has endorsed Senn as their second-choice candidate. Their first choice is Karl Debro.
Families and Educators for Public Education, GO Public School’s PAC, has endorsed Senn and donated $1,400 to her campaign. GO’s vice president, David Stein, has made an individual $250 donation. Senn has raised the most money out of the District 4 candidates.
“I have a lot of respect for GO,” Senn Said, “because they have stepped in and provided information and resources to the community.
A good school board member is somebody who is connected to the community, has experience on boards, and is a clear-minded and independent thinker when it comes to devising solutions for problems, Senn said. In order to ensure voters that Measure N money would be used appropriately, she said, an oversight committee would need to be staffed with people who have “experience in making sure that the funds are spent and that there’s integrity around accounting.”
Another Go Public Schools endorsee is Saleem Shakir-Gilmore, whose website describes him as a former OUSD parent, student and elementary and middle school teacher. GO’s PAC donated $1,400 to his campaign. He’s an Oakland native who moved to Texas, where he attended middle school, high school and a few years of college at Prairie View A&M. He said his education in Texas opened his eyes to the “lackings” within OUSD.
Shakir-Gilmore works for the W. Haywood Burns Institute, a national nonprofit where he analyses and data and works with school to reduce the detention of students, especially students of color. He has a B.A. in Sociology from Sonoma State University, a Masters in Education from the University of San Francisco, and what he describes as more than 25 years of education experience, he said, including running an educational consulting firm and teaching in Oakland schools and at Holy Names University.
School board members should have a breadth of education experience, said Shakir-Gilmore, whose grandfather was the first African American to be elected to the Oakland City Council. That grandfather was Shakir-Gilmore’s real motivation for public service. “I’m standing on the shoulders of those who came before me,” Shakir-Gilmore said.
He said he has seen decisions made by the OUSD Board of Education that “didn’t make much sense” because of what seemed to him a lack of educational understanding among the board members.
Board members also need a level of financial experience, said Shakir-Gilmore, who has sat on the oversight committee for Measure G, a $195 per year parcel tax, renewed by voters in 2008, that funds instructional materials and certain programs for Oakland schools. The Measure G oversight committee did not meet regularly, Shakir-Gilmore said, which reflected badly on the school board. If he’s elected, he said, he would make sure that months and years do not go by without the Measure N advisory board meeting.
Karl Debro, who was raised in Castro Valley and has been living in Oakland for three decades, is a Contra Costa Community College administrator and director for the Gateway to College program, which invites high school dropouts to community college classes so that they can earn high school and college credit simultaneously. He holds a Doctor of Education degree from Mills College.
The OEA encouraged Debro, who taught for 25 years in San Leandro, to run for school board, Debro said.
Independence is lacked among many school board members, he said, along with teaching and learning. “Board members who don’t really understand education, to the effects of policies and programs and spending, are kind of easily led,” since they cannot act as supervisors to the superintendent, much less equal to the superintendent, Debro said. A school board member also needs to be able to think creatively about the budget, he said.
For example, if the district is trying to save money, cutting expenses by closing schools may not the best way to go about it, Debro said, especially when charter schools then move into the sites.
Debro said he believes there are always risks involved with a parcel tax measure, such as Measure N. He said it is really important that any Measure N oversight group be strong. “It’s a big deal,” Debro said. “And if you don’t bring the right people together, it could go sideways.”
Cheri Spigner owns an educational consulting firm, Qualified Athletics. Spigner has lived in Oakland for two decades, according to her website, and is endorsed by The Oakland Tribune, former OUSD board member Noel Gallo and Black Women of Political Action, among others. She has a master’s degree in leadership and development from St. Mary’s College.
Spigner said she reluctantly supported Measure N. Spigner said it is a challenge to ask voters to pay extra taxes, and that she worries about inadequate oversight of tax payer dollars–but the fact is, she said, “We are underfunded.” She said it is important to understand what the return on investment is for something like Measure N.
Shanthi Gonzales, membership and program coordinator for the Women Donor’s Network, had raised more money as of Oct. 30 than any other school board candidate–including $4,800 from labor unions and their respective PACs. She has a background in labor organizing, she said, having worked for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), but she has been out of the labor movement since 2009.
Gonzales said the biggest problem with the OUSD board is a lack of vision. As the second largest employer in Oakland, the district has a “huge” amount of purchasing power and city leverage, she said–and should be asking both the city and Alameda County for money to help solve such problems as high dropout rates and truancy, which can lead to higher crime rates, higher teen pregnancy rates and higher drug use.
Gonzales said one of her strengths is an ability to focus on particular issues without becoming distracted. “All the things the district wants to do are important, but we can’t make progress on any of them if we are not focused,” she said.
Gonzales, who also serves as the Vice Chair for the Oakland Library Advisory Commission, said that in order for Measure N to be implemented effectively, people need to get involved and the oversight committee needs to meet regularly. She agreed with Shakir-Gilmore that the oversight committee for Measure G did not meet regularly.
Renato Almanzor is currently the director of programs for LeaderSpring, which helps train nonprofit executives. He has lived in Oakland since 1996. Almanzor has been endorsed by GO Public Schools and received a $1,400 donation from the organization. Almanzor said he has taught for 14 years at the graduate level.
Almanzor, whose son graduated from Skyline High last year, has a background in organizational psychology, he said. That’s what has helped convince him, he said, that OUSD is designed to not retain teachers and have a low student graduation rate.
“Right now, our school system is designed not so much about what student’s need, but more about what adult’s want,” Almanzor said.
Good board members need to understand both the district and the city, he said, as well as having education experience.
Almanzor, who has served on a previous committee that oversaw city money directed toward Oakland young people, said citizen oversight bodies are crucial to making sure such funds are spent responsibly. Measure N’s text mandates a five-person oversight committee to manage the funds.
“Sometimes voters misunderstand that we’re the ones who hold ourselves accountable,” Almanzor said.
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