Nine school board candidates took the mic Tuesday night at Lighthouse Community Charter School to introduce themselves to Oakland voters. They are vying for four seats in Districts 1, 3, 5, and 7.
Each candidate took turns answering the same three questions, which were printed in the audience’s programs in both English and Spanish. Connie “Mama” Williams, a grandmother of a Lighthouse student, moderated the forum. She was joined by several students and a mother who took turns reading aloud the questions, which focused on challenges facing the district and charter schools.
The forum was organized by Lighthouse Community Charter school with the help of the California Charter School Association (CCSA), a charter school advocacy group, although this information was not printed on the programs. Fiona Read, who works for CCSA, said she wrote the three questions for the forum, which were selected after listening to the concerns of a group of parents from member schools. Read also said that the schools participated by inviting parents to the forum.
The first question, read by a student, asked the candidates for their take on the biggest challenge facing Oakland schools. The three most commonly mentioned problems among the candidates were teacher recruitment and retention, inadequate state funding, and the proliferation of charter schools.
Huber Trenado (a former Oakland student and teacher and candidate for District 5), Director Roseann Torres (currently the board member for District 5) and Director James Harris (District 7) all highlighted attracting and retaining talented teachers as one of their top concerns. Trenado said the district needs to develop a better pipeline of local teachers who know what it is like to be a student in Oakland. “We want teachers who are from the community, just like we want police officers who are from the community,” he said.
Ben Lang, a former teacher running for District 3, and Mike Hutchinson, a non-profit director (running for District 5), both decried the growth of charter schools in the district, which they view as driven by non-native Oaklanders to advance private, corporate agendas. Hutchinson also said he could save the district $80 million from the school board’s $792 budget in consultant fees, which he later defined as contracts that the district has with outside service providers. “Those all used to be union jobs,” Hutchinson said after the forum, “and we could do it better.”
Incumbent Directors Jumoke Hinton Hodge (District 3) and Jody London (District 1) used the question to acknowledge progress the district has made since 2003, when it entered state receivership and ceded control to the state due to a budget deficit of $35 and $100 million. Since then, the district has regained autonomy and balanced its budget. London and Hodge also highlighted the office of African American Male Achievement, which seeks to improve educational outcomes for those students, as an example of the “equity work” they wish to continue.
London said state funding remains the biggest barrier to the district’s progress, noting that California ranks in the bottom 25 percent of states nationwide for pupil funding. “I saw my brother-in-law this weekend visiting from Massachusetts. His high school has a physical therapist to help the student athletes! No school in California has a physical therapist—show it to me,” said London.
Don Macleay, who owns a computer service business in Temescal and is running against London in District 1, said that the district was “failing its students.” He said he would prioritize increasing the graduation rate, which was 64.2 percent in 2014 to 2015, according to the OUSD’s most recent estimate.
Kharyshi Wiginton, a youth leadership coordinator at McClymonds High School who is running for District 3, raised the issue of gentrification, and the responsibility of the school board to stop the “treacherous … predatory displacement” she sees affecting the families in her district. A recent report presented to the school board Wednesday night showed declining enrollment throughout the district. According to the report, 25 out of 100 families surveyed cited the rising cost of living as the reason why they were leaving. “I wonder who will take their place,” Wiginton concluded on Tuesday night.
The second question for the candidates sought to distinguish their views on charter schools. Charter schools, which are publicly-funded but privately-operated public schools, have been a longstanding flashpoint for the district. A mother who described herself as having experienced both charter and traditional public schools asked whether the candidates would support opening new charter schools, and whether they support “existing high quality school options.”
“School options,” sometimes referred to as “school choice,” is the idea that families should be able to send their child to the school that best suits them, regardless of whether the school is located outside of their geographic zone, as charter schools frequently are.
Six of the candidates present said they would not open any new charter schools during their tenure, and three said yes.
Some candidates, like London and Torres, said they would not support opening new charter schools because of the financial strain opening any new school, traditional or charter, creates on the district. Both said the district currently has too many schools. “It actually hurts the charter schools to keep opening more,” said Torres.
Other candidates who opposed new charter schools—like Hutchinson, Macleay, Wiginton and Lang—argued that many charter schools take resources and power away from local communities, and are not held to the same standards that traditional public schools are.
“There is a relationship between racism, systemic oppression, and displacement in the charter movement. It’s sad the board can’t think of a way to strengthen our schools and the only alternative is charter schools,” Wiginton said. Wiginton is from West Oakland, and said she has watched neighborhood schools like Lafayette Elementary pushed out of their buildings while charter schools like KIPP Bridge Elementary have moved in.
Lang said he found it “absurd” that “the mayor and city council has lost confidence in the district’s ability to run its own schools…[but they have] lost the ability to manage their police department. Perhaps we should privatize the police department too,” said Lang to some chuckles from the audience.
While the council doesn’t oversee the chartering of schools, Lang said later said that he feels that Mayor Libby Schaaf directly supports charter schools by endorsing pro-charter school candidates. “When Lighthouse was up for its five-year renewal– which is a great school by the way–Mayor Schaaf showed up here personally to support Lighthouse and other charter schools,” said Lang.
Hinton Hodge roundly disagreed with her opponents’ characterization of charter schools, and upheld her support for quality charter schools and parental choice. “I find it absurd and ridiculous that people are actually defending a system that doesn’t prepare children,” said Hinton Hodge, referring to traditional public schools, which she later said have historically underserved students of color.
“Folks who don’t have children, speaking about what families and parents should be doing and controlling—that is what is absurd to me,” Hodge continued as the audience cheered over her.
Trenado and Harris similarly declared strong support for “quality school options,” but said broader debate in Oakland about charter schools is unnecessarily divisive. “We cannot accept the temptation that comes with ‘Make a choice: district or charter,’” said Harris.
Williams concluded the forum by asking the candidates whether they support the principle that “all public school students, charter public school or traditional public school, should be given equal access to district facilities and funding–including funds provided through parcel taxes and bonds.”
The question seemed to allude to measure G1, a $120 parcel tax on the ballot this November expected to generate over $12 million for teacher salary increases and art and music programs in middle schools if it passes.
Four candidates said that all schools, both traditional and charter, should receive equal funding and facilities from measures like G1. Hodge, Treando, Torres, and Harris all answered yes.
Hutchinson and Lang said no on the grounds that they believe that charter schools are not actually public schools, because they exclude some students who have severe disabilities and lack public accountability. “Charter schools can raise money on their own,” said Hutchinson.
London pointed out that charter schools are already “clearly named” in current ballot measures like G1, and said she felt the question had more to do with past measures like Measure G. That measure, passed in 2008, increased funding for after-school programs and other enrichment activities. It became a hot button issue at the school board meeting on September 14 when parents showed up to demand that charter schools gain retroactive access to its funding stream, currently reserved for traditional public schools only.
After the forum, grandmother Penelope Cox said she had been impressed by the incumbents. “I always try to root for the little guy, but it didn’t work this time!” she said.
Cox said she liked the approach London, Hinton Hodge and Harris seemed to take with both traditional and charter schools. “They’re not trying to exclude anyone. They also explained their points better,” said Cox.
Cox’s grandson, Zion Garcia, who is a senior at Madison Park Academy, said he found Harris, the only candidate present from Garcia’s district, to be the most compelling. “He was the most compassionate in the way he spoke about students,” said Garcia.
The following evening at the school board’s regular meeting, a new candidate arrived to declare she is also running in District 3 as a write-in . Misty Cross, who is the chair of the Hoover/Foster Parent Teacher Association, said she originally got involved as a school volunteer to work “shoulder to shoulder” with the district, but had become disillusioned by the unequal distribution of resources she sees as a parent among schools. “It almost seems like they want some of the schools to fail,” she said, referring to the traditional public schools in her West Oakland neighborhood.
“We used to be so proud,” Cross said of her alma matter, McClymonds High School. “It’s sad we’ve come so low. Something needs to change.”
Voters in Districts 1, 3, 5, and 7 will elect their school board representative on November 8.