Last weekend, the two candidates for Oakland’s most competitive school board race were knocking on doors in District 4, which represents Maxwell Park, the Laurel district, the Dimond neighborhood and Montclair. Clarissa Doutherd, a parent advocate and community organizer, was in the Allendale neighborhood telling residents about what she’d do to solve the school district’s financial problems. Gary Yee, a former teacher and school board member, went out to talk to residents in the Lincoln Highlands about how he’d use his knowledge of Oakland public schools to address the district’s issues.
With current director Nina Senn choosing not to pursue re-election in order to focus on statewide education reform efforts, the seat is open. As the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) prepares to make about $30 million in budget cuts for the 2019-20 school year, Doutherd and Yee represent two fundamentally different views on what is needed from school board members in this financially precarious moment. Doutherd is campaigning as a new voice who will bring change to the way the board operates financially and how it interacts with the communities it serves. Yee is running on his extensive experience over the last 40 years—as a former teacher, principal, administrator, school board member and interim superintendent—and his belief that the current fiscal situation requires a board member who has faced these challenges before.
On Sunday afternoon, Doutherd and a group of about eight volunteers met in a Goodwill parking lot in the Laurel. After a brief pep talk from Doutherd, the group set out to talk to residents about her campaign. Walking down Brookdale Avenue, Doutherd knocked on doors and spoke with residents. The first person she spoke to had already heard of campaign and decided to support her. But, as she went down the street, Doutherd talked to some first-time voters, who said they needed guidance on the voting process.
At one house, Doutherd met a woman who said she’d been waiting a long time to have a candidate come talk to her. “You’re the first person out of the 25 years we’ve lived here that’s knocked on our door,” she told Doutherd. Doutherd said that it disappointed her to hear that, but that was part of the reason she was running—that she wanted to make sure that community member’s voices are heard on the school board.
To each person she spoke to, Doutherd emphasized that she will focus on fixing the district’s budget woes and bringing financial stability to Oakland schools. “The most important issue in our district, and probably across the city, is the budget being balanced and Oakland Unified School District’s financial health and how that translates into improving the quality in our schools,” she said in an interview later in the day.
In June, the school board approved $5.8 million in budget cuts for the 2018-19 school year to meet their aim of setting aside a 2.5 percent reserve for economic uncertainty. The cuts included ending a free supper program and several high school sports programs. While funding for most of the sports has been restored through donations, the supper program remains unfunded. While Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammel has guaranteed there will be no midyear budget cuts this school year, district staff still projects a $20 million budget deficit in 2019-20 if no cuts are made this year. For that reason, school board members are planning to recommend $30 million in cuts for the 2019-20 school year to meet the district’s long-term financial goals. The board has not yet decided where to recommend that those cuts come from.
In between knocking on doors, Doutherd said that future budget cuts have to be made as far away from the classroom as possible, and that the administration needs to share the burden of cuts. To that end, she emphasized, in an interview later in the week, the need to work with Superintendent Johnson-Trammel to identify which district programs and departments “are essential and which are not.” Doutherd pointed toward the creation of the Special Committee on Fiscal Vitality, which has been receiving input from district departments, teachers, students and community members as they prepare to recommend budget cuts for 2019-20, as an important step toward more transparency from the board.
Doutherd is the parent of a fifth grader at Laurel Elementary. Last year, the school’s Parent Teacher Association (PTA) had to fundraise online to keep their librarian and several other staff, Doutherd said. “So, I have a depth of understanding and knowledge of what it is like every day to be impacted directly by budget cuts,” she said.
Doutherd is the executive director of Parent Voices Oakland (PVO), a nonprofit that organizes campaigns that help parents work with elected officials and agencies to improve access to affordable childcare, housing and transportation for families. As executive director, Doutherd increased PVO’s budget from $50,000 to $600,000 over the last five years. According to Doutherd, the key to that growth was “smart investments and strong fiscal management,” along with an emphasis on investing in the community, which she says “runs counter to the idea that total austerity saves organizations.” She said her budgetary experiences at PVO have prepared her to handle the school district’s difficult fiscal situation. “I know how to balance a budget, I know how to read financial statements, I know how to deliver results through financial challenges and transition in organizations,” she said.
Doutherd is also campaigning on the promise of being a new type of voice on the school board. “It’s been sort of very top-down, and administrators and superintendents and the school board leadership telling community what they deserve and what should happen, rather than really working in partnership with the community,” Doutherd said. She says she will bring her leadership style—“collaborative, participatory, one that is really rooted and grounded in community leadership”—to the board.
During her canvassing, Doutherd often referred to her support from Oakland classroom teachers. The Oakland Education Association (OEA)—the teachers’ union—is one of her main endorsers, along with the Alameda County Democratic Party, the Alameda County Labor Council, State Assemblymember Rob Bonta, State Senator Nancy Skinner and Tony Thurmond, a current candidate for State Superintendent of Public Instruction.
On Saturday, the day before Doutherd was out door-knocking, volunteers from OEA gathered at the Allendale Recreation Center to do their own day of canvassing for Doutherd. About twelve teachers and parents filtered in and out of the center throughout the afternoon to go knock on doors and hand out leaflets.
Ismael Armendariz, an OEA vice president, said that the union is supporting a newcomer because Yee, who served on the school board during from 2002 to 2013, and as interim superintendent from 2013 to 2014, already had his chance to address the issues that plague Oakland schools but didn’t succeed. “Our kids are still being failed. We’re still having budget problems. This is nothing new to Oakland,” Armendariz said. “We need a change in Oakland. We need dramatic change.”
Shelby Ziesing, a second grade teacher at Joaquin Miller Elementary, said she was out knocking doors with OEA because she believes the board is out of touch with what’s actually going on in schools. Ziesing said that during the midyear budget cuts last year, her school’s budget got cut by $50,000 and there was a point where they could not buy paper towels or toilet paper. To Ziesing, the midyear cuts by the board showed “such amazing disrespect for students and for schools.”
Ziesing said she’s supporting Doutherd because of the candidate’s work organizing parents and families. The board needs “someone who has not only the experience, but also the personal stake that someone would need to really work on behalf of students and families,” she said. “Choosing what is already happening just doesn’t really feel like an option for me right now.”
Meanwhile, competitor Gary Yee and his supporters were organizing their own canvass through District 4 neighborhoods. On Friday morning, Yee met up with supporter Lacy Asbill to knock on doors in her neighborhood, the Lincoln Highlands. Asbill told her neighbors that right now the district needs someone who’s already familiar with its budget issues and can get to work right away.
At one house, which had yard signs for Nayeli Maxson and Sheng Thao—two candidates for the City Council seat in District 4—Yee told two women about how his extensive experience in Oakland public education prepared him for some of the difficult budgetary decisions that lay ahead for OUSD. “There’s a learning curve when you become a board member,” Asbill said. “I’ve been told it takes about two years. But we don’t have that time right now.”
The residents said they liked that Yee had gone to OUSD schools himself—he graduated from Castlemont High School in 1962—that he’d sent his own two children to Oakland schools in the 1980s and that his two grandchildren currently attend elementary schools here. The fact that he taught third grade at Cleveland Elementary School in the 1970s cemented the women’s support. “We trust the teachers on all this,” one of the women said.
As Yee and Asbill made their way down the street, Yee continued to emphasize to the neighbors they met that he had decades of experience in a wide range of roles in the district. After teaching at Cleveland Elementary, he went on to be assistant principal at Franklin Elementary School and then principal at Hillcrest School. In 2002, he was elected to the school board to represent District 4. That year, the district was taken over by the state due to a $37 million budget deficit. Yee continued as a school board member until 2013, when he was named interim superintendent.
“The reason people are interested in my being on the board is because I’ve gone through all that,” Yee had said in an interview earlier that morning. “I’ve gone through the state takeover, the recovery, the recession, the redesign, the balancing the budget, the economic uncertainty.”
When he was on board, Yee helped oversee the transition back to local control in 2009, which required the district to meet certain standards of governance. Facing declining enrollment and a reduction in state funding in 2011, Yee was one of five board members to vote to close five elementary schools, which he described as “a wrenching process.”
Based on those experiences, Yee said that the board should not be setting school closures or consolidations as a goal in the short-term. Instead, the board should continue to focus on a strategy of fiscal vitality through “trimming budgets, reorganizing central office services, or changing the attendance accounting and revenue opportunities for schools,” Yee said. According to Yee, those strategies worked when he served as interim superintendent, working with the board to adopt a budget that ultimately produced a positive fund balance and left a 3 percent reserve for economic uncertainty.
Yee said today’s board is heading in the right direction and asking the right question: “How do we develop a fiscally stable and reliable school district that can operate within its allocated budget?” In an interview later in the week, Yee provided part of his answer to that question: He’d review the district’s fiscal practices through the audit committee, evaluate school sites and the district’s central office to determine their efficiency and look into the market value of surplus property that the district isn’t using and could potentially be sold.
In talking to residents, Yee also highlighted his work on Measure N, a parcel tax initiative that passed in 2014. Yee worked with former school board president David Kakishiba to craft Measure N, which provided funding to schools that started career academies to prepare high school students for alternatives to a four-year college degree. “I realized that many of these careers—like plumbers, electricians, medical technology—are valuable to a community like Oakland,” Yee said, “and yet we have little exposure for our students to them.” Yee believes that Measure N contributed to an increase in the district’s high school graduation rates, which went from 65.7 percent in the 2015-16 year to 70.7 percent in 2016-17.
The next day, about eight Yee supporters went out stumping for him, gathering first at Dimond Park. The group was from GO Public Schools (GO), a non-profit that brings together educators, students, and families to advocate for quality schools and improved fiscal practices in the district. GO also organized 1Oakland, a campaign to increase collaboration between public and charter schools. GO has endorsed Yee, and so has Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, outgoing Oakland City Councilmember Annie Campbell-Washington (District 4), and the East Bay Times Editorial Board.
After fueling up on coffee and snacks, the volunteers circled up to check in about the plan for the day. Among the supporters was Nina Senn, the current District 4 representative, who is not seeking reelection. “Given the fiscal fragility, we need someone who knows what they’re doing from day one,” Senn told the volunteers. “Someone who knows the budget backward and forward.”
GO executive director Jessica Stewart gave the groups some guidelines on door knocking and telling residents about Yee’s campaign. For Stewart, Yee’s the right person for the position thanks to his knowledge of the board and the board’s familiarity with him. “I think right now on some of the biggest issues facing our schools, I think our school board and our district leadership are pretty aligned in a way that I think is going to be the only way we get out of it,” Stewart said. “And if we are fighting within ourselves instead of on the issues that need to get worked out, we’re not going to get further forward.”
Stewart said that “right now we need someone who is able to make tough decisions,” even if they may be unpopular, such as closing or consolidating Oakland schools. The issue has long been a contentious one. The district currently operates 86 schools along with 32 charter schools. According to an Alameda County Grand Jury report, which examined the fiscal challenges for OUSD and was released earlier this year, “operating 86 is unsustainable and will lead the district to fiscal insolvency.”
Yee doesn’t think school closures and consolidations should be a priority for the district right now, but he isn’t opposed to the strategy in the future. “Don’t start with school closures, end with school closures,” Yee said. “That has to be one of the longer-term processes.”
For her part, Doutherd said that the conversation about school closures needs to be put in the proper context. Historically, she said, school closures too often affect communities of color. “Without acknowledging that race and place matter in our public education system, we violate our children’s civil right to an education with discussion of school closures,” she said.
The Oakland NAACP is hosting a school board candidate forum at Williams Baptist Church on Monday, October 8 at 5 pm. There will also be a school board candidate forum on special education at Cole Elementary School on Tuesday, October 16 at 6 pm.