OUSD District 5 school board candidates meet young voters for Q&A
on October 17, 2023
More than 100 students and adults gathered at Fremont High School in Oakland Thursday to learn about the District 5 school board candidates, Jorge Lerma and Sasha Ritzie Hernandez.
Since Mike Hutchinson ended his term early in March due to Oakland’s redistricting process, District 5’s school board seat has been vacant, leaving around 7,000 students unrepresented.
The special election will happen on Nov. 7 to fill the District 5 seat on the Oakland Unified School District board.
The Fremont High event, co-hosted by the Oakland Youth Vote coalition and other student-led organizations, educated youth about the voting system. After a Q&A session with the candidates facilitated by student organizers, attendees asked the candidates about their plans to address mental health issues among students and teachers, youth homelessness, school safety, school lunch quality, school closures and other concerns.
Lerma, 73, a former educator and a son of Mexican immigrants, said he prioritizes increased literacy, safety and diversity in schools.
“The future of education is at hand, and you are combatants in this struggle,” Lerma said. “I plan to represent you, but you need to represent yourself.”
Hernandez, 33, a family engagement specialist and immigrant from Mexico, stressed the importance of students’ mental health, family and community-driven education, and fighting against public school closures.
“Racism in schools needs to be acknowledged, and more restorative justice is needed,” Hernandez said. “When we have schools that look like prisons, we are invested in the racist ways of schools.”
Neither candidate has been a school board member before.
Thao Nguyen, 17, appreciated hearing from both candidates.
“They are two very different people,” Nguyen said. “One is a child of an immigrant, and then the other is an immigrant. It was just very interesting to be able to hear from them and the community that they want to help.”
Campaign to get teens voting
Young people in Oakland may soon be voting for school board candidates. In May 2020, youth-led organizations mobilized to support Measure QQ, which grants voting rights in school board elections to 16- and 17-year-old Oaklanders. The measure passed by 67%, giving Oakland youth the right to vote in the November 2020 school board elections. However, the Alameda County Registrar of Voters did not update the voting system to let 16- and 17-year-olds vote in 2022. The Oakland Youth Vote project is advocating for youth to be able to vote in the 2024 school board elections.
In last year’s school board election, the Registrar of Voters incorrectly tallied the votes, which affected only the District 4 race. District 5 board member Hutchinson had sought — and ultimately won — the District 4 seat after a redrawing of district lines prompted by the 2020 Census pushed his address from District 5 to District 4. That left the District 5 seat vacant, necessitating this year’s election.
The Oakland Youth Vote campaign was launched by a coalition of community organizations fighting for youth power. It emerged in 2019 out of student frustration with decisions regarding budgeting, staffing and school closures. The Oakland Youth Vote Coalition is anchored by Oakland Kids First, Asian Youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership, Oakland Youth Commission and other partners.
According to Asian Youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership Co-Director Stanley Pun, 30, the 2019 teacher strike inspired the organization to start the project.
“The fact that the school administration was trying to cut the Asian/Pacific Islander Office of Equity, foster care services, and restorative justice services, really pulled us in,” Pun said. “And from that, it birthed the Oakland Youth Vote campaign; we wanted to ensure that students had a say in deciding who the decision makers are that directly affect them in schools.”
The initiative educates youth about the political system, said Francesca Berlow, 17, a member of the Youth Vote project. “It gives youth a voice and lets them have a say in their everyday lives.”
Berlow started working on the project in 2019 and was frustrated when 16- and 17-year-olds were not able to vote in 2022.
“Youth should have a say in decisions that affect us, especially regarding the school board,” she said. “We’re the ones affected by these decisions, and it’s only fair.”
Update: When the results were certified on Nov. 17, Jorge C. Lerma was declared the winner, with 57% of the votes.
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