Participation in Oakland School Board Elections Matters

Editor’s note: This piece was originally published as a Letter to the Editor in the East Bay Express.

By David A. Stein

As recently as six years ago, Oakland voters had no real choice for who would represent them, and their children, on the school board. Why? Because most Oakland School Board elections had only one candidate. To the candidate, of course, it made running for office easy. But it also meant very little incentive to be accountable for how the candidate performed once in office. If you thought there’d be no opponent in the next election to raise difficult questions, you could be tempted to coast.

Fortunately, that has changed, and dramatically. Since 2012 there have been no single-candidate races for Oakland School Board positions. GO Public Schools Advocates – which I chair – has helped, by putting a new spotlight on this vital leadership role.

GO was founded in 2009 to help improve Oakland’s public schools in order to improve opportunity for all our children – and especially for those who have been served poorly in the past. We’ve done that by helping families advocate for better schools, by fighting for ballot measures that fund and improve our schools, and in particular, by working to strengthen our school board.

Since 2012, we have conducted a rigorous endorsement process for all Oakland school board races, used it to make public endorsements, and then worked to engage the community in supporting the endorsed candidates, largely by putting information in volunteers’ and voters’ hands. The result: a more participatory democracy and the need for our representatives to be accountable for past performance.

The results have been encouraging, even though we all know how much farther Oakland’s schools have to go. As Superintendent Antwan Wilson laid out in his recent State of the Schools address, graduation and college readiness rates have climbed substantially, especially for historically underserved groups, while suspension and arrest rates have declined precipitously. But — as he underlined — we have to do much more to ensure our students are prepared for a future that demands creativity, critical thinking and leadership skills. This election will determine whether we accelerate progress or turn back the clock.

Over 100 Oakland parents, teachers, and community members participated in our endorsement process, listening in person to every announced candidate in every race who attended. The result was clear endorsements in all four of the currently contested school board races: for Jody London (District 1), Jumoke Hinton Hodge (District 3), Huber Trenado (District 5), and James Harris (District 7).

Candidates who did not receive our endorsements have tried to paint the GO organization as outsiders, because we receive funding from major donors both in Oakland and from as far away as New York. We are proud that Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor and national philanthropist who has supported efforts to improve equity in public health, education, the environment, and gun violence reduction, recently made a gift to support our campaign — although he had absolutely no involvement in our endorsements or our campaign management.

Our endorsement process has the widest base, the most open forum, and the most transparent procedures of any. And our endorsed candidates have received more local donations than any other. They represent independent competition for voters’ favor, based on their track record and commitment to Oakland students.

Critics have tried to reduce the race, and GO’s endorsements, to candidates’ support or opposition to charter schools. But in fact the endorsements of GO’s coalition do not match up particularly well with candidates’ records and stated positions supporting or opposing public charter schools. We endorse candidates with varying records on this issue, and this year our endorsement process denied support to one incumbent who nearly always votes in favor of public charter school petitions.

What our endorsements do match up with is courage in putting students’ needs first, on a range of issues from restorative justice to widened support for African-American males and other historically underserved students. A candidate’s willingness to take responsibility for all students in public schools — district and charter — is what counts.

Most significantly, our endorsements this year reflect public accountability. Three of them are for incumbents, judged on their track records in office. Ms. Hinton-Hodge and Mr. Harris earned GO’s endorsement four years ago, and we are gratified to see those endorsements being justified.

Our endorsement this year in District 5 also reflects public accountability, in just as important a way. Four years ago when she first ran, we endorsed Rosie Torres for school board. This year, although she is running for reelection, our community process chose challenger Huber Trenado, a seventh-grade teacher, OUSD alumni, and dynamic education innovator. In her four years, Ms. Torres has had the worst attendance record on the Oakland School Board. Not showing up to do the job seems to us like performance measure #1, and we are confident that Mr. Trenado will do much better.

Oakland’s children deserve a first class education. Help make that happen by voting for the school board candidate of your choice – and reminding all candidates that you do have a choice.

David A. Stein is Board Chair GO Public Schools Advocates. He is a lifelong Oakland resident, school volunteer, former OUSD student school board member, and former Marcus Foster Education Fund Board Member.

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