Last year, Oakland Unified school board members voted to merge Sankofa Academy with Kaiser Elementary School, which would then be closed. Parents fought against the decision and want to see an end to school closures with the next school board. Credit: Pete Rosos

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Bordering Berkeley and Emeryville to the west, and MacArthur Boulevard to the south, District 1 has some of Oakland’s most sought-after public schools, including Chabot Elementary, Hillcrest K-8, and Oakland Technical High School. The area is also home to some of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods in the Oakland hills, as well as pockets of poverty, homeless camps, and rapidly gentrifying areas.

Jody London, an energy policy advisor, has represented D1 on the school board since 2009 and is currently the board president, but she has decided not to run again this year. That’s created an opening for three candidates: Stacy Thomas, Sam Davis, and Austin Dannhaus. All three say their top priority will be to bring greater transparency to OUSD’s budget and stabilize the district’s shaky finances.

Budget and equity issues

After moving to Oakland 20 years ago, Thomas, 57, began volunteering with the McCullum Youth Court, an organization built on restorative justice principles that gave teens an alternative to the traditional criminal justice system. In the youth court, now called Centerforce Youth Court, teens serve as lawyers, jurors, and other court staff to hold other young people accountable for wrongdoing. Thomas said her experience of mentoring a boy in the youth court program first her to the Oakland public schools landscape.

We had each candidate fill out a detailed questionnaire. Read their answers here:

Stacy Thomas

Sam Davis

Austin Dannhaus

Since then, news about the district’s financial woes and years under state receivership motivated Thomas to learn more about getting involved in education advocacy. Last year, Thomas joined and began organizing with Action2020, a group that supports public education in Oakland. She wasn’t planning on running for school board, but when two other candidates, Dia Penning and Alicia Johnson, dropped out of the District 1 race, Thomas was convinced to go for it.

Thomas, who owns a bookkeeping business, wants to bring her background in accounting to the budgeting process and focus on improving the district’s financial mismanagement. She said OUSD should take more control over its budgeting and hold district staff accountable for ensuring the budget is balanced without harmful cuts.

If elected, Thomas said she will push back against recommendations from the Financial Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) and a state trustee who oversees the district’s finances. In 2003, the state approved a $100 million loan to the district and introduced an administrator to replace the superintendent. In 2008, the school board was able to hire a superintendent and retain some local control, but a state trustee remains in the district until OUSD pays off its loan. In 2017, when OUSD was near insolvency again, FCMAT analyzed its finances and made several recommendations to address budget issues

Stacy Thomas, 57, is running for Oakland Unified School District board of education in District 1. Credit: Courtesy Stacy Thomas

“I want to see department managers responsible for a budget, because the accountability seems lacking,” Thomas said. “I want the school board to be really fiercely protective of our resources and our public schools.”

Fellow candidate Sam Davis also wants to focus on the district’s budget, but with a different approach. Davis, 47, would start at the district’s central office and encourage each department to build their budgets from zero each year, instead of carrying over the previous year’s budget and making cuts based on that. He believes his plan could create new efficiencies and savings and prevent harmful cuts.

An Oakland resident since 2001, Davis points to his experience as an adult education teacher, being involved in parent organizations at his son’s schools, and his involvement with Faith In Action East Bay—an organization that advocates for racial justice, affordable housing, equity in education, and immigrant rights—as his qualifications for the school board. 

Davis said he’s also bothered by how segregated Oakland’s schools are. He is interested in taking a look at the district’s enrollment process, which he thinks is part of the cause of racial and socioeconomic segregation across different campuses. White students make up about 10% of the district’s enrollment, but they’re clustered in several District 1 schools like Hillcrest, Chabot, and Peralta, which are all around 50% white or higher, according to district data.  

Right now, families rank the schools they’d like to attend, and receive preference based on several factors, including having a sibling at a particular school, living in the school’s neighborhood, or attending a school that is closing. Davis suggested adding low-income families as a preference, and saving seats for them at schools. 

Sam Davis, a candidate for the Oakland Unified School District board of education, with his wife Yael and their son Rafael. Credit: Courtesy Sam Davis

District 1 school board candidate Austin Dannhaus, who runs an education and community development consulting firm based in Oakland, said in an interview that he’d like to find a way to more equitably distribute funding to schools so that campuses with more students whose families have poverty-level incomes receive a greater share of funding. He said he wants to make the District 1 schools, which have a greater proportion of students from higher-income families, “not the exception, but the rule.”

“There’s a lot of privilege that goes into maintaining the quality of the schools that exist in District 1,” he said. “If you look at the way funding is allocated, there’s an opportunity for us to more strongly consider race explicitly in the way we allocate funds to our school sites.”

Dannhaus, 33, also commended the district for hiring a chief budget officer in the spring, a position that had been filled on an interim basis since July 2019. 

OUSD’s financial situation has come under scrutiny by the Alameda County Grand Jury, which criticized the district’s spending on past bond projects, noting that previous superintendent Antwan Wilson added millions in new construction projects while interrupting other projects that were already in progress. 

Now that the school board has approved placing a bond measure on the November ballot, the candidates are particularly interested in how that money will be spent if voters approve the measure. The current school board has broached the possibility of a new administration building at the Cole Middle School campus. Currently, OUSD administrators rent office space in a downtown Oakland office building.

“I don’t think we need to build an administration building at Cole,” Davis said. “There’s a lot of vacant property that the district has, and especially now that we’ve all gotten used to Zoom meetings, there’s no need to have everyone in one building.”

Responding to school closures

Austin Dannhaus, 33, is running for Oakland Unified School District board of education in District 1. Credit: Courtesy Austin Dannhaus

The dust is still settling in District 1 after the recent closure of Kaiser Elementary School and merger with Sankofa Academy—a move that Thomas said she’d like to revisit. Kaiser, located in the north Oakland hills, was chosen for closure because it had lower enrollment and fewer students in its attendance boundary. Sankofa, in Oakland’s flatlands, had enough room to accommodate Kaiser’s students, according to the district. But many Kaiser parents were strongly opposed to the move.

“The cost savings is so minimal compared to their overall budget,” Thomas said of the closure. “I would really advocate to not close schools and see how we can be more creative with our $300 million unrestricted budget.”

District officials have maintained that closing small schools and merging campuses is necessary to save money. 

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OUSD planned to spend around $150,000 in the year before the merger to make facilities updates to Sankofa’s school campus, then begin saving money once the schools were merged. In the merger’s first year, OUSD is expecting to save around $160,000 with increases over the next few years, to nearly $600,000 by the 2023-2024 academic year. Most of the savings from closing Kaiser Elementary will come from having fewer staff and spending less on building maintenance, according to a presentation from the district.

Dannhaus, who grew up in Texas and taught third grade in Washington D.C. before moving to Oakland, thinks the district has too many schools for its student enrollment. While school closures are emotional and tough decisions, he feels it’s the right way to create better-resourced schools with higher enrollments. Dannhaus also thinks merging campuses could be another way of integrating Oakland’s schools. 

“I think it’s an issue we shouldn’t shy away from,” Dannhaus said.

Dannhaus was motivated to run for the school board after observing contentious debates last year regarding controversial issues like charter schools and school closures, which he identified as symptoms of a larger issue: the district’s budget. By addressing that root cause, he says, more resources would be available to alleviate the symptoms.

“There’s 10 different issues we should be talking about in this, but it gets drowned out by charters and school closures and consolidation, which again are important, but they are one of a whole host of issues,” he said.

While he doesn’t have any children yet, Dannhaus said he plans to send his kid to an Oakland public school when they are school-aged, which also motivated him to run for the seat now. 

Endorsements

While the other two candidates, Davis and Thomas, have not sought support from GO Public Schools, an influential education policy group, Dannhaus has received their endorsement. Davis and Thomas say they did not seek that endorsement because of the organization’s connections with donors who have no clear relationship to Oakland, including Michael Bloomberg, Bill and Melinda Gates, and the Walmart-owning Walton family. Dannhaus, despite receiving the endorsement, said he won’t be accepting GO Public Schools’ campaign donations for a similar reason. 

Davis, who works at the University of California and teaches middle school coding, has been endorsed by the Oakland Education Association.

With four members of the school board stepping down this year, Davis said he felt concerned about who would take their places, and about their motivations.

“I’ve just seen how the district goes from crisis to crisis and the idea of losing four members of the school board. . .made me really anxious for our schools,” said Davis. “Too often in Oakland, or in any city, the local school board is seen as a stepping stone.”

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Ashley McBride reports on education equity for The Oaklandside. She covered the 2019 Oakland Unified School District teachers’ strike as a breaking news reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. More recently, she was an education reporter for the San Antonio Express-News where she covered several local school districts, charter schools, and the community college system. McBride earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University, has held positions at the Palm Beach Post and the Poynter Institute, and is a recent Hearst Journalism Fellow.