In November, Oakland residents will elect four new members to the school board, who will go on to make up a majority of the seven-member board. The four incumbent members in these districts (1, 3, 5, and 7) aren’t running for reelection. Rarely do so many seats open up at once, and it’s an opportunity to potentially rewrite the future of Oakland public schools.
When candidates run for the school board, they often have lofty goals of transforming schools and stamping out dysfunction. Voters cast ballots for the people they believe will carry out their campaign promises of radically making things better for Oakland students and families.
But what responsibilities are voters actually entrusting school board members with? And how much power do individual members actually have? The Oaklandside talked to current board directors and community members about what voters should consider at this pivotal moment.
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Working with other directors
In a broad sense, school board directors are elected to ensure that all students have access to a quality education. They do this by creating policies, adopting a budget, overseeing the superintendent, and engaging with the community. Board members are elected to four-year terms, hold at least two general meetings per month, occasionally hold special meetings and day-long board retreats, and are paid $826 a month for their service. Board members dedicate about 20 hours per week to their school board work, which also includes attending committee meetings, responding to emails, and meeting with constituents.
But individual board directors can’t do much by themselves. In order to make change, it’s all about getting buy-in.
“When you’re a board member, you have no power. Your power is with the collective. You’re one of seven,” said current OUSD school board president Jody London, who represents North Oakland’s District 1. “You have to be able to build those relationships with other board members and have the vision.”
One of the biggest misconceptions people have is expecting individual politicians to enact change by themselves—a misconception they apply to all levels of governance, not just the local level, said Alison McDonald, an education professor at Mills College.
“They’re not going to be able to come in and all of a sudden fix every budget problem that Oakland has. It just doesn’t work like that,” said McDonald, who is also a former OUSD teacher and administrator. “It’s not all about you. It’s about listening carefully to the community and working with colleagues to make those changes.”
Working with the superintendent
This election and its impacts will also be a referendum on OUSD superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell’s leadership and direction, said current board member Gary Yee. One of the biggest responsibilities of board members is evaluating the superintendent, and if Johnson-Trammell stays through the end of her contract, she will be OUSD’s longest-serving chief in decades.
“Does the community believe that the superintendent is moving in the right direction?” Yee said about what residents should weigh when casting their votes. “It encompasses a bunch of stuff around school closures, charters, collective bargaining agreements. What does the community believe is the role of public education?”
The current board signaled their approval of Johnson-Trammell in April, when members took up her contract a year before it was set to expire and extended it to June 2023.
The hiring and firing of the superintendent is a responsibility that the Oakland school board has had only since 2009. A budget crisis in 2003 led the state to take over the district and loan OUSD $100 million to stave off financial collapse. After six years of state control, or “receivership,” under three different appointed administrators, the district came back under local control in 2009.
Johnson-Trammell is the third superintendent the board has hired since then. But with a state trustee still overseeing financial decisions until the state’s loan is repaid, the board is still not completely autonomous.
During the years in state receivership, the school board had more of an advisory role than governing, said Yee, who was also elected to serve on the board from 2002 to 2013. When the district returned to local control, board members had to learn how to legislate and how to work with each other and with the superintendent.
“The power of the local school board in Oakland has always been somewhat restricted since 2003,” said Yee, who also served as interim superintendent of the district from 2013 to 2014.
Setting the OUSD budget
Oakland Unified School District remains under the watchful eye of a state-appointed trustee until the district pays off the state loan it received in 2003, which is expected to happen around 2026. The trustee, Christopher Learned, has veto power over any major financial decisions the district or board want to make that could negatively impact OUSD’s financial outlook, like budget allocations or labor union contracts.
Some of the most contentious decisions in recent years have concerned the budget—school closures, leasing out district property, and cuts that led to layoffs. In March, the board approved nearly $20 million in cuts, months after members approved a plan to close Kaiser Elementary in the North Oakland hills and merge it with Sankofa Academy, a flatlands school two miles away.
Angelica Jongco, an OUSD parent, said in the six years that she has been closely watching school board meetings and offering public comment, she’s seen an improvement in the fiscal management of the district as board members become more experienced. She praised current board members for bringing back a budget and finance committee in 2017 and hiring a chief budget officer in April, moves she says have led to more transparency about the district’s finances.
Jongco is an attorney with Public Advocates, a law firm that works with school districts and advocacy organizations on education issues. She first began engaging with the school board in 2014, as OUSD was adjusting to the Local Control Funding Formula, a new state plan that changed how California districts funded their schools.
Though she lives in District 2 and won’t be voting for a school board member this fall (only odd-numbered districts vote this year), Jongco said she looks for a candidate with the ability to dive into the budget and ask questions.
“School districts are very complex systems. Ours in particular is a big system with many schools,” she said. “It is just a very steep learning curve and you need somebody with a strong grounding of needs across the district and a good understanding or commitment to learning the district’s finances and plan.”
Creating policy and plans
School board members are responsible for approving the policies that guide OUSD, and they often work with district staff or community groups to create them. School leaders are the ones responsible for enforcing the policy.
School board director Yee points to the George Floyd Resolution to Eliminate the Oakland Schools Police Department, that the board of education approved in June, as an example of the policymaking process at work. The Black Organizing Project, an Oakland group working towards racial justice, had been pressuring OUSD for nearly 10 years to eliminate its campus police department.
In March 2020, District 5 director Rosie Torres brought forward a resolution to eliminate three officers from the department—a resolution that failed in a four-to-three vote.
Then, a few months later, George Floyd was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, setting off global protests and intense scrutiny of American policing. Board members received hundreds of phone calls, and some saw protests outside their homes. On June 24, Torres, along with District 6 director Shanthi Gonzales, introduced a resolution to cut the entire police department. That time, it passed unanimously.
Now, the Black Organizing Project is working with OUSD to create a safety plan to replace the police department, a plan that will be presented to the board in December so members can ask questions, poke holes, and possibly approve it. Once a safety plan is approved, Superintendent Johnson-Tramell and other school leaders will implement it, and the board would monitor that implementation, as they monitor all district policies.
“The best way that a board operates with a superintendent is that the pressure comes at a board meeting, and then the board deliberates on it,” Yee said. “The action is not something the board itself conducts, but that the superintendent now implements.”
To create policies that are responsive to students and teachers, it’s imperative that board members are engaged with their school communities, during meetings and outside of them, said Jongco, the District 2 parent.
“School board meetings are sometimes people’s first opportunity to participate in democracy in action,” she said.
One way directors do this is by serving as liaisons to citizens’ committees that focus on different areas of school governance, like the bond oversight committees that are created after school bonds are approved by voters to ensure the funds are spent the way voters intended. School board members also serve on smaller committees focused on specific topics, like budget and finance, charter schools, or facilities. They create email newsletters and attend PTA meetings and other events at the schools in their districts. Current board president London, who is not running for reelection this year, said she started hosting office hours at coffee shops in her district a few years ago to meet with her constituents on Saturday afternoons to hear their concerns. With the COVID-19 pandemic eliminating most in-person gatherings, those events have become virtual.
Like some other urban districts in California, OUSD also has unpaid student representatives on the board. They’re elected by student voters, and are responsible for representing the 36,000 students in the district at board meetings for one academic year. For student board member Jessica Ramos, a senior at Skyline High School, the school closures caused by the pandemic have interrupted her efforts to reach her peers.
When she joined the school board, Ramos planned to visit each OUSD campus to talk to students and teachers, but now she has to rely on connecting virtually.
“It sucks because not a lot of students have access to computers. Even though we’re working on it, it makes it tougher to connect,” she said.
With all four school board members up for election stepping down, residents have an unprecedented opportunity to influence board decisions for the next four years. Gary Yee, who represents District 4, which stretches north and east of Piedmont and includes neighborhoods like Montclair and the Dimond District, said he could not recall an election in recent memory that put four newcomers on the board at the same time.
But this election has a lot to compete with for voters’ attention, including a crucial presidential race, said McDonald, the Mills College professor.
“We have unhealthy air, we have a pandemic, we have people who are unemployed, and people who are struggling to pay their rent. Whether or not people pay attention or even vote for the school board is a question for me,” she said. “The board could go either way, and it’s a really critical election.”