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Five candidates are competing to represent District 3 on the Oakland Unified School District board of education, an area that includes West Oakland, downtown, the Jack London District, and Adams Point. Several contenders, including Mark Hurty, Maximo Santana, and VanCedric Williams have experience as classroom teachers, while Cherisse Gash and Maiya Edgerly are hoping their backgrounds in parent and student advocacy will give them an edge.
Whoever wins will replace Jumoke Hinton-Hodge, who has been in the position since 2009. Some of the most pressing issues the candidates identified included fixing dangerous campus facilities and cleaning up pollution, increasing the district’s low literacy rates, and budget transparency.
Bond funds for McClymonds High School improvements
With McClymonds High School as the only traditional, OUSD-operated public high school in District 3, candidates want to see much more investment in the campus. McClymonds, which has been at its current location at 2607 Myrtle St. since 1938, was slated to receive upgrades with the two most recent bond measures in 2006 and 2012, including replacing athletics turf, installing solar panels, improving seismic safety, and other major renovations.
By 2016, the school had received several safety and aesthetic improvements, including better lighting in parking lots, a new marquee, new outdoor tables, and wiring upgrades for wireless internet on certain areas of campus. But by 2018, the major facilities improvements at McClymonds were not approved, according to a report from the Citizens Bond Oversight Committee, leaving some projects unfinished.
McClymonds wasn’t alone among OUSD campuses that didn’t receive the full list of renovations originally promised. A recent Alameda County Grand Jury report cited mismanagement of bond funding as one of the primary reasons for OUSD’s financial problems..
“Poor financial stewardship of the district’s nearly billion dollar bond program coupled with unnecessarily costly policies that do not directly benefit students have left OUSD with little to show in the way of completed school projects,” the report said.
Another facilities bond measure is on the ballot this year, and McClymonds is again on the project list for renovations and expansions to support a higher enrollment. The previous two bond measures were overwhelmingly supported by voters, but with the botched outcomes, candidate Cherisse Gash thinks voters may not be as eager to approve another.
“There’s a lot of trust issues with what this current board would actually do with those facilities bond funds,” Gash said. “Would it be appropriately used? I think that one may struggle to pass at this point.”
Gash is a full-time mom to her son who just graduated from MetWest High School, which is on the east side of Lake Merritt located in District 2, earlier this year. While her son was in school, Gash spent many years active in PTAs, volunteering for programs like The Hidden Genius Project and African American Male Achievement, and advocating for parent concerns.
VanCedric Williams, who is a teacher in San Francisco and also serves as the treasurer for the United Educators of San Francisco teachers’ union, wants to see stronger oversight of the upcoming OUSD facilities bond if it’s approved.
“If it comes out like the previous bond measure, it will be embarrassing. So we should be talking about how we as a community are going to really make sure that the district doesn’t misallocate or mishandle the funds,” he said. “We can’t be giving away thousands or millions of dollars to construction companies and not getting anything out of it.”
Environmental concerns were also raised by the D3 candidates, who want to see safer school environments where students aren’t exposed to toxic emissions. West Oakland is home to the Port of Oakland and surrounded by interstate highways, and has serious air pollution and other environmental problems. In February, McClymonds was abruptly shut down after chemical testing revealed a carcinogenic substance in the groundwater.
“McClymonds is a high-priority school that needs support,” said candidate Maiya Edgerly. “We just need to be transparent and honest in the reporting about how we’re going to spend that money.”
The digital divide and growth in District 3
Over the past decade, multiple new high rise apartment buildings have gone up in downtown Oakland bringing thousands of new residents to District 3. Candidate Mark Hurty sees this as an opportunity for growth. He noted that most of the district’s schools are in the West Oakland area, and that there’s no elementary school east of Broadway.
“We don’t have schools that can serve all the kids that live in this community and we would be doing ourselves a great deal of benefit if we could create a more integrated school population in District 3,” he said.
Hurty, 62, works at EducationSuperHighway, a company that brings internet access into classrooms. Creating universal web access for students has become an important goal since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hurty said. Bridging the digital divide is one of his goals if elected, and he thinks his experience as a product manager for EducationSuperHighway could help. Hurty also worked as a special education teacher at Edna Brewer Middle School during a stint as a Teach For America member.
Maximo Santana, another candidate, said his main reason for running for the school board is to modernize the district, especially right now when most functions of OUSD are virtual. In addition to making sure students and families have computers and access to the internet at home, Santana wants to see all the services that community schools offer available online, not just daily lessons.
“So if you see a counselor, or you go to a community school and you see your doctor there, you should also be able to do that online. If you’re a graduating senior, and you need help filling out college applications, you need to be able to access all of the support systems your school has for seniors online,” he said.
Santana taught at American Indian Public High School, a charter school, and West Oakland Middle School prior to his current position as a training specialist at Pandora. He also wants to make the district’s websites easier to use to increase transparency for families.
Community engagement and school closures
Edgerly, 31, works as the executive director for Onyx Scholars, a nonprofit organization in Oakland that connects high school students with historically Black colleges and universities and at Bridges from School to Work, helping graduates with disabilities secure employment. She said OUSD, like the rest of the city, has changed a lot in the past 10 years, but that many students and families still need greater access to resources.
“Oakland is in a really interesting and emotional time right now for education. They need a candidate that’s worked with students who’ve been disenfranchised and has worked with students who come from low-income families,” she said.
Gash said school closures are what prompted her to run for the school board—specifically, the Roots Academy closure last year in East Oakland, when the board voted to close the school despite parents and students begging them not to. One of her main goals is to end the process of school closures. “It’d have to be something catastrophic, the facility would have to be falling down or something, to be able to close that school site. And then that’s when you utilize the bond measure to rebuild,” she said.
Most of the District 3 candidates felt similarly about school closures, but Hurty, the product manager, said he agrees with OUSD’s Blueprint for Quality Schools. The blueprint is a plan to close or merge schools over several years under the assumption that Oakland has too many school campuses for the number of students enrolled, driving up facilities and administrative costs. The Roots closure was one step of that plan.
“We’re overbalanced in terms of campuses to students. That’s something I think we need to reconcile,” Hurty said. “[Closures and mergers] allow us to bring kids together, do a better job of educating those kids and save the district money by reducing that overhead and the fixed costs of that administrative personnel.”
Though she recognizes how emotional school closures can be, Edgerly does not take an outright stance against them and thinks they are financial decisions. More important to her is rebuilding the trust that has been lost after years of OUSD decision-making that went against the community’s desires, or left school communities out of the process, she said.
Williams, who worked as a teacher in San Francisco for 20 years, said his platform is centered on strengthening relationships between the community and the school district. Rather than closing schools, Williams wants to invest in community schools throughout Oakland to serve more than students’ academic needs.
If schools are under-enrolled, which district leaders have said is one reason to close schools, then those campuses should be invested in, not abandoned, he said. As a labor union representative and a teacher, WIlliams said he has experience working with the community to build culturally responsive learning environments.
“If we have schools that over enroll, then we can redistribute students to schools that need students. If we don’t think those schools are worthy, then that’s a big statement on our part, and we should invest in the schools to lift them up. So all the schools will have similar outcomes.” Williams said.
Balancing the budget
Like most of the candidates running for school board seats in OUSD’s other districts, District 3 contenders say that fixing OUSD’s chronically imbalanced budget is a high priority..
Gash wants to examine the district’s spending on consultants and instead spend that money directly on students.
Along with bond mismanagement, the Alameda County Grand Jury report also identified the hiring of consultants as another wasteful practice by the district. According to the report, OUSD spent more than $55 million on consulting services in 2018, compared with $31 million on classified supervisors and administrators, and $14 million on books and supplies.
Gash also doesn’t think the district should spend bond funds to build or retrofit a new administrative building once OUSD’s downtown lease is up.
“If a student’s education can be provided in portables, and their workplaces for six to eight hours of the day can be there, so can the administrative staff,” she said.
Santana, the former teacher and Pandora employee, is advocating for more fiscal transparency so that when the board has to make tough financial decisions, the community won’t feel excluded. He also thinks the district could save money on a new administrative building, but by allowing more employees to work virtually from home beyond the end of the pandemic, and finding space in existing district buildings for those who can’t.
Literacy rates and academics
The most recent testing data shows that only about one-third of OUSD students read at grade level, and for Black students, that proportion drops to less than one in five.
Part of Hurty’s platform is to address literacy rates throughout the district. If elected, Hurty said he would work with district staff to draft a policy to ensure all students are reading at grade level by third grade.
“Up through third grade you’re learning to read. From third grade on, you’re reading to learn. If you aren’t reading by grade level at third grade, you’re going to struggle from then on,” Hurty said.
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To improve the district’s academic offerings, OUSD could take ideas from charter schools, Gash said. Although she wants to see a moratorium on new charter schools—six of the 15 schools in District 3 are charters—she understands why parents might opt for them and invites charter school parents to share what they like about their charter school.
“If parents are going to charter schools because they have curriculum for better languages, better support systems for their students, more art and culture … we need to be able to utilize and check our school site budget and make sure that those models are back in our public school sites,” said Gash.
Edgerly, the nonprofit director, wants to make sure students have a smooth and safe transition back into the classroom, which could happen in as soon as two weeks, since Alameda County moved into the state’s “red tier” for coronavirus risk this week. She also emphasizes college attrition and her experience getting students to college through her nonprofit organization, Onyx Scholars.
In addition to low literacy rates, Williams, the union treasurer, is focusing his campaign on the district’s 73% graduation rate. One way he would get students more engaged in learning is to expand the ethnic studies curriculum. Ethnic studies classes are offered in OUSD high schools, but some community members have called for courses to be introduced in earlier years.
“Textbooks tend to minimize Black contributions, and people of color’s contribution to a paragraph,” he said. “We have to expand it to a full semester or a full year. And we will see achievement from our kids when they start to really see that they’ve been a part of this country, and they’ve contributed.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that McClymond High School’s current building was constructed in 1915. In fact, the school was founded in 1915 and moved to its current location in 1938.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the literacy rates for Oakland Unified School District.