A remarkable total of four seats are open to newcomers on the OUSD school board this year—which helps explain why so much money and attention are flowing into local campaigns. Credit: Pete Rosos

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Hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent on advertising to support opposing slates of Oakland school board candidates this year, with pro-charter-school organizations, the teachers’ union, and others picking different sides. Wealthy individuals including former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, Silicon Valley businessman Arthur Rock, and oil company heiress Stacy Schusterman are among the billionaires who have given money to committees spending money on school board races here.

Critics question whether a few local groups backed by wealthy donors are having an outsized influence on voters. But supporters of these groups point out that local community members are driving the groups’ endorsements, even if the biggest contributions are mostly coming from a few wealthy individuals who live outside of Oakland. Some candidates, meanwhile, say the debate over who’s spending what, and where the money is coming from, distracts from more pertinent education issues in Oakland.

With 17 candidates running for four open seats on the Oakland Unified School District board, it’s a pivotal moment that will reshape the school system’s governing body and influence the direction of the district. On top of their regular duties, when the new school board is seated in January, members will likely oversee the reopening of school buildings and the implementation of a police-free school safety plan. And if Measure Y passes in November, the board will also manage a $735 million facilities bond for campus upgrades.

Billionaire donors support Oakland charter school groups 

Power2Families is the newest political action committee to get involved in local school board races. Hae-Sin Thomas, who stepped down as the CEO of the Education for Change charter school network this summer, said she was motivated to start Power2Families after hearing negative rhetoric from some school board candidates and community members towards charter schools. Many OUSD parents, teachers, and some of the current board candidates favor a moratorium on new charter schools, arguing that charters have worsened the financial stability of the district.

“This came about in fear of potentially having school board candidates who could really negatively impact the futures of 16,000 children across the city,” Thomas said, referring to the number of students enrolled in charter schools across Oakland. More than 16,000 students attended one of the 45 charter schools in the city last year, about 32% of Oakland public school students. There are about 80 public schools operated by OUSD in Oakland. “We made a decision to go out and ask some funders whether they would consider funding a PAC that was specifically elevating the voices of charter youth and charter families in these elections.”

As an independent expenditure committee, Power2Families can spend a virtually unlimited amount of money to support or oppose school board candidates, but it cannot directly coordinate with any of them. With $200,000 from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, $37,500 from Silicon Valley investor Arthur Rock, and $75,000 from oil company heiress Stacy Schusterman, Power2Families has raised more than $300,000 to campaign for the candidates it has endorsed. The group is supporting Austin Dannhaus in District 1, Maiya Edgerly in District 3, Leroy Gaines in District 5, and Clifford Thompson in District 7. The committee’s most recent filings show Power2Families has spent money to promote one candidate so far—$61,000 supporting Dannhaus. 

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Dannhaus said his focus during the campaign has been on policy issues, academics, and the district’s budget, and that he can’t control which organizations are spending in his favor. “Just because an organization or a person with a particular set of interests supports me, it doesn’t mean that we agree on everything,” he said. “And it certainly does not mean that I will do their bidding,” he added.

Ebony Avery, an East Oakland mom whose daughters attend charter schools, said she got involved with Power2Families because she felt that a committee representing family and student voices was lacking in the school board races.

“I live here. I was born here. I went through the school system here. So I wanted my voice to be heard so that others can know what it’s really like inside the community that I’m a part of,” she said. “I had the choice to send my kids where I felt that they were being served best. And as a parent, I wanted to continue to have that right.”

The Charter Public Schools Political Action Committee, sponsored by the California Charter Schools Association Advocates, also recently filed disclosure forms to campaign in Oakland’s school board elections. The CCSA committee is supported by $400,000 in contributions from Doris Fisher, the billionaire co-founder of The Gap, and $550,000 from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, also a billionaire.

Campaign filings show that the Charter Public Schools Political Action Committee has spent about $41,000 to support Clifford Thompson’s campaign in District 7. Thompson, who has worked in both district and charter schools and currently teaches in Richmond, said he wants to stay out of the charter versus district school debate.

“My focus is on how we are providing academics for our kids to be successful in the future. I’m trying to disrupt the school- to- prison pipeline altogether by making sure that kids are receiving the proper academic growth, more so than focusing on the finances from billionaires,” he said.

GO Public Schools endorses five candidates

GO Public Schools, an education nonprofit in Oakland, operates an independent expenditure committee, Families and Educators for Public Education, which has endorsed and supported candidates since 2012, according to executive director Jessica Stewart. In 2018, the committee spent $146,000 supporting District 4 director Gary Yee’s successful campaign. In 2016, the group spent about $123,000 supporting District 7 director James Harris, who was reelected, and about $100,000 to support Huber Trenado, who lost the District 5 race that year. 

This year, GO Public Schools, which does not describe itself as a pro-charter organization, has endorsed the same slate of candidates as the charter advocacy group Power2Families, as well as Mark Hurty in District 3. Of the $312,000 that Families and Educators for Public Schools has raised this year, $300,000 came from the billionaire businessman and philanthropist Michael Bloomberg, according to city campaign filings.

GO’s committee has spent just over $64,000 campaigning for Gaines, about $16,000 on Dannhaus, $10,000 on Hurty, $69,000 on Edgerly, and $29,000 on Thompson.

In evaluating school board candidates, Stewart said GO Public Schools invites community members to participate in their endorsement process, which includes a questionnaire and a public interview. In previous years, those interviews were in person. The organization switched to virtual engagement this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. After collecting surveys, GO’s leadership council makes a decision. As a political organization, Stewart said the group looks for candidates that are going to support its policies—policies that opponents say support the growth of charter schools in Oakland. 

“We sit with the vast majority of Oaklanders in that we want more good schools,” Stewart said. “We understand why families choose charters.”

Leroy Gaines, who spent nine years as a principal at Acorn Woodland Elementary before joining New Leaders, a nonprofit that trains school administrators and is funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and other foundations, said he had not anticipated how contentious his race would become after accepting GO Public Schools’s endorsement. Social media posts calling for voters to reject “billionaire-bought candidates” began popping up soon after the first contributions from Stacy Schusterman, Michael Bloomberg, and Arthur Rock were disclosed.

“It’s been really tough for me personally because I’m caught in this battle that’s not necessarily about my campaign or my position,” Gaines said. “I want to get the endorsement of everybody. I think we need to be able to bring folks from different corners and have trust built, instead of throwing barbs at each other back and forth.”

GO Public Schools and Power2Families leaders reject the perception that they’re trying to “buy” seats on the school board, or are carrying out billionaires’ policy goals. 

“That narrative is disrespectful to our parents and families, like, ‘Hey, these billionaires tell you to do this and tell you to do that,’” said Charles Cole III, the co-campaign manager of Power2Families. “We exercise our own power and our own agency.”

Stewart, the head of GO Public Schools, who formerly taught in OUSD, said community members drive their endorsement decisions and how to spend their funding. She said the organization also looks for candidates who are in line with its policy priorities regarding the OUSD budget, and promote a more streamlined school system with the 1Oakland campaign, which advocates for resources to be shared across both OUSD schools and charter schools.

Teachers’ union supports candidates who oppose charter expansion

The Oakland Education Association, a union that represents about 3,000 teachers, nurses, counselors, and other school staff who largely work in non-charter public schools, also contributes thousands to candidates each election. This year, OEA gave the candidates written questionnaires and interviewed them publicly before surveying members and union supporters about which candidates to endorse and help out with independent expenditures on advertising. 

OEA is supporting Sam Davis in District 1, VanCedric Williams in District 3, Mike Hutchinson in District 5, and Ben Tapscott in District 7

“The reason that we consistently endorse different candidates than [GO Public Schools] is that we have a pretty different vision for what schools in Oakland should look like,” said Shelby Ziesing, who serves as co-chair of OEA’s political involvement committee. “Our priority is making sure we have public, democratic control of schools.”

Earlier this week, OEA posted a campaign flyer online picturing one of its endorsed candidates, Mike Hutchinson, as if he were in a boxing match with Michael Bloomberg.

Hutchinson, who also ran for the District 5 seat in 2012 and 2016, is not allowed to communicate with the OEA independent expenditure committee, but he said he does see himself as competing against Bloomberg as much as he is competing with the other candidates in the race. With donations to Power2Families and GO Public Schools’s Families and Educators for Public Education, Bloomberg has contributed $500,000 toward the two organizations to spend on OUSD races this year. 

Hutchinson’s campaign committee has raised a total of $14,700 this year, and OEA has spent another $20,000 on ads supporting him.

“For a job that doesn’t pay but an $800-a-month stipend, why are billionaires so concerned with the school board district 5 in Oakland?” Hutchinson said. “It’s not because they care about us or our students. If they cared about that, they could fully fund the school district with their money.”

OEA’s Political Action Committee is mainly supported by members and other teacher organizations, according to city campaign filings. In addition to the $35,000 OEA has spent campaigning for Hutchinson, the union has also paid $40,000 for ads supporting Davis in District 1, $42,000 supporting Williams in District 3, and about $35,000 campaigning for Tapscott in District 7.

Sam Davis, a candidate in District 1, did not seek out an endorsement from GO Public Schools and said he opposes contributions from wealthy outside donors in local elections. 

“I think it’s really distorted the democratic process in Oakland because it’s meant that some school board candidates, not just this time but historically, don’t have to really build up a base,” he said.

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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.