A polling place at Prescott Elementary School in West Oakland. Credit: Pete Rosos

After several days of tallying votes, the winners of the Oakland Unified school board races are becoming more clear. Ranked-choice vote counts have yet to be applied, but they are unlikely to affect the leaders: Sam Davis in District 1, VanCedric Williams in District 3, Mike Hutchinson in District 5, and Clifford Thompson in District 7 are the probable winners. 

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VanCedric Williams Credit: Courtesy VanCedric Williams
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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

Some of the leading candidates maintain that their popularity is evidence that voters are concerned about the influence of money in local races—hundreds of thousands of dollars flowed into the four OUSD seats up for election this year, with a majority coming from a few independent expenditure committees funded by wealthy donors.

In a year when none of the incumbents ran for re-election, the outcome of this year’s races could also be a referendum on the direction of the school board. Most of the winning candidates took stances against school closures and against the opening of new charter schools. 

The election could also reflect a desire to have more educators on the board. Two of the leading candidates, Williams and Thompson, are teachers, and Davis and Hutchinson have previously worked in schools and have been involved in education issues in Oakland for years. 

“Our community members have seen over the last four to 12 years that the school board has completely ignored their voices,” said VanCedric Williams, the leader in the District 3 race. “When we talked about this as an election of corporate control or community control of the school board, it resonated.”

Davis, Williams, and Hutchinson were all endorsed by the Oakland Education Association teachers’ union. GO Public Schools, an education policy group, and Power2Families, a group created to represent charter school families, endorsed a different slate of candidates that were less successful in their races, except for Thompson. The two groups received criticism throughout the campaign season for their funding from wealthy public figures like former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, Silicon Valley investor Arthur Rock, and oil company heiress and philanthropist Stacy Schusterman. 

Thompson was endorsed by the Charter Public Schools Political Action Committee, along with GO Public Schools and Power2Families. When asked why voters seemed to reject the candidates with those endorsements in the other races, Thompson attributed his success to reaching voters on the ground every day. 

“I’m trying to figure out what I did that made a difference,” said Thompson, who teaches elementary school in Richmond. “I took advantage of every moment I had that was available so people, potential voters, could see who I was, ask questions of me and answer back immediately.”

Results likely, but not certain yet

Because the races haven’t been called yet, some of the leading candidates are apprehensive about declaring wins, echoing national rhetoric about the importance of counting all ballots. 

“I’m not going to claim victory before all the votes are counted, unlike some people in power,” said Davis, who had received 47% of the vote in District 1 by Thursday evening. “I’m definitely feeling good because it’s a pretty wide lead.”

Thompson, who maintained a slight lead of about 300 votes, or 3% in the District 7 race, said he felt confident about his lead. “I’m a very positive person and I think I’m going to win.”

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Clifford Thompson Credit: Courtesy Clifford Thompson
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Mike Hutchinson is leading in the District 5 race for the school board. Credit: Courtesy Mike Hutchinson

Education advocate Hutchinson, on his third bid for the District 5 seat, declared victory Thursday night after new vote totals were released showing him with 41% of the vote, up 10% over Leroy Gaines, the next highest candidate.

“It is clear that we have an insurmountable lead and we are definitely declaring victory in this school board election,” Hutchinson said Thursday in a Facebook live stream. Gaines has not yet conceded.

Hutchinson credited his win to the work he and other advocates have done over the past several years organizing around education issues in Oakland with changing voters’ perceptions of problems within the school district. He also pointed to the teachers’ strike last year that energized Oakland residents to support teachers. 

Reflections from departing school board directors

The board members who are stepping down stressed that the incoming board will have tough choices to make around the district’s budget and school reopening plans. 

Jody London, who represents District 1, and Roseann Torres, representing District 5, both pointed to superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell’s tenure as a signal of stability in the district and considered her hiring one of the current board’s best decisions. If Johnson-Trammell stays through the end of her contract in 2023, she will be the longest-serving Oakland superintendent in decades. 

“The importance of continuity in leadership cannot be stressed enough,” London said. London, whose children were in elementary school when she was first elected in 2008, said she is stepping down because her kids are in college now. 

Along with Torres and London, District 3 director Jumoke Hinton Hodge and District 7 director James Harris also decided not to run for reelection, leaving the four seats open to newcomers. 

Hinton Hodge specified the district’s expansion of its restorative justice program and establishment of the office of equity as major accomplishments during her 12 years on the board. She anticipates that the new board will have trouble making budget cuts that may be necessary to remain financially stable. 

Some of the winning candidates, like Hutchinson, have questioned the severity of OUSD’s budget crisis and been critical of the outgoing board’s actions to try to fix it, like closing schools. Over the past several years, OUSD has closed and merged schools across Oakland, and made budget cuts in the tens of millions.

“First, you have to listen to and trust the staff,” Hinton Hodge said. “This group is going to have to learn the hardcore facts of the complexity of a school district.”

Director Torres, who was elected to the school board in 2012, echoed her colleagues’ sentiments that the new directors will need to be prudent with the budget, especially during a pandemic that has negatively affected the economy. And with the apparent defeat of Proposition 15, which would have given additional funding to school districts, OUSD could be strapped over the next few years. But Torres is ultimately eager to see how the new group leads and welcomes their fresh perspectives.

“I’m excited about them because they’re going to bring a different wave of attitudes.”

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.