Credit: Darwin BondGraham

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With four new members elected to the Oakland Unified School District board in November, and schools closed indefinitely because of COVID-19, it’s a pivotal time for Oaklanders to get involved in public education and make their voices heard.

As part of The Oaklandside’s ongoing effort to make local government more transparent and increase civic engagement in our city (if you haven’t already, be sure to check out the Oakland City Council guide we published last week), we’ve compiled information to help you tune in and take part in school board meetings.

What does the school board do?

The board is responsible for oversight of the 83 district-run schools in the city. Elected to four-year terms, board members discuss and approve district policies and contracts, hire and evaluate the superintendent, and adopt a budget each year. 

On top of their regular duties, this year, the OUSD board will also play a role in how and when schools in Oakland reopen for in-person instruction, and will oversee the implementation of a new school safety plan that replaces the school police department. 

After four longtime board members stepped down last year, four new directors were elected in their place and could take the district in a different direction than the past several years.

To learn more about school board directors’ responsibilities and roles, The Oaklandside created a guide last fall to what school board members actually do.

Who’s on the school board?

The Oakland Unified School District board includes seven voting members who are elected to represent each of Oakland’s districts, and two student members elected by their peers. The student directors give a report at each meeting and also participate in discussions, but do not vote. 

Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell also attends each meeting but is not a board member and does not vote.

The current district school board members are:

Shanthi Gonzales (District 6), president of the board, first elected in 2014

Sam Davis (District 1), vice president, elected in 2020

Amy Eng (District 2), first elected in 2014

VanCedric Williams (District 3), elected in 2020

Gary Yee (District 4), first elected and served from 2002 to 2013, elected again in 2018

Mike Hutchinson (District 5), elected in 2020

Clifford Thompson (District 7), elected in 2020

The student directors are Jessica Ramos and Samantha Pal.

When do school board meetings happen?

Wednesday, Jan. 13, will be the first regular school board meeting of the calendar year and the first for the newly elected board. Regular meetings are typically held on the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month, unless that date is a holiday or the district is closed for breaks. Special meetings are also held periodically to give the board more time to discuss and vote on certain topics that don’t fit into regular meeting agendas. 

Regular meetings begin at 4 p.m. on Wednesdays with a closed session—meaning that it isn’t open to the public—during which the board discusses topics like employee grievances, student discipline, labor disputes, or other legal issues. The public portion of the meetings begins at 5:30 p.m., or sometimes later if the closed session takes longer. 

Meeting agendas are made publicly available at least three days before the meeting. For Wednesday meetings, this usually means the agenda is posted on the preceding Saturday or Sunday. You can find all the meeting agendas, for board meetings and other school district committees and councils, on the district’s online calendar. Meetings often include lengthy reports, discussions, and presentations, which means meetings can sometimes run very late. 

How can I watch or listen to the meetings?

Before the pandemic, school board meetings were held at La Escuelita Elementary School, at 1050 2nd Avenue. Now the meetings happen virtually, and there are several ways to tune in.

  • Zoom: Each meeting agenda has a Zoom link you can click on to watch that specific meeting. Make sure you’re using the latest version of Zoom, especially if you want to make public comments. 
  • Livestream: During a meeting, go to OUSD’s legislative calendar, find the current meeting, and click the “In Progress” link, which will launch the video player. 
  • Phone: Each meeting agenda also has a phone number you can call to listen to the meeting by phone. Dial the number and enter the webinar ID to listen.
  • TV: Meetings are also broadcast live on KDOL, which you can watch on channel 27 on Comcast or channel 99 on AT&T.

Video recordings are usually available a week after the meeting happens, and can be accessed from the meeting calendar. 

How and when can I speak at a meeting?

There are several public comment sessions during meetings when you can talk directly to the board members and the superintendent. Each meeting will have at least an hour of public comment at the beginning of the session—30 minutes are reserved for the public to speak about anything that isn’t on the agenda, and 30 minutes are reserved for the public to speak about topics that are on the agenda. 

In addition, every agenda item that board members vote on individually will have a specific time set aside to hear from the public on that issue. 

Previously at in-person meetings, members of the public could simply approach the microphone in the meeting room to speak, but since meetings are now only held virtually, there are several ways to comment:

  • Zoom: When the board calls for comment, click the “Raise Your Hand” icon on Zoom. When it’s your turn, a board staff member will say your name, allow you to unmute yourself, and comment. 
  • Phone: If you’re listening to the meeting on your phone, press * 9 (star nine) to indicate that you have a comment. A staff member will read the area code and last three digits of your phone number to identify you, unmute you, and you’ll be allowed to speak.
  • E-comment: Before a meeting, the public can also make online comments on specific agenda items. From the OUSD meeting calendar, click on “eComment” for the meeting you want to comment on. From there you can select the agenda topic and share a written comment for the board.

The board president usually sets the amount of time allowed for individuals to comment. While sharing your comment, there will be a timer on the screen that shows you how much time you have left. 

Can non-English speakers participate?

If you know you’ll need interpretation ahead of time, you can contact the board at least three days before the meeting via email at boe@ousd.org, or by phone at (510) 879-8199. OUSD’s virtual board meetings usually have an interpreter available for Spanish speakers and occasionally also for Mam, Cantonese, or Arabic speakers. 

To access simultaneous interpretation, you’ll need to have the latest version of Zoom. During a meeting, click on the “Interpretation” icon and select the language you want to hear. If you’d like to make a comment and need interpretation, you can say so when you are unmuted before you begin your comment, and an interpreter will assist you. 

OUSD interpreters also make announcements throughout the meeting to share directions on how to access the simultaneous interpretation.

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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.