Shanthi Gonzales sits on the dais at a school board meeting on Aug. 11, 2021. Credit: Kathryn Styer Martínez

Shanthi Gonzales, who represents District 6 on the Oakland Unified School District board, announced Monday that she is stepping down from her position immediately, seven months before her term is set to expire. 

In a lengthy public statement published on her blog on Monday morning, Gonzales denounced the increasingly hostile discourse surrounding public education in Oakland, which has led to protests, strikes, and personal insults lobbed at school board members. She also called out the lack of progress the district has made in supporting students’ academic needs, and slammed the Oakland Education Association teachers union and its supporters for resisting moves to improve the quality of schools.  

“Our efforts to improve school quality have been inconsistent and not nearly ambitious enough,” Gonzales wrote. “The refusal to take this issue seriously has other consequences, aside from not preparing students adequately. School quality drives enrollment, so our refusal to really take on school quality in a focused, consistent, and fearless way is impacting our enrollment and leading to budget cuts, school closures and other negative consequences.”

Along with board president Gary Yee, Gonzales introduced a resolution in December for the board to consider closing schools because of deep financial troubles brought on in part by years of declining enrollment. That resolution led to the board’s February decision to close seven schools over the next two years, and merge or downsize several others. Three of the schools slated for closure, Community Day School, Parker K-8, and Carl B. Munck Elementary School, are in Gonzales’ district. 

Opposition to the district’s closure and consolidation plan has been fierce. In recent months, community members have held marches, two educators have staged a hunger strike, and protesters have rallied outside the homes of Gonzales and other school board members. The Oakland Education Association teachers union staged a one-day strike that effectively shut down classes this past Friday. School board meetings have also been contentious, with regular heckling and disruptions at in-person meetings.

Gonzales lamented what she sees as the district’s failure to center issues of school quality and improving student academic outcomes. She recommended that the school board establish an academics committee to focus on student success, and spend less time at meetings on issues unrelated to students’ academic progress. 

“We also need to say ‘no’ more, which is hard to do,” Gonzales added. “OUSD is not a jobs program, or a social justice organization, or a small business incubator, or a housing organization, although those things are important.” 

During her seven and a half years on the board, Gonzales authored the district’s enrollment stabilization plan, which dedicated more resources to addressing enrollment loss and separated OUSD’s enrollment platforms from those of charter schools. Over the past 20 years, Oakland Unified School District has lost roughly 20,000 students, and enrollment at charter schools has ballooned over the same time period.  

In her blog, Gonzales criticized the Oakland Education Association teachers’ union and others opposed to the district’s closure plan for using intimidation tactics to silence those they disagree with. In recent months, Gonzales said she and other board members have been the target of personal attacks, including accusations of anti-Black racism, and have felt threatened during encounters with protesters at their homes.

“There is vigorous dissent, which is critical to democracy, and then there is trying to silence debate through intimidation and harassment, which is poisonous to democracy,” Gonzales wrote. “The union and its allies need to stop engaging in irresponsible rhetoric that has led to escalating, threatening behavior toward board members.”

Keith Brown, the president of OEA, said in a statement Monday that Gonzales “will not be missed.”

“We hope the next director will listen to, and keep their commitments to District 6 students and families rather than closing their schools,” Brown said. 

Gonzales told constituents in a separate email on Monday that she’s been considering moving out of the Bay Area for several years, and will be moving to Humboldt County this month. 

The District 6 director was not expected to run for a third term in November, when her seat will be up for re-election. At the May 11 school board meeting, the board will discuss how to fill her seat—either through an appointment within 60 days, or a special election, which would incur costs for OUSD. With either option, the person would carry out the remainder of Gonzales’ term ending in January. At that point, the winner of the November election will be sworn in.

So far, only one person has filed to run for District 6—Kyra Mungia, who currently serves as the deputy director of education for Mayor Libby Schaaf. Individuals have until Aug. 12 to declare their candidacy.

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.