District 4 Director and school board president Gary Yee photographed in front of Sequoia Elementary School in Oakland, Calif. Credit: Amir Aziz

Meet the OUSD school board

This interview is the second in a series of Q&As with Oakland school board members.

Read more:

District 1 Director Sam Davis

District 5 Director Mike Hutchinson

School board president Gary Yee took his first job with Oakland Unified School District 50 years ago. Since then, he’s been a teacher, assistant principal, principal, school board director, and interim superintendent, followed by a return to the school board. During that time, Yee has seen the district grow, be taken over by the state and plunged into debt, cycle through superintendents, and try a number of reforms to improve school quality.

Yee, who represents District 4, spoke with The Oaklandside about how OUSD ended up with so many schools, school and residential segregation in the city, and what he’s observed as the most persistent issues in his decades working for Oakland schools. 

This interview has been edited for length.

Why did you decide to go into education?

When I came out of the Air Force during Vietnam, I didn’t really have a clear career direction. And my wife had started teaching in the Oakland schools at Martin Luther King. We had a young family and I used the GI Bill and I went to get my teaching credential. I think I did it because I liked school and I liked the schedule of school. And I always felt that obligation to return to give something back to the city, which raised me and helped educate me. 

I became a third-grade teacher, and it suited me pretty well. I lived right across the street from the school I taught at, Cleveland. I think that’s why I ended up going into teaching. After about 10 years, I decided that in order to have a career in public education in Oakland, I would probably want to go into administration. So I applied to be a principal. At one time I had an aspiration to be the superintendent in Oakland, but that didn’t seem possible. And so I just accepted that and became a professor instead. And then later on in life, ironically, I had the opportunity—I was asked to be the superintendent—and so I had that chance in 2013. But I think I felt well-educated in the public school system in Oakland, so I wanted to be part of it.

You’ve been a teacher, principal, board member twice, and interim superintendent. What are some of the most persistent issues you’ve observed in OUSD during your career?

I’d say that one of the consistent issues is that education in Oakland has traditionally been pretty governed by residential segregation. Depending on whether you attended school at Manzanita or Markham or Hillcrest or Grass Valley, the neighborhood governs who attends the school. And so I’d say that that connection between residential segregation and [segregation] in local schools is a pretty persistent factor. 

I think the second, which I didn’t realize until 2002, was the role of the financing of schools, and how challenging it is to have high expectations of what you’re going to do to produce high-quality education across the whole district. And the limits of funding schools, and for the last 20 years, this kind of persistent challenge to produce a balanced budget.

Along those lines, school closures have been something that the district has pursued to try to balance the budget. Why do you feel that that’s the right strategy?

So when we say, “Why are we closing schools?” I think you really should start with, why did we increase schools? The increase in the number of schools preceded the closing of schools. So I think if you start with school closures, it makes it seem like Oakland had the same number of schools all those years, for decades and decades. And that all of a sudden they decided to close schools, which is not actually true. There were things that preceded this closure of schools. 

The small schools movement was sponsored by the Gates Foundation. So the Gates Foundation encouraged us to take a school like Castlemont and break it up into four schools, break Fremont up into five different schools, divided Lockwood into two schools, and all of that. So, if you’re going to really do a story around school closures, you should really start with the history of, basically, segregated Oakland schools, designed specifically with boundaries that reinforced a certain amount of residential segregation. And then, a desire to break that up into many small schools with local governance and local funding. In the 2000s, there’s the wave of the charter school movement, which added an even larger number of schools and also encouraged some of our parents and school employees to choose to go to charters. 

And the reality is that the number of those smaller schools created challenges of centralized staffing of those schools and support to those schools, the number of people you needed downtown to manage everybody’s budgets and HR to hire teachers for the schools and principals, and custodians, and lunch workers and all of that became multiplied by the number of schools you have. And so that became, I’d say, a significant factor.

Then you have a problem of school choice, which comes with the federal government creating something called II-USP, which is tied to No Child Left Behind. If the school was academically failing, then the parents of the school had a choice to send their kids to any school. So then you began to get this large number of schools that were created with a fair number of empty seats, and attracting kids from schools that were perceived to be less successful or maybe older or less well-staffed. Families chose to migrate from what I would call legacy schools to newer schools. That movement then ended up increasing the load factor in some schools that became popular, and then increased the number of empty seats in under-enrolled classrooms in other schools. And that builds up into the environment that we began to face around 2008. 

If you recall, in 2008 we had the Great Recession and the stranglehold on funding for public services like school. You have to look and say, “How are you going to manage those limited resources?” And so one of the strategies that started around 2009 was to do a regional analysis of schools and say, where do you need schools, what schools are under-enrolled, and how could we maximize our limited resources by building up schools?  It’s a question of scale. Can you actually provide all these services in smaller under-enrolled schools? Or could you capitalize on economies of scale, and provide more resources with schools being consolidated? 

That’s one of the issues that came about, which led to the first major steps in that area, the reconsolidation of our high schools into larger high schools, like Fremont, Castlemont, and especially Tech and Oakland High, which became reconsolidated into single high schools with multiple academies. 

You’ve only been here for two years. For you, the first thing that you see is the closure of schools. But actually, we’ve tried so many different things over the years. So you know, when you asked me to reflect on it, I’m going to tell you the whole story. The story doesn’t start with closing schools. It kind of ends with closing schools.

Right now, we have [about the same number of] district schools than we had when I first started teaching in 1972, and we had about [26,000] more kids at that time. So that’s the difference. We have fewer kids. 

What else should people know about how the district got to its current circumstances?

Starting in 2010, Tony Smith, and the board at the time, had already started looking at the possibility of consolidating schools [and] creating something more like full-service community schools. So you look at how the high schools got school-based health clinics, and wellness centers, and college and career centers, and counseling, and social services. All of that was part of the vision of a full-service community school. But we hadn’t actually gotten much beyond that first wave of high school consolidations. 

Honestly, we started consolidating schools around 2010, where we closed Maxwell Park, Elizabeth Sherman. We closed Santa Fe, we closed Longfellow. We closed mostly because they were under-enrolled, but some of them were in high-environmental-factor locations like Lazear, right under the freeway, or Lakeview, which is up on the hill by Grand Lake Theatre. That school should not house kids and I don’t believe we were authorized to continue housing our public schools. But because of a quirk in the law around charters, charters were authorized to continue schools in those two locations. That’s one of the kinds of challenges we had.

In 2000, with No Child Left Behind, we opened up school choice. So you started getting families shifting. So families chose to move to different places in the district and many of them chose new schools like Think College Now and ICS. That’s an example of a new school, Acorn Woodland and Encompass in East Oakland, that’s a new school from then. Those schools started attracting more students and some of the schools that then got left behind. The kids are choosing other schools and that’s totally a result of federal policy, that school choice policy. We never really intended to open up school choice like that. 

If you just walk into the district you think all we’re doing is closing schools. But closing of the schools have a precedent of dividing the schools and increasing the number of schools, increasing the amount of choice. So, rather than saying don’t do something, can we talk about what we can do to improve the educational opportunities and outcomes for as many kids as we can in the city?

How would you say your philosophy has changed since you’ve been a school board member?

Today, I think I’m much more aware of the role and impact of segregation in the city and its impact upon schools and schooling. I thought as a third-grade teacher, I was bold enough to say, “You give me any kids and I can teach them.” I had kids at Grass Valley, at Franklin, I was a principal at Hillcrest or Cleveland, and it’s all about the quality of teaching. What I realized, I think, over the years, is that the quality of teaching is really important. However, how we deploy staff and how we deploy our resources really is the larger policy question that a school board needs to work on. 

In the beginning, I thought it was about the teacher and then the kid and now I realize it’s about the city and the school system and the teachers and the kids. The difference in the options that young people have, as to whether to be teachers or to choose another profession, to be mobile, to move to other districts, that kind of competition between school districts, for resources and human resources is huge. 

What I realized in studying and going back to grad school is that Oakland in some ways became a kind of a first stop, a training ground for many educators. Many people who went to college and thought of going into teaching would come to Oakland, either through programs like Teach For America where they can get grants, or other kinds of stuff paid off by teaching in Oakland. We always had openings in Oakland where you can teach. We had great professional development, and you will learn how to teach better. But when you became old enough, and you started your own family, and you were fully trained, you were very appealing to districts which are further out where you may live yourself. You could move to Dublin and get a house in those days, or San Leandro or Castro Valley or Berkeley. You could get a house in another area and teach in your local school. So there was always this vacancy chain, where teachers started out in Oakland, learned their trade, we provided all that early sunk cost, and then they moved on to another district. 

That leaves Oakland constantly funding and contributing to the preparation of early teachers, but not necessarily able to retain that teaching force to maintain to increase and improve the quality of teaching across the whole district. That’s the kind of systems work that I didn’t know about in 1970, I didn’t know about in 1990. I started learning about it in 2000. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to be on the school board. I wanted to be able to influence those kinds of policies.

How can Oakland Unified address school segregation?

I believe the equitable enrollment group was moving towards some kind of zoned choice model, where instead of you being free to choose a school anywhere in the city, your number of choices was more restricted to a particular area in the city. Doing that would give every individual a better chance of getting their choice closer to the location of their house. So it’s kind of like splitting the difference between neighborhood attendance policies, and choice attendance policies. 

But I don’t think we’ve ever had at the community level or at the board level, a discussion about what we believe is to be the proper mix between parental choice around schools and neighborhood loading of those students as the priority. In some districts, most of the kids who live in the district attend the school in their district, and in others, most of the kids who live in the district attend a school outside of the district. That kind of vacancy chain is what creates a lot of the under-enrollment in our schools. 

So if you want to reduce the amount of choice, you have to go into this with open eyes because people will say, “If you limit my choice of school, I will choose a charter school or private school and move out to another area.” On the other hand, if you say to a family, “You have to go to school in your neighborhood,” then if you live in a wealthier neighborhood, you’re likely to say “Okay, I really like my neighborhood school.” But if you live where the community is lower income, then you might say, “You are not creating equitable opportunities for me.” And so we have not had that discussion, as far I’m concerned, ever in Oakland about that policy. So if you notice, in the student attendance boundary policies that I helped write a year and a half ago, I put the word integration into that policy. And so it remains to have that discussion.

Once schools are closed those buildings will be vacant. How do you think the district should put these buildings to use?

I think that public school buildings should first be considered for the school district, as the school district has space needs. And the second is, does the surrounding community have a need for that space? Is there a community benefit that could be expressed by the use of that building? That’s one of the reasons I supported, a year and a half ago, when we surplused two pieces of property, the Edward Shands Adult School building, by Eastmont Mall, and the Tilden Childcare Center. So those are two really small projects, and they were in great decay. What better benefit can we put this land to than building some community space and some housing? We could have just left it as it is. Considering what’s the highest and best use of [vacant properties] and working with the county and city to establish those uses of that site would be my preference. 

I think it’d be premature to talk about how to use those sites [closing this year] before we’ve actually completed that shift. Right now you’re probably thinking of Parker, but right now the two biggest sites that we have yet to resolve are the old administration building at 1025 Second Ave., and Lakeview. Both of those sites are real puzzles. As far as I know, nobody’s had any kind of community-based discussion on what to do with those two major sites. That’s been a real challenge.

It’s sad to just simply close the school and leave the place unused. I think it’s valuable to consolidate schools so that they are of a size that they can be supported to be full-service community schools. Right now we’re hoping to increase the enrollment at Markham and East Oakland Pride and REACH. If each of those schools gets 50 more kids from Parker—and I don’t know the specific numbers right now—[that] represents about $500,000 in additional revenue in those schools. In that way, I prefer to think about the benefits. The opportunity for us to build more programs and better outcomes for kids at schools where they will be shifting to, I think is a promise worth taking. 

Are you planning to run for re-election in the fall?

I’m not. I’ll probably make an announcement at a school board meeting in August. Right now, it looks like there’s several candidates who are running.

What advice would you give to people who are running for the school board?

An individual who runs for the school board needs to have common interests and a common perspective with one or two other members of the board so you can build a political base among the seven members. It doesn’t really do as much good if you’re a single member of the board as it does if you’re working with others in the board majority. You should have enough political consensus so that you can actually move policy forward. 

And the second, is that you have a strong network. When you make a decision that may be unpopular, you’d have people you can talk to, to decide upon which direction to take, and who will support you. I think those are probably the most important.

And I think the third is you have to have humble courage, the courage of your convictions. But you have to have humility within that courage. Not take yourself too seriously, and always know that you could be wrong. That’s what I consider humble courage. The limits of your ability to lead are part of the political system.

Looking back on your legacy and time with Oakland Unified School District, what are the accomplishments that you’re most proud of?

I served many communities in the city. I built lots of relationships and allegiances. We were able to create something like Measure N through a parcel tax that actually has measurable results and hopefully lasting measurable impact upon our high schools and the kids. Meeting great people and experiencing their leadership and making lasting relationships among the students and families. 

In each phase of school board, school, and superintendent governance, I think everybody has had consistently the same goals and those are to make schools better and student outcomes better for all kids, given the disparities we’ve had over the years. But what I was really struck by was the role of county and state oversight over those years. The entire time since I was elected to the school board, we’ve been under state or county receivership. Even though we broke out of direct oversight, we still always had state oversight because of the loan. 

You may know that the latest approved budget included paying off the state debt. That is really kind of an emotional anticipation I have—when we finally make that last payment, even though we still will have some oversight. We will have an approved budget, we will have paid off our loan. Thinking of the 20 years [of state receivership], that’s a pretty big achievement, looking through that period of time.

Corrections: An earlier version of this interview stated that OUSD in the 1970s had fewer schools than it does today. Actually, the numbers are roughly equal. Also, there were about 26,000 more students enrolled in the district in the early 70s, not 15,000 more. Both numbers have been updated.

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.