Meet the OUSD school board
This interview is the third in a series of Q&As with Oakland school board members.
School board director Mike Hutchinson has spent most of his life attending or working in Oakland schools. The son of a former OUSD teacher, the current District 5 school board director was working as a site coordinator at Santa Fe Elementary in 2012 when that school and another he’d previously worked at, Maxwell Park Elementary, were targeted for closure. That experience compelled him to launch his first campaign for the Oakland school board. Another attempt would follow before he was elected on his third try in 2020. That year, he ran on a platform of ending school closures. It’s a position he hasn’t wavered on over the past 18 months, even as a majority of his colleagues on the board chose to approve a controversial two-year closure and consolidation plan.
Director Hutchinson recently spoke to The Oaklandside about what he’s most proud of, what the board should focus on in the upcoming school year and the state of the school district’s finances.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about your upbringing and your relationship with Oakland schools.
I’m born and raised here. And I have had a lifelong connection to Oakland public schools. My mom was a kindergarten teacher, almost every year, for 40 years. I say at school board meetings sometimes that I’ve been going to school board meetings since before I was born. My mom, when she was pregnant with me, was one of the teachers who sued OUSD for maternity leave. So we have always been connected to the district.
I attended OUSD schools, went to elementary school at Crocker Highlands, McChesney Junior High, which is now Edna Brewer, Oakland High and then graduated from Skyline in ‘91. After college, I came back and worked in the schools and actually started working as a 19-year-old in our schools as a noon supervisor, academic mentor, on to running after-school programs and PE programs for outside providers, and probably worked in Oakland schools for about 20 years. Now my nieces attend elementary school in OUSD. My family has this lifelong connection to OUSD. It’s always been what we do as a family.
What first interested you about working in education and in Oakland schools?
When I graduated high school and went to Cal as a freshman, my plan was to come back and be superintendent of schools in Oakland one day. Which is funny, looking back now, because it was a long time ago. My mom was an active member and in leadership in OEA (Oakland Education Association) and even before that, when Oakland had AFT (American Federation of Teachers) also, she was involved with that teachers union as well. So she always attended school board meetings and those sorts of things growing up. It was the culture that I grew up in.
But then life takes some interesting turns, and it wound up being that I spent 20, 25 years working with youth directly. And for me personally, that is what I’m best at. I feel like what I was born to do is work with youth. And it was only when my two schools that I had spent 10 years at—Maxwell Park and Santa Fe elementaries—were closed in 2012 that I realized I had to move away from working directly with youth and get involved in a different way to make sure we had the schools that we needed in our city.
Why do you feel that serving on the school board is the best way to effect change in OUSD, as opposed to working in schools or at the district level?
There are lots of ways to affect change. It’s important that we make distinctions around what kind of changes that we’re looking to make. Going through school closures in 2012 was a traumatic experience. It was really one of the first times that I was in a situation where there was this need for something else. So we started organizing our individual school sites. I was at Santa Fe at that time. I got fired from my job at the school for organizing a community meeting to inform the community that the school was being closed. And when they fired me and escorted me off campus for trying to organize the community, I realized that I had to make a shift.
We’ve figured out ways over time to try to organize against [closures]. In 2012, there were school board meetings where we would have 1,000 people there. It was also the same time we had Occupy Oakland going on. When our schools were closed on the last day of school, that launched the 17-day sit-in and occupation at Lakeview Elementary. And although we did have our five schools closed, the district and the school board backed away from their plans to close 25 more schools.
When the Lakeview occupation ended in 2012, we looked around at each other and said, “What do we do now?” And that’s when I made the decision to run for school board in 2012. And it was really a response to us not being able to find any other way to stop our schools from being closed. Going through that process as a complete outsider and novice and entering the campaign at the last minute, I was still able to get 45% of the vote, being outspent by a large factor. I personally realized that that was maybe a viable path for me to help push a change to these policies. In the end, in OUSD, the school board has the authority—the sole authority—to make these decisions. We have to guarantee that we have a school board with at least four solid votes to not close schools.
Before you joined the school board, you were a community member attending school board meetings and critiquing the board regularly. Now that you’re on the other side, is there anything you’ve learned about school board governance that has changed your perspective?
My flippant answer is, I’ve learned I was right all along. I don’t know if I would call myself a critic of the school board. I was an advocate for our schools and for having quality schools like I experienced growing up. And the adversarial relationship that existed between the school board and the community was not something that was a part of OUSD in the past. We had a real problem with our school board [in 2018]. That school board that I was a critic of unanimously voted to close our schools. They launched the blueprint process (for determining which schools should be closed).
When they closed Kaiser in 2019, quite a few of us promised those seven school board directors that we were going to drive them out of office because of their votes and decisions. And now when I look at it, five of them are gone. And the last two are not running for reelection. Which means that, in one election cycle, all seven incumbents chose to leave office, which is unprecedented. I think it shows how much the community objected to the policies those directors were pushing. And it shows how unpopular they really were.
Now, as I sit on the school board, I know there’s not an invisible hand controlling things. FCMAT isn’t telling us what to do. The state’s not telling us what to do. These decisions and policies have always come from our local school board. And that’s why it’s so important that we have the right kind of directors.
Before I got on the school board, I still wasn’t sure. Now I do know these things. The scary part is, now that I am on the school board, I have a better idea of how bad some things really are. And structurally over 20 years a lot of things are broken, and they’ve just never been repaired. We have to acknowledge and I think explicitly address the fact that we were taken over by the state in 2003. And that created this series of problems and structural breakdowns that have never been addressed.
What are the biggest issues facing the district that you see that need to be addressed?
Thankfully, on the positive side, we do have our finances in order and this was one of the issues I ran on. This has been one of the long-term things I have been critical of the school board about. Now we have the district finances stabilized and we’re projecting surpluses on our multi-year projections, and we see the political consequences that county Superintendent Monroe faced when she was wrong [about pressuring the board to make budget cuts] and came at Oakland. That’s largely why she was not reelected. Our finances are in place and that is all before we receive tens of millions of dollars from the state surplus that we’ll start receiving in the fall.
So now that we have our finances stabilized, we need to do a couple of things as a district. We really need to come up with a vision for how we redesign our schools going forward for the transformational change we all want, especially now that we have the resources to fund it coming in. We also desperately need a restructuring of how we function as a district and how we staff. We have some departments that are very bloated. We have other places where lack of capacity is a real issue. Some of these larger big picture issues we haven’t been able to address as a community in a clean way in 20 years. It’s figuring out how we start to do that.
When I ran in 2020, one of the things that I wanted to do coming in was a three-level plan. First, we needed to stabilize the district. And I think we’ve done a pretty good job of doing that, even though we’ve been in a pandemic. The second thing we need to do now is have a real community visioning process so we can get everyone on board together with how we move forward. And then once we’ve gone through that process, we need to start building what we want to see. And so I am encouraged at how well the first part of stabilizing has gone. It hasn’t been easy.
During your time on the board you’ve maintained that OUSD is not in a financial crisis. Why?
First, nobody is saying OUSD is in a financial crisis. An announcement was made at one of the last school board meetings of the year that for the first time we are projecting surpluses on our multi-year projections. That’s what we want. We’ve had a growing reserve. And all of that is before we’ve received probably 50 million extra dollars in the fall from the state surplus. There is no financial crisis. And nobody is saying that there is. The superintendent and senior district staff are not out front saying we’re in trouble, or that there’s a crisis.
What happened was this year, four school board directors voted to close schools. And they started throwing out a whole list of reasons why, none of which were true. I’m on the budget and finance committee. And before that, I went to every fiscal vitality committee meeting. We actually never were in a financial crisis, but the past will take care of itself. Right now, all people have to do is look at the district’s official budget numbers and reports. And that’s how I know. The numbers say that.
The district was never in financial crisis, say, in the past 10 years?
It was one year in 10 years that there was. And that’s because the enrollment projections were made exceptionally high on purpose to create a crisis. There’s a lot of history to what’s gone on in OUSD. There’s a reason why the top-level item that I ran on in 2020 was to end school closures and end the financial mismanagement within OUSD.
There’s three factors that I think have really changed the financial outlook for OUSD. Hiring [chief business officer] Lisa Grant-Dawson, the amount of new dollars we’ve gotten from COVID relief and from the state surplus, and being able to change some of the school board directors to break up the philosophies that were driving things before.
The budget is public information. I encourage people to look at the numbers and it shows we have a surplus. It would also be a huge benefit to us as a community if more people engaged around the budget process. We don’t have enough attendance at our budget and finance committee meetings. It’s a really good place to not just hear information about the budget, but to learn how to really understand the numbers better.
Our finances are good. We can always use more. I want to be more explicit with the new dollars we have coming in from the state surplus. So across the board, [funding] is going up 13% next year. Then we’re going to be receiving money from some of the new block grants and other things that are being developed. Those roughly $50 million have not been budgeted yet. So we have budget surpluses before we even address these new dollars coming in. The question really needs to start now: How do we ensure that we maximize these new resources coming in to get us where we need to go? Because the other thing this district has had a habit of doing over time is, the more dollars it’s received, the less has actually been spent on our students. So we still need to do work to make sure we don’t squander this opportunity that we’ve been presented with.
What ideas do you have for this influx of money OUSD is seeing from community schools grants and the state surplus?
Besides the district finances, school closures, of course, have been my number one issue. There’s a lot of talk about community schools these days, but it has become a catch-all term that means different things to different people. Right now, we have in OUSD roughly 50 schools that we call community schools, and those are going to be in schools that are receiving extra resources through the new community schools grants that we received. But what we don’t have within all of that is a school-redesign model. How do we address some of our schools that need to be modernized? That’s the wrong word, but they need to be redesigned to better serve our students and community.
I believe in a model called sustainable community schools. They use it in Chicago. They use it in L.A., St. Paul. There’s a series of cities they use it in, and it’s proved really successful. And under that model, the school community will have a year-long visioning process to decide what their schools should look like, or maybe have a special focus or emphasis. And the schools identified as sustainable community schools, like the model in Chicago, those schools get an extra $500,000. And the school decides how to use some of those extra resources. In some places across the country some of these schools have put in laundry service if that’s what they thought their students and community needed. Some put in food pantries, others decided to focus on green technology. It brings in these extra resources and empowers the community to make decisions on how to best serve their needs.
That’s what I think we need to tackle next. This could be a tool that we use to address some of the inequities within the district. We could use this model to address some of the language in the resolution for Black reparations. So having these extra resources come in and having a strong community schools redesign model would really be a way for us to jumpstart some of these deficits.
I am hopeful that when we get a new school board sworn in in January, the first thing that new school board will do is rescind the school closures lined up for next year. I’m then hopeful that the second thing the school board can do is, for the schools that were closed this year and the schools on the closure list for next year, instead of closure, they can become sustainable community schools and we can really resource our community schools and our neighborhood schools like we need to.
You’re running for re-election this year in District 4. Why did you make that decision when you could stay in your D5 seat?
Well, the decision was made for me. I’ve lived in the same house for 40 years, and my neighborhood was redistricted. So if I am now living in District 4 then I should run to represent District 4. And if I win District 4, the school board in January should appoint a school board director who lives in District 5. That’s how the representation should work. I was not expecting to be redistricted. Running another campaign was not high on my list for things to do.
Is there anything different about the needs of District 4 families and schools from District 5?
Yes and no. We are all one city and there’s lots of similarities. But there’s also subtleties and differences from district to district. If we’re looking at the schools, District 5 has a large number of dual immersion schools and has Fremont as their anchor high school. District 4 I don’t think has any dual immersion schools, has no high schools, but three middle schools. District 4 also had most of the schools with PTAs that raise the most amount of money each year. So for some of the schools in District 4, there’s not the same equity issues as there is for some of the schools in District 5. But those are uniform things.
District 4 is very large. It stretches from 580 all the way up to the top of the hill. As you’re going through neighborhoods like that there are going to be some differences. But I can’t stress enough how strange it is though, especially for me. My whole neighborhood, all of Glenview, has been redistricted. I’m still living in the same place. It’s still a lot of people who just voted for me two years ago. We’re just in another district now. And for me, thankfully, I have a lot of experience in a lot of schools across Oakland. So I’m very familiar with a lot of the schools in District 4. My junior high is being redistricted with me. I worked at Redwood Heights for three or four years and learned how to play baseball on that field. I know a lot of these schools in intimate ways already, which is nice, but it is a new group of schools to start to gain that same kind of familiarity with.
What initiatives do you think are going well in OUSD that deserve more attention?
Not to dodge the question, but I think it’s hard to tell right now because we have to remember, we’ve been in a pandemic and that has really changed everything. A lot of our data now is skewed because we have these pandemic years. I am, in the end, very proud of OUSD’s response to COVID and the pandemic. It wasn’t easy, and that’s really where my focus has been over these first 18 months also. Everything from making sure we brought regular COVID testing to our school sites, we had to navigate a vaccine mandate, we have air purifiers in every room, we went through masks and different things.
It’s because of the heroic work of a lot of folks that we were able to get through these pandemic years and I think in a lot of ways minimize the impact. But we can’t stay on this footing, this gray area anymore, and I’m worried about what the next school year is going to look like. I don’t know if we’ve put enough work into thinking about what school is going to look like next year. The superintendent is going on a 3-month sabbatical three weeks into the school year. What I think we really need to focus on is where our new normal is going to be and trying to structurally get there. And how do we use these new dollars coming in to make sure we’re building the kind of schools that we need? That’s where I’d like to focus more and we have a lot of things that still just haven’t been addressed in the district.
The other thing I wanted to stress in terms of OUSD’s response to COVID is that as a public education system and as a school district, we were asked to do a lot of stuff this last school year that should not be a school district’s responsibility. But when the city, the county, and the state isn’t doing it, the school district is going to try to step in and do that as well as it can. Whether that’s food or trying to even come up with financial support for the community. Testing, vaccines, PPE—it all kind of fell to the district. I think we did a fairly good job in trying to manage it when there was no playbook and we were starting from zero.
I’m excited to get to the point where [we’re further past] COVID. So for example, most of our central staff are still not back to working in person. You go to 1000 Broadway (the OUSD central office) and it’s empty. As a district, that’s not how we should function. So it’s kind of this wait-and-see. So far, since we’ve been receiving new resources, it’s kind of shielded us from some of this, but there is real work that lies ahead.
What are the things that you’re proudest of during your time on the board?
Our response to COVID and what I was able to push and get done. I authored the resolution to bring COVID testing tools to our school sites and convene community partners to help fill in the gaps. We had a vaccination pop-up at Fremont High that gave out 25,000 vaccinations. We were able to mobilize all of our resources to really try to push those things. I’m really proud of how I was able to get a lot of that jump-started.
Again, I’m really proud of how our finances look better now than when I came onto the board. When Superintendent Monroe sent the lack of going concern letter, I was able to help out with resisting that. My number one campaign promise was to end the blueprint, and we were able to get that done. I’m really happy that so far, OUSD has not done any new Prop. 39 offers while I’ve been on the board. I think it is an encouraging sign that both the number of charter schools and charter school enrollment is down about 10%. I’m proud that I’ve been able to live up to my campaign promises.
The other thing that I’m really happy about is that I’ve been able to form strong relationships with a lot of the senior staff members. It allowed me to be able to get things done even though we don’t always have the votes on the school board yet. Although we’ve been in a pandemic, and things have been tough, and I definitely haven’t been able to be at school sites and out and about like I would want, I’m excited about how much we’ve already been able to get done. Hopefully, we can really start ramping that piece up. And then we’re really poised to literally have a new direction going forward.