OUSD school board member Kyra Mungia poses for a photo at Burckhalter Elementary School. Credit: Amir Aziz

District 6 Director Kyra Mungia, who was appointed by the school board in June to serve out the remainder of Shanthi Gonzales’s term that ends in January, is beginning her tenure at a crucial moment: Two schools in her district were closed earlier this year, and another is slated to shutter in 2023. At one of the closed schools, Parker K-8, OUSD-contracted security guards clashed last week with community members who have been occupying the campus in an effort to keep it open. Now the district is facing a possible lawsuit, and said it will be reviewing the incident. Meanwhile, elections are only three months away, and the school board could have a new makeup in January.

Mungia, whose day job is helping lead education policies in Mayor Libby Schaaf’s office, spoke with The Oaklandside about her priorities, building relationships, and what she hopes to address in the next five months. The interview has been edited for length.

Tell me about your background in education.

My commitment to this work doesn’t start with me but starts generations and generations back. My dad and his two brothers grew up as mixed kids before it was nearly as common as it is today to be mixed. Half Mexican, half Japanese, they were left to navigate the public school system themselves because their parents, my grandparents, were first generation immigrants and they didn’t have more than a middle school education. My dad wasn’t any smarter or harder-working than his two brothers. But somehow he got lucky. He got in the right classes at the right time, found teachers who took interest in him and challenged and pushed him. And my dad ended up being a first generation college student and the only one in his family to get an advanced degree. His brothers, my uncles, didn’t fare as well academically or professionally. But that’s not because of any failure on their part. Too often we see that so many families and individuals have to rely on that luck to be successful, but luck isn’t something anyone should have to count on. 

It wasn’t until I was older that I understood how lucky I was and the disparities that so many students across the country and here in Oakland experience. I’m fortunate that in addition to that luck, my dad also passed down his deep love for learning, which is what led me to become a teacher. I started out my career as an OUSD teacher at Horace Mann Elementary—love my Jaguars and always will—and worked hard with my students, their families, and my colleagues, but pretty quickly saw there were policies impacting them that I couldn’t control within the four walls of my classroom. So I had the opportunity to join the mayor’s education team, where I’ve worked for the last six years. 

I’m driven to reduce the barriers faced by so many Oakland families, and I believe Oakland’s education system can be a model across not only the state but the country, because I think the challenges that we’re facing are something that every school district across the state will be facing soon, if they are not already. And I’d say it’s a pretty make-or-break time in the district, so I’m really excited to be stepping into this role and really working to ensure that all students across Oakland, especially those who have been traditionally marginalized, get the access to quality education that they deserve.

What were some of the things you saw in your classroom at Horace Mann that made you want to be part of more systemic change?

I experienced budget shortfalls firsthand as a teacher. My principal did prioritize school supplies, but I saw colleagues at different schools not having paper and I would often try to get some extra paper for them. There were some basic things that were not covered, even at our school. I would often have to create a DonorsChoose or a GoFundMe to get some very basic supplies for schools and my kids paid for it, or it would come out of my own pocket. Far too often, teachers pay so much of their own money on things that should just be, again, basic necessities. And then that doesn’t even get to the extras that we know our kids deserve as well. So the biggest [issue] is the budget. 

I’d say another is just the deep level of distrust at every level of the district. We see that in the communication breakdowns between school sites and the central office. That happened when I was in the classroom. There would be decisions made about curriculum or professional development that no one understood or felt could be explained. Those are two that immediately come to mind.

What do you do as the deputy director of education in the mayor’s office?

I work in partnership with the mayor’s director of education and so many others to create the strategy and then implement it. The mayor has no formal jurisdiction over our PK-12 education system in Oakland. That is the superintendent and that is the school board. She recognizes that in order to have a thriving city, she needs a thriving education system, so it’s really us working in partnership with the school district, in partnership with nonprofits, with labor, with community partners, to meet the conditions outside of the classroom so that our students, our families, and our educators can thrive. 

That’s why a lot of our work has centered around [non-classroom], day-to-day stuff: teacher housing affordability, closing the digital divide, access to quality early education, and access to college and career supports. 

It is not a conflict for me to hold these two positions. After speaking with others who have held both a position on a school board and in a mayor’s office, I see it as more of a complement of interests and recognizing there’s so much interconnectedness between the two and I just need to be clear which hat I’m wearing when, so that I’m not confusing people or speaking on behalf of someone when I shouldn’t be. 

You’ve been appointed to carry out the remainder of Shanthi Gonzales’ term. While you’re also running for the seat, what kind of difference are you hoping to make in the next five months?

I am hoping that it is not only five months. I believe that consistency and stability are two really important factors that will help the board thrive. I have three priorities coming in as a board member. First, and most important, is really our students—ensuring that they get the quality education they deserve, making sure that all students in Oakland, especially our Black and brown students, who we so often have failed in the district, are getting that education and set up for success. Every decision that we make as a board should go back to how we’re giving that to our students. 

Second, ensure that we have a long-term, sustainable budget so that we can make the best decisions for our students. Everything goes back to that. I recognize it’s a hot topic, but I’m not wanting to stray from the reality that we’ve had budget issues for far too long and they continue to negatively impact our students, our families, and our educators. 

Third, acknowledging the deep levels of distrust, and working intentionally to rebuild it. There have been generations upon generations of things done to community members, by government, by systems, so it makes sense why there’s so much distrust even before some recent decisions that lacked transparency and engagement. I commit as a board member to open, transparent, and inclusive processes that include authentic engagement and clear feedback loops.

District 6 families saw two of their schools close this year and one more, Carl B. Munck Elementary, will close next year. How do you plan to connect with those families who feel betrayed by these school closure decisions?

I want to recognize first that that decision was obviously made before I joined the board and the impacts of that are rippled and long-lasting. And for those impacted it is deeply emotional, deeply personal, and I want to validate those feelings. I would love to build relationships with the three schools that have either already been impacted or are on the list for consolidation moving forward. I have already met with and been at Munck twice, and met with some of their teachers and the principal and I’m learning what they’re experiencing and seeing how I can best support. 

Where it gets a little harder is, again, the decisions that were made before I joined. I’m not trying to place responsibility elsewhere and I recognize that I am stepping into this role and seen as someone who already did that. There are folks who have been leading the charge at Parker, for instance, who I have deep appreciation and respect for and it is my understanding that at this point they are not ready to speak with me. I am ready whenever they are and would love to build relationships and ensure that I’m supporting every one of them. 

In the meantime, without connecting directly with those families and community members, on the back end, I have been really asking the district questions like, what do student trends look like for where students are going from La Escuelita middle, and where are we losing kids? Can we disaggregate those into race, language status, into special education? Do they have an IEP? Where are we supporting people and where are the gaps?

Some families and individuals in District 6 were unsupportive of the board’s decision to appoint you over other candidates. How do you plan to build trust?

I’m open to ideas. I think in terms of developing relationships, that’s exactly what it takes is those relationships. I am grateful for the schools that I already have relationships with—that I get to deepen them, the D6 schools. And then for the new schools, in terms of me not already having a relationship with them, I am starting to build them. At the end of the day, it takes showing up and being there and deeply listening and that’s what I intend to do.

How do you think school board meetings and governance can be improved?

I think that that is a super long conversation. And I really appreciate that there’s been a small group of board members prior to me joining who have worked on just that in partnership with the county. They are proposing some reorganizing of the agenda, and some time limits. I know, and I think that everyone else knows, that is not enough and there’s some cultural shifts that need to occur both for board meetings and for how the board interacts with and engages with the community. I think that unfortunately, for many people, board meetings are the only way that they feel like their comments, their input is even slightly heard. So I would love to work in partnership with others to find other ways to really engage folks. 

And I made this comment during our board retreat: I don’t think anyone can make their best decisions or can give their best work at 2 in the morning, and I don’t think anyone wants to be there at 2 in the morning, like members of the public either. I think we really need to be thoughtful around how we use our time to be, again, centering our students in every decision we make and making sure that our agendas and the time spent actually reflects that.

What is your reaction to the incident that happened at Parker last Thursday?

I’ve seen many of the videos and heard on-the-ground accounts of that evening and I’m working to understand the situation. Even though it wasn’t on the agenda, I created space at the start of Friday’s board retreat to call for a thorough review of events and I will continue to advocate for an investigation going forward. From the videos I have seen and accounts I’ve heard, I want to make clear that I firmly believe inappropriate attacks or physical violence of any sort against students, against parents, against community members or anyone else are absolutely unacceptable. As I step into this role, I want them working towards a path of reconciliation. And I would love to work in partnership with others to do so, so that ultimately, all of our students can thrive.

Given that you’re brand new on the OUSD school board, what is something that you are eager to learn more about?

So many things. I’ve had the chance to meet with students from Californians For Justice as well as [All City Council] and really hear their priorities and how they best see what partnership could look like. Some things that came up were a stable budget, mental and behavioral health, Oakland youth vote, making sure young people’s voices are truly heard and not tokenized. Which could look like students being on committees, things like that. And again, my goal is to really center students and lift up their voices whenever I can. So those are some of the things that I’m excited to dive into and roll up my sleeves on. 

I know one of the items coming to tomorrow’s board meeting is the 45-day interim budget, and I’ve really enjoyed diving more into that to understand the situation that we are in now.

What are you looking forward to?

I’m looking forward to creating as much joy, as much learning, as much happiness and success on our school sites, on our campuses, for our kids. When I think of what a successful, thriving OUSD is, I picture going to a school site and seeing engaging conversation—where students are so excited about their learning that their butts are out of their seats because they’re leaning into the work. That is a super cheesy answer, but that is why I’m here. And I look forward to doing it in partnership with our students, in partnership with the community. In practice, it’s looking at the budget, looking at our policies that will ultimately lead us there.

When it comes to OUSD’s budget spending, what stands out to you?

I really appreciated [OUSD Chief Budget Officer] Lisa Grant-Dawson and the board as a whole, their work around changing the narrative from, we think something is wrong, but we don’t necessarily want to talk about it, to actually acknowledging, oh, there’s something wrong and we need to talk about it

Forty-five days ago, it was clear that we were in a deficit. Since then, we didn’t necessarily take any action locally, but because of amazing advocacy at the state for more resources, the state gave two big chunks of ongoing money through LCFF base funding and the [cost of living] increase. That actually is putting us in a solid place for the first time in a while with a projected, at this point, $26 million or so surplus, which gives us an indication of stability. And now it’s on us to hold on to it. 

One thing that I just think is so important for everyone to be aware of is that we pay about $42 million in salaries for just a single month. And so when you look at that $26 million surplus that exists, that’s projected for this single year, that won’t even necessarily cover a single month. Then if you have a goal to improve the ongoing salary and compensation for our employees to actually make sure that our educators are compensated in the way they should be, then that structural deficit will just re-emerge. With inflation the way it is, recession right around the corner, I want us to be aware of that and thoughtful as we make decisions moving forward. I do think that there’s a real opportunity to do an analysis of our budget overall and ensure that we are maximizing dollars for our students, for the classroom.

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.