VanCedric Williams, Oakland Unified School District 3 Director poses for a photo in front of Ralph J. Bunche Academy in West Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

VanCedric Williams began his 23rd year of teaching last week, welcoming ninth and 10th-grade students to his world history and English classes at Thurgood Marshall Academic High School in San Francisco. After years of commiserating with other educator friends in both San Francisco, where he works, and Oakland, where he lives, Williams was challenged by a friend to run for the OUSD school board in 2020 to try to change things. 

Representing District 3, which includes West Oakland, downtown, and Adams Point, Williams has been a vocal critic of the district’s budget management and decision to close schools. In an interview with The Oaklandside, Williams spoke about where he thinks OUSD should be investing, the legacy of McClymonds High School, and rebuilding trust with the community.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What drives you as a school board member?

What drives me is trying to work in a system to do right for our young folks. As an educator myself, I have seen all kinds of students—150 every year for 23 years. I’ve seen students come with no shoes, no clothes, unhoused. My experience was that I would have good relationships with my students, but sometimes they would go to other classes and not do so well. And when it came time to graduate, some of our students were being directed to continuation and alternative schools and I felt that was really unfair. 

My students were very intelligent. They were inquisitive, had a great sense of humor, but they couldn’t figure out how to navigate the system. I felt that the education system was not working for all students. It had uneven results. And so that has really motivated me. I made a promise to my students that I would try to fix it. 

During the last school board meeting, you said that even if OUSD gets out from under the fiscal oversight by the county in the state, you’re not sure the board will be able to manage OUSD’s budget. Why do you feel that way?

So in my two and a half years on the board, I’m really feeling as if board members are not actually educated to make the best decisions possible. Oftentimes, the board members receive a budget agenda item only 72 hours before a board meeting. That really is very little time to look through the budget or ask questions, especially if any of the board members are working (at other jobs). Sometimes there are presentations by board staff to board members to get our input, but oftentimes, I believe that board members can be manipulated and vote against their own interests. When they only have one side of information, they don’t get a chance to look at both sides of a particular financial decision. 

I just think that our board members need to be better educated in regards to making decisions that affect the whole school district. I think that some board members have personal agendas. I think some board members have been serving special interests as well. And so I’m always concerned with that. I think that to grow our district, to move our district forward, we can only move it at the speed of trust, and we as board members need to really come together and find some alignment in what is best for our community. 

The budget shows our priorities 100%. And at times, we are asked to cut positions, then add positions, and then cut positions. There’s this cycle and it doesn’t show that we actually are managing the budget very well. I just think that board members could do better. If they don’t get the proper training or the proper information, can they make the proper decisions?

What kind of training do you think is necessary?

What we started recently are our board retreats, which actually give the board members an opportunity to do in-depth study. Just recently we had a board study on board protocol and procedures. That was really the first time that we got involved in asking what is expected of the board, how do we move, and what are the proper protocols to work together to make decisions.

I think that we should have quarterly retreats where we either have a financial analysis to help us look at the budget, or have the [chief budget officer] actually do a training. I think that that’s really important because just going to a budget and finance meeting and listening to the [chief budget officer] is one thing, but actually looking through the numbers and the various categories or the codes and understanding how each of them operates is something else. 

What are your budget priorities?

My priority actually is to audit the central office. I think what the board members of the past have experienced is that our budget office makes a presentation to tell us why we need to close schools and they use a budget formula that is comparable to other districts. That is something that has been pushed on the board consistently for every board decision to close schools. I think that’s an unfair evaluation. I think that our district should first look at itself, evaluate itself, and audit itself. I think that our particular central office has excessive positions. If we bring that down in line we would possibly save close to $30 million. 

Second is looking at priorities. We’ve had to actually look at our investments in our particular school sites, and one of the things that we use as a formula is not just enrollment, but [average daily attendance]. The enrollment office has the capability of balancing out the enrollment requests from [families], but we don’t see that happening. So what happens then is certain schools are underfunded because they’re under-enrolled, and other schools are always at 90% capacity. We really need to look at our enrollment office to see why there’s constantly so much uneven enrollment throughout the district. Now, some folks will say because of academic performance, but again, then it should cause the district to say we need to invest in those schools rather than starve them out and close them out.

Do you believe school closures are necessary?

I think reconfiguration is a necessary step. Yes, we have lost 20,000 students. So we should take a look at what we have done to lose those 20,000 students. But at the same time, I am a firm believer that small class sizes produce results and our district should actually look to continue to support and invest in small class sizes. 

When I say reconfiguration, reconfiguration is a conversation between the community and the school district as to how best to utilize the school site. So I think as a board or as a district, we need to actually have community input and parent voice in regards to any type of financial conversation that may happen at school. It doesn’t necessarily mean that schools should be closed, but it may be some other type of process that could take place. That process could be a reconfiguration from a K-8 school to K-6, and really focus on looking at the curriculum for K-6 and providing services for those students. But really, what our schools have missed prior to school closures is actually a needs assessment. 

My main point is, I don’t think school closures are necessary a lot of the time. I understand that there has been a decrease in enrollment over 20 years, but the problem is actually the district’s application of putting schools up for school closure. They haven’t figured out a way to equitably do this. It tends to always happen in marginalized communities, lots of Black and brown students. I just don’t think closing schools in Black or brown neighborhoods actually solves the budget issue. 

For example, for this last slate of closures, the district didn’t even take time out to engage the community. So I think the process is just not adequate enough. I think that our schools are all community schools, and we should really make sure that we have partnership with community, family, labor partners, to make decisions that are best for the community, not just a one-size-fits-all to close a school site. 

McClymonds High School has dealt with lead and other environmental issues over the past several years. Now that the school is receiving Measure Y funds to upgrade its facilities, what’s the best process to determine how to spend those funds?

McClymonds really has a long legacy and has been a pillar in the community and it doesn’t get enough respect from the school district. The problem is that the school itself needs a lot more than what the district would like to allocate. Right now, it’s at $65 million. The community has asked the district to invest in McClymonds at least $75 million to $80 million. 

There are more than just the lead pipes. There’s the HVAC systems, there is the landscaping, there’s the cafeteria, there is the gymnasium, there’s the football field. McClymonds has won three state championships in four years and has one of the most challenging fields. There’s the bleachers, there’s the exterior, there are so many challenges, and this has been deferred maintenance by the school district. McClymonds is last on the list, and it should not have been last on the list with its legacy and history. 

I think this basically comes down to gentrifying West Oakland. If you can actually squeeze the students out of McClymonds to a place where it’s no longer an African-American, historically Black high school, if you can actually push these students out, then you could change the composition of the school. And I think that the district has chosen to do as little as possible [in order to] drive students out and then continue to wait for gentrification to take its place. But no longer are we going to wait for that. We have a community that is actively involved. They are watching every board meeting, they’re watching every conversation about the Measure Y bond, and they’re demanding that the district do more than just throw a few chips at McClymonds. 

We know if you build it or you rebuild it, students will come. The district has spent over $130 million on Fremont High School. At Fremont, enrollment has increased. Why? Because students want to go to a newer, updated school. If we do that for McClymonds, the enrollment will increase, and demand will be there. We just really have to have the will. The superintendent needs the will, the board needs the will to move this forward and invest in McClymonds. 

As the District 3 representative, can you advocate for more funds to go to McClymonds?

At every single community engagement, I have requested and even demanded an additional $10 million. It just seems like it all falls on deaf ears. What I’m hoping is, as we move forward towards the elections, we will have new board members that will understand the challenges, the history of the school district and McClymonds, and really get on board with actually doing what is right and in good faith and allocate the additional monies that are necessary as we move forward with renovating McClymonds. 

You teach in San Francisco Unified School District, which is dealing with some similar issues, like declining enrollment, budget troubles, and school board drama. What’s something that SFUSD does well that you think OUSD could learn from or adapt?

With SFUSD, the superintendent that just left actually left the school district with a $125 million deficit, which wasn’t there when he came. So I think the school district is under a lot of pressure. But the thing that I really liked that they’re working on is their recruitment of teachers. They have a pretty good program and engaging residencies, and co-partnerships with the universities to bring educators in. I think they’re doing a really good job on that. 

I think they do a good job as well on their professional development training. They provided a number of options for educators to train up. I think their relationship with educators—recently it has not been too good, to where they had challenges with their payroll department. But, prior, when I was the treasurer of the union over there, we really built a relationship on “bargaining for the common good.” We worked together to be able to get teachers raises and they got paid for their professional development. They passed a housing bond as well and they’re building up housing. So I think that the district was willing to work with [United Educators of San Francisco] for the time that I was a union representative and the treasurer to actually improve the working conditions and the pay conditions of our educators. 

The challenge to retaining teachers in OUSD is that they actually have what they call a “dead zone” in their salary, which means that their raises are pretty much frozen for 10 years. That is deplorable, and the district needs to do something about it. I’ve advocated for that. So we have teachers who teach for the first 10 years and then when they reach the dead zone, they transfer to a different district. The problem is retaining our teachers over an extended period of time of 20 years. Those teachers have mastery. And mastery actually helps academic performance. Our new teachers are great for taking on the job, but they’re not master teachers. They have to learn the job. And so we’re constantly in a cycle of replacing teachers. 

OUSD needs to actually pay teachers a qualified, very decent competitive salary from year one, all the way to year 20. Our policy in OUSD is, that if we pay a teacher we have to cut services. That just is not a sustaining policy. It doesn’t create investment in teachers or the community when you’re constantly saying when we have to pay someone we cut someone.

In terms of academic outcomes for students, what would you like to see OUSD focus on?

I think foundational learning is really important. I think that we have 50% of our kids in our Black and brown communities that are not at grade level and it is deplorable. It is horrible. We should be having every child leaving elementary school at grade level. 

Secondly, I think that to increase academic performance in our middle schools, we really should build out bridge programs between the eighth grade and the ninth grade, middle school, and high school. It’s really important because what we know in high school is that kids are coming into ninth grade at a low academic level. 

When we get into high school, I think it’s really important that we have more counselors versus having one counselor to 500 students. It is really sad and we should not accept that at all. Our students are not being advised on the best classes and what their decisions could be after high school. And we have schools with no nurses. We have many kids who may be unhoused or they have some particular challenges. We don’t have the medical services for them at times. Lastly, there are students who have disabilities that need to be included in the A-G program and we find that they’re often getting left out. 

We also could build out our dual enrollment program to make sure that if our students are not going to college, they may want to go to community college or career, trade, or pathway. If you asked me what the crown jewel of OUSD is, it is our linked learning system that has built out our career and college pathways. Our African American students have increased their graduation rates, so our district knows what to do. It’s just that the priorities are not there. 

What advice do you have for people who are running for the school board this year?

Talk to parents. We have a community that distrusts the school district and that is a shame. Many of our community parents and community members see, at meeting after meeting, the district making decisions that are anti-student, anti-family, and anti-community. There’s a big level of distrust and I think that any person who’s running for the school board will really have to understand that this is about bridging that gap of distrust, and actually understanding what the priorities of the needs of our communities are, especially our Black and brown communities. They’re under assault economically, politically, socially, and being pushed out of communities. There are food deserts, and we as a school district have a responsibility to build out schools as community schools. 

Secondly, I think that it’s important that they reach out to their labor partners. What we have again is underpayment for our labor partners. We have culture keepers, our school security, who are doing work, and they’re not paid very much. What is expected of these particular staff members and labor partners is to come work half a day for minimum wage. A lot of them can go work at Target or Starbucks and make more money. So our district really needs to pay folks and I think if you’re going to be ready for the school board, you should talk to your labor partners and find out what are the conditions on the ground, what are the conditions about pay, and how can they actually learn to support. I think that’s really crucial to move this forward. 

Lastly, I really think that any person who’s running needs to talk to students. Students are the reason why we’re here. The problem again at the board level is that we have adults making these decisions, and rarely do they talk to the students. Yes, we do have two student directors. But our district has not done enough to engage the conversation with our youth and our decision-making process.

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.