school board directors listening
The Oakland Unified School District board meets at La Escuelita Elementary School on June 29, 2022. Credit: Amir Aziz

Faithful attendees of Oakland Unified School District board meetings were given a reason to celebrate on Wednesday, when the board approved changes that will shorten its notoriously long sessions.

For the past several months, board members have been working with Carmella Franco, a consultant and expert in school district administration, to analyze time management during meetings. The new rules set the end time for meetings at 11 p.m., and allow for one 45-minute extension to 11:45 p.m. Previously, school board directors could vote to extend the meetings for as long as it took to get to the end of the agenda—which often led to meetings lasting from 4 p.m. until 1 or 2 a.m. 

The changes also reduce the amount of time that each director can speak during board discussions of agenda items, from five minutes to three minutes, and rearrange portions of the agenda. Staff and community recognitions, and reminders about upcoming meetings, will be removed. 

Public comment rules were also changed: They will no longer be accepted during the “unfinished business” and “new business” portions of the meeting. However, there will be new opportunities for the public to comment on the superintendent’s and student board members’ reports, and the two existing 30-minute sections for general public comment will remain.

Some community and board members pressed for further changes, especially regarding how the board engages with the public. 

“I am so disappointed that the board continues to limit public comment and public participation, and a good example tonight is limiting each speaker to one minute when you have a low number of speakers,” said community member Carol Delton. Delton also urged the board to consider making changes so that the board’s lengthy closed sessions, which typically last about 90 minutes to two hours, don’t cut into the public portions of meetings. 

The board also approved a resolution to continue allowing meetings to be virtual or hybrid for the month of September. Since October 2021, the board has approved similar resolutions on a monthly basis because of the pandemic. District 5 Director Mike Hutchinson, who has been a proponent of in-person meetings, pushed his colleagues to think about creating a more permanent hybrid meeting policy.

“I think we should be looking to codify how we plan on doing things going forward. It would be nice to have uniform procedures for how we’re going to do meetings, both school board meetings and our committee meetings,” he said. “We should be moving towards something that we don’t have to re-approve every month.”

Wednesday’s school board meeting did not include Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell, who began a three-month leave of absence on Wednesday. Sondra Aguilera, OUSD’s chief academic officer, will serve as interim superintendent until Johnson-Trammell returns at the end of November. 

“I’m honored to serve our school district in this way, and use what I have learned from being a teacher, a principal, and area superintendent,” Aguilera said during her opening remarks on Wednesday. “Success of the district does not rely on one individual. I will also do everything in my power to ensure that when Dr. Johnson-Trammell returns, she’ll be able to hit the ground running as if there were never any breaks in her leadership.”

Some school board directors have questioned the timing of the sabbatical; it comes at the beginning of the school year, a few weeks after security guards forcefully removed community members occupying a school, and in a year that will see five more schools shuttered. But it was approved in June by a majority of the board, who saw it as a way to ensure Johnson-Trammell’s longevity as superintendent.

Since assuming the role in 2017, Johnson-Trammell has steered OUSD through the COVID-19 pandemic, a teachers’ strike, and near budget insolvency. Five years in, Johnson-Trammell is the longest-serving OUSD chief in decades. 

Also on Wednesday, a point of contention arose over the bylaws for the Black Students and Families Thriving Task Force, a group that was convened following the board’s approval of the reparations for Black students policy in March 2021. The task force, which has been meeting monthly since September 2021, includes parents, community members, and OUSD staff and administrators. 

The task force is seeking to create bylaws that would set its number of members at 25, establish term limits for members, give the task force the authority to remove members, and allow the school board to fill vacancies, as opposed to the superintendent. Board president Gary Yee opposed the resolution because the superintendent has authority over the task force, and no other committee has bylaws.

“My understanding was that the board directed the superintendent to work with the community to build the task force,” Yee said. “For us to create bylaws for it does not make clear sense to me in terms of a precedent or any consistency among the various citizens’ groups that we have.”

In June, the board voted against establishing the bylaws for similar reasons and agreed to take up the issue again at a future meeting, which they did Wednesday. Again, the board voted them down for procedural reasons, and will possibly consider the issue in September. Some supporters of the task force said it was another instance of their work to bring reparations to Black students and families being blocked. 

“Since we passed this policy, there has been effort after effort to interrupt the work of this task force. Staff have not cooperated, the superintendent has not cooperated, the board has not cooperated,” said Pecolia Manigo, the chair of the task force and a candidate for the school board in District 4. “This is what we mean when we say there is structural racism. You passed this policy, you said you want the task force to do its tasks and then you come up here and interrupt that. That is bad governance.”

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.