Three candidates are running for the District 2 seat on the Oakland Unified School District board this year. The incumbent, Aimee Eng, is stepping down after 8 years.
The schools in D2, which encompasses Crocker Highlands, Cleveland Heights, Eastlake, Chinatown, San Antonio, and other neighborhoods, were unaffected by the city’s recent redistricting. But one school, La Escuelita, shrank this year from a K-8 to an elementary as a result of the board’s decision in February to close and consolidate schools.
The D2 candidates are all parents, and include a long-time educator, and a former school board member. Their motivations for running range from opposing the recent school closures to wanting to revamp OUSD’s approach to budgeting and renew an emphasis on academic outcomes. We interviewed each to learn more about their positions, and are presenting them here in alphabetical order.
OUSD’s decision to close and downsize schools this year—including her own—is what motivated Brouhard to run for school board. A veteran educator, Brouhard retired from teaching this year after more than 30 years, mainly in Oakland Unified School District, as well as a few years in Berkeley. She taught seventh and eighth-grade humanities at La Escuelita last year, its final year serving middle schoolers.
“That is always the first line, that we need to close a school,” Brouhard said. “And I think that has to stop because absolutely nothing has shown that that’s improved the education of our students. In fact, I think it’s caused more disruption and more of our students are leaving the district.”
In February, the school board approved a plan to shut down seven schools with low enrollments. Parker K-8 and Community Day, an alternative school for students who are expelled from traditional OUSD schools, closed this year. Five more schools will close next year: Brookfield, Carl B. Munck, Grass Valley, Horace Mann, and Korematsu Discovery Academy. District officials have said that closing the schools will allow OUSD to reinvest resources in its remaining schools.
But Brouhard believes that closing schools only serves to worsen the district’s enrollment problem, and pointed to two of the recently impacted schools as an example. Parker K-8, which closed this year, saw 19% of its students leave the district. At La Escuelita, 24% of the students who would have attended middle school there, enrolled outside of the district. Losing those students, said Brouhard, means less money for all of the district’s schools.
To address budget concerns, Brouhard suggested that OUSD start with cuts that don’t directly impact school sites and classrooms, like central office administrator positions.
“As a classroom teacher, you see those cuts in the classroom, and they’re pretty draconian,” she said. “You’ll lose positions and people will be consolidated. I was at one school once where we had [grade] combination classes in every grade.”
Part of the reason OUSD has so many schools for its students is because of the small schools movement that took off in the 2000s, when OUSD established 40 new schools. Years later, some of those schools were consolidated back into larger schools, while others have been closed, like Roots Academy in 2019.
“They may be small, but they’re the school for the community. You can’t just close them now because it doesn’t make sense financially to do that, when you haven’t proven that closing them makes a difference,” Brouhard said. “I look at a school like Parker, where there are no other schools in that neighborhood. What does that say to those kids and those families?”
Like other school districts in California, OUSD is set to receive tens of millions of dollars in extra funding for its community schools, which are schools that provide services like health clinics, mental health resources, and restorative justice programs, in addition to academics. Brouhard believes that students, parents, and teachers should have input into how those funds are spent, as opposed to a top-down approach where plans are created by OUSD’s central office.
Brouhard earned her teaching credential in 1991 after her children started school at Glenview Elementary. She began her career at Brookfield Elementary supporting students with disabilities, and later taught at Crocker Highlands and Chabot elementary schools. Brouhard spent 17 years at Glenview Elementary, before leaving in 2018 to teach at Melrose Leadership Academy, and then La Escuelita. In 2016, Brouhard received a Fulbright teaching fellowship and studied in England for a year. Brouhard has been active in the Oakland Education Association teachers’ union, and her daughter is also a teacher.
When she was teaching, Brouhard felt the district changed its curriculum too often and could be doing more to invite parents to share ideas and feedback. A recent TIME article examined the recent literacy curriculum changes in OUSD and their impacts on the district’s reading scores. Some literacy advocates are pushing for OUSD to return to a previous more phonics-heavy curriculum, and the local NAACP chapter filed an administrative petition against OUSD last year demanding district officials take action to improve literacy scores.
“As a teacher, and as a special education teacher, I know that when you’ve found a strategy that works for a kid, you let them practice that same strategy over and over and over again, until it becomes just second nature to them. But if you’ve got Open Court for two years, and then you’ve got ‘balanced literacy’ for another couple years, then it’s just chaotic,” Brouhard said, referring to two approaches to teaching students to read. “A kid could literally have three or four different programs throughout their entire time in OUSD.”
The constant curriculum changes and school closures contribute to a culture of instability that causes families to lose trust in the district and could be a reason for the declining enrollment, Brouhard said. Another one of Brouhard’s priorities is reparations for Black students, which the OUSD board supported in a resolution passed in March 2021. That policy established a task force to identify indicators to measure Black students’ success, fundraise money to support Black families, and examine the effectiveness of district’s current programs meant to improve Black students’ academic achievements.
“We need to do a needs assessment of each of the schools in Black and brown communities and work with parents, staff, teachers, and students to really determine what things are needed,” Brouhard said. “We have to repair that harm, because that is where the schools have been closed. And that’s often where there’s been more instability.
Kakishiba came to the East Bay when he was 20 years old and has spent most of his adulthood working with EBAYC, previously the East Bay Asian Youth Center, where Kakishiba is currently the executive director.
After a third-place finish in this year’s race for Alameda County Supervisor in District 3, Kakishiba, who previously served on the Oakland school board from 2005 to 2013, decided to run for the board once again because of what he perceives to be a lack of urgency from the current board and district leadership to improve learning outcomes for students.
“You go to all these different candidate interviews and candidate forums and rarely does anybody talk about the fact that more than two-thirds of our young people are not reading at grade level,” Kakishiba said. “And we’re not really recognizing that our academic achievement and other social outcomes are far from satisfactory. In fact, people should be angry about it.”
For the 2018-2019 school year, the last pre-pandemic testing year, 33% of OUSD students met or exceeded grade-level standards in reading on the Smarter Balanced Assessments, the state’s standardized tests, compared with 51% of students across the state. During the 2020-2021 school year, the most recent year for which data is available, about 56% of OUSD students met reading standards, but far fewer students took the test that year because of the pandemic.
If elected to the board, Kakishiba said one of his first moves would be to form a board committee focused on school improvement. The committee could establish metrics beyond test scores and graduation rates, he said, including things like attendance, school-discipline data, and surveys to measure how connected students feel to peers and the adults at their schools. Armed with that data, the district could then devise strategies to improve those metrics.
Like Brouhard, Kakishiba believes the district has work to do to restore trust with families. To achieve that, he said the board needs to do a better job of adhering to its previous statements and resolutions passed in good faith.
“If we passed a resolution in the aftermath of a teacher strike, talking about school closures, and that articulates a process or a sentiment or direction, and then spinning on a dime and just disregarding that … that brings a tremendous amount of distrust,” Kakishiba said, referring to a resolution at the center of a one-day unfair labor practices strike that OEA held earlier this year. “We as a body have to uphold our own collective integrity to the public.”
Since stepping down from the school board in 2015, Kakishiba has remained active in OUSD. He served as chair of the Measure N commission, which helps to fund local high schools,, and currently chairs the district’s commission for Measure G1a parcel tax that supports arts and music education in middle schools, and teacher retention. Kakishiba is also a parent whose children attended OUSD schools.
During his previous time on the board, Kakishiba voted to close schools, but said he disagrees with OUSD’s current school-closure plan because he doesn’t have faith that the savings will be spent on improving existing schools or increasing teacher and staff pay.
“There was no attempt to have a side letter with the teachers’ union or any other bargaining unit for redirecting school savings from closures onto the bargaining table,” he said. “My opinion is that the school district, as a public institution, has historically lacked the organizational discipline and leadership to follow through on the things that we say publicly that we’re going to do.”
The district, he added, lacks a cohesive plan for school reorganization that takes into account facilities, attendance boundaries, enrollment policies, and racial and social integration.
“I think it’s important for the school district to develop such a plan, and it has to engage a lot more people, including city government and county government. And it has to look at this 10 years out and 20 years out—it’s not just about next year,” he said.
Kakishiba also wants to see the board and district revamp its budgeting process. Currently, he said, the board too often approves contracts and budget items that are unattached to specific goals or learning outcomes. Kakishiba said he would work to align school budgets with the learning goals established by a special committee. He would also examine whether some services located at the district’s central office could be reduced or moved to school sites.
Orozco, an OUSD parent, got involved in school board politics after the announcement earlier this year that his daughter’s school, La Escuelita, would be losing its middle school.
Orozco’s primary campaign focus is to reverse the board’s decision to close and downsize schools. He believes that the board should instead consider reducing the number of administrators the district employs, or their salaries, to save money. Although OUSD has closed schools before, Orozco said this year’s closures spurred him to action because his community would be affected.
“Unfortunately, [in the past] I was like many parents and believed that that was not really going to affect me. And I believed that possibly the district could have been right, that by closing a couple of schools, it was going to fix this so-called deficit that the district is suffering,” he said. “I’ve noticed all the damage and the hurt, and how students are emotionally suffering from the schools being closed.”
La Escuelita enrolled about 388 students last year, including 295 in elementary and 93 in middle school. OUSD officials have said that enrollments below 304 students are financially unsustainable for elementary schools. But some parents, like Orozco, value their small schools for the sense of community they cultivate.
To address declining enrollment, Orozco believes the district should make sure that all schools have resources like arts programs, staffed libraries, and computers. He also pointed to OUSD’s lack of language programs in Mandarin and French, while there are Oakland charter schools that offer those immersion programs, as a reason why some families may opt out of OUSD schools.
Orozco is also among a group of community members and students who have been occupying Parker K-8 since it was officially closed at the end of last school year, and he was injured in an altercation in August between community members and OUSD security guards. The incident was caught on video and is currently being investigated by the district. Orozco and others are demanding the district reveal who dispatched security guards to Parker and offer an apology to those who were injured.
Orozco’s son was part of La Escuelita’s first eighth-grade graduating class, and his daughter is currently in fifth grader at the school. He had hoped that his youngest children could attend the school for kindergarten through eighth grade as well. “That’s the same routine that I’ve been doing for the past 13 years. And that has been truncated.”
Another of Orozco’s priorities is raising teacher pay to increase retention. OUSD teachers earn close to $53,000 in their first year.. Eighty-four percent of first-year teachers during the 2020-2021 school year returned to teach in OUSD the following year, up from a low of 78% in 2016-2017, according to district data. In a survey earlier this year, 54% of OUSD teachers said their salaries make them want to leave the district, compared with 20% of OUSD central office staff, 40% of principals, and 35% of school support staff who said the same. Fifty-eight percent of teachers said housing and cost of living in the Bay Area made them want to leave the district.
Orozco added that he ultimately wants to see more parent and community involvement in school board and education issues in Oakland.
“I decided to run because we have to put a stop to this racism that is happening right now to our Black and brown students. We have to stop the school closures,” Orozco told The Oaklandside. “We need a person that will be listening to the community and that is going to be fighting for the students, that is not going to be privatizing our schools and that will not be selling our resources.”