candidates on stage at castlemont high school auditorium
Families in Action hosted a forum for Oakland Unified School District and mayoral candidates at Castlemont High School in Oakland, Calif. Credit: Amir Aziz

The candidates running for the Oakland Unified School District board can agree on one thing: The current board has lost its way, and needs fresh perspectives to get back on track. 

During a forum Thursday at Castlemont High School—one day after six people were injured in a shooting at a school campus in East Oakland—candidates spoke mostly about how they would bring a renewed focus on academics and student achievement to the board’s bimonthly meetings. 

The forum was hosted by Families in Action for Quality Education, an Oakland organization founded by charter school families to train parent and student leaders in education advocacy. The school board debate was followed by a mayoral debate.

At the beginning of the hourlong school board debate, candidates and moderators acknowledged the shooting that happened Wednesday afternoon at OUSD’s King Estates campus, which houses Rudsdale High School, Sojourner Truth Independent Study, and Bay Area Technology School, a charter school serving sixth to 12th grades.

“I have to first start tonight by recognizing and honoring all the victims of the shooting at the King Estates campus yesterday,” said Cesley Frost, the principal of BayTech’s middle school. “Our hearts go out to you. Right now, I’m pleading with you—the politicians, lobbyists, high-level decision makers—we have to prioritize and allocate the resources necessary to ensure that what happened yesterday never happens again.”

Several of the school board candidates also offered brief condolences to the victims of Wednesday’s shooting, which injured six people, including students and school staff at Rudsdale. Three victims remained in the hospital Thursday. All of the victims were 18 or older. Police have not released the names or exact ages of the victims, citing safety concerns. 

But candidates spent the bulk of the evening discussing the need for academic improvement across the district, their differing opinions on charters, and how to best manage the OUSD budget.

Of the nine school board candidates, five attended the forum: District 2 candidates David Kakishiba and Max Orozco, District 4 candidate Nick Resnick, and District 6 candidates Joel Velasquez and Kyra Mungia. District 2 candidate Jennifer Brouhard, District 4 candidates Mike Hutchinson and Pecolia Manigo, and District 6 candidate Valarie Bachelor did not attend. 

Improving academics in Oakland schools

To improve educational outcomes for students, District 2 candidate and former OUSD board member Kakishiba proposed reforming Measures G and G1, two of OUSD’s parcel taxes. Measure G brings in about $21 million per year to support OUSD libraries, teacher retention, and arts and music programs, while G1 raises about $12 million per year to support middle school arts and music classes and retain teachers. Kakishiba suggested reforming Measure G to focus solely on elementary schools while G1 should focus on middle schools. 

Members of Families in Action watch the school board candidates debate OUSD academics during a forum at Castlemont High School on Sept. 28, 2022. Credit: Amir Aziz

He said he would like to see the measures modeled somewhat after Measure N, OUSD’s college and career readiness parcel tax. 

“Ninety percent of all those tax dollars go directly to school sites, school leaders develop plans, and there is a very strong and powerful public accountability process,” Kakishiba said about the positive aspects of Measure N. “So we are sunshining what is going on in our schools and figuring out how we’re going to support school leaders in addressing any of the barriers to their success.”

The college and career readiness parcel tax will go to the voters again in November, this time on the ballot as Measure H. 

District 4 candidate Resnick said his priority will be to push OUSD to deeply invest in fewer areas, rather than funding everything that comes to the board. Resnick, a parent of two, said his focus areas would be academic outcomes and student mental health.

“Right now across Oakland, we’re known for initiative overload, where we invest in everything that comes before us,” Resnick told the crowd of families, students, and school staff. “If you attend a school board meeting right now, you will recognize that they’re talking about everything except for student improvement, both academically and their social-emotional health.”

District 6 candidate and OUSD parent Velasquez tied academic outcomes to school closures.

“For the last two decades, we’ve been closing schools in Black and brown communities. We talk about providing resources, but how do we provide those things when we’re closing the physical space that all of us have? And it’s the only resource that a lot of us have,” he said. 

Velasquez has been outspoken about school closures for a decade. He was instrumental in an occupation of the now-closed Lakeview Elementary in 2012, and has also participated in protests at Parker K-8, where parents and activists have been occupying the school since it closed in May. 

Increasing fiscal responsibility at OUSD

To a question about improving fiscal responsibility, District 6 candidate Mungia noted that for the first time in years, OUSD is not projected to have a budget deficit. But there are still improvements to be made, she said, especially in regard to OUSD’s excessive administrative positions.

“OUSD pays 591% more in central office supervisory roles than other districts across California,” claimed Mungia, who is the current appointed director for District 6. “That’s not showing that our priorities are students.” The Oaklandside could not independently verify that number prior to publication.

Mungia and Resnick both said they’d like to see the district invest in teacher compensation to increase retention and ensure that educators from Oakland can live here and teach in Oakland schools. 

District 2 candidate Max Orozco addresses the crowd at the Families in Action candidates’ forum. Credit: Amir Aziz

Orozco, a District 2 candidate and parent, encouraged the crowd to speak up about how OUSD should invest one-time funds. He thinks the board should stop approving new positions at every meeting, end school closures, and focus on investing funds in schools and teachers.

“We have to bring this money for supplies and programs that our children need,” he told the crowd. “We can’t just stay quiet and let the district decide what they do with all this extra money.”

Kakishiba, also running in District 2, wants to see the board adhere to strict procedures about how money is being spent. 

“The school board passed a policy over 10 years ago that established that 88% of all district revenue would go directly to the operation of our schools and only 12% would be held for the overhead costs for the district,” he said .”That policy has been on the books, it has not been rescinded, and it has never been implemented.”

Oakland charter schools stir debate

While the forum was mostly friendly, the discussion did get tense during a “lightning round” when candidates were asked to give only yes or no responses. 

To a question of whether charter schools are public schools, Orozco and Velasquez chose to abstain, and they also declined to answer yes or no to a question of whether charter schools are entitled to public school facilities. Prop. 39, a state law, requires public school districts to make their buildings available to charter schools, even if those buildings are operating schools. Because of Prop. 39, many charter schools share campuses with OUSD schools.

Velasquez, Orozco, and other public school advocates have criticized the expansion of charter schools in Oakland, contending they compete with OUSD schools for students and funding. Charter schools receive public funding, but unlike district schools, they are overseen by unelected boards. 

Orozco and Velasquez’s non-answers received some heckling from a crowd of largely charter school families. Still, the candidates attempted to appeal to the audience.

“As a father, and as a proud Mexican, I want to represent my community and my people. I’m fighting for these children,” Orozco said. “The people that don’t have a habit of speaking out, I want to be their voice.”

“Whether we agree or disagree, I’m here to serve the families and children in this city, because we’re all on the same side,” Velasquez said in his closing remarks. “Somebody on the outside of our communities convinced us that there are sides here, and there are not. I hear the same stories from the same mothers and fathers and children that I’ve heard across the district for almost 20 years.”

Ashley McBride reports on education equity for The Oaklandside. She covered the 2019 Oakland Unified School District teachers’ strike as a breaking news reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. More recently, she was an education reporter for the San Antonio Express-News where she covered several local school districts, charter schools, and the community college system. McBride earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University, has held positions at the Palm Beach Post and the Poynter Institute, and is a recent Hearst Journalism Fellow.