The District 4 race for the Oakland Unified School District board includes two newcomers and a current board member. Because of a redistricting change, current District 5 Director Mike Hutchinson is choosing to run in D4 this year. The other candidates, Nick Resnick and Pecolia Manigo, are OUSD parents who want to bring their experience navigating the school system to the school board.
D4 spans much of the Oakland Hills and includes some of the most sought-after schools in OUSD: Hillcrest, Montclair, Thornhill, Joaquin Miller, Glenview, Sequoia, Redwood, Laurel, and Allendale elementary schools; Bret Harte, Edna Brewer, and Montera middle schools; a pre-K program at Allendale, and early childhood development centers at Laurel and Kaiser.
The average demand rate for D4’s eight elementary schools was 109% last year, meaning more families applied for those schools than the number of seats available. The average demand rate for all of OUSD’s 52 elementary schools was around 63%.
Hillcrest, a K-8 school, will be impacted by OUSD’s closure and consolidation plan. It is slated to become only an elementary school at the end of this school year.
The Oaklandside spoke with the three D4 candidates about what they’d do to reestablish trust with the community, make academics a greater focus for the board, and how OUSD should address school closures going forward. They’re presented below in alphabetical order.
Hutchinson didn’t expect to be running another campaign just 18 months after he first took office. But when the city’s redistricting commission decided on a map that placed his long-time family home in D4, he made the decision to join the race. Legally, Hutchinson could remain in his D5 seat through 2024, the end of his original term, but he believes that Oakland’s school board directors should live in the districts they represent. If he loses the race for D4, he’ll remain as the D5 director. If he wins, the board will likely appoint someone to replace him in D5.
Hutchinson’s platform remains largely the same as it was during his previous campaign: ending school closures, balancing the district budget, ending the state and county’s extra oversight of OUSD, and opposing charter school expansion. Prioritizing those issues has been difficult since he joined the board, said Hutchinson, in part because of unforeseen challenges caused by the pandemic.
“We have yet to begin the work of figuring out what we need to do to remedy some of the new issues that came up during the pandemic, whether it is students being behind where we think they should be because of the lost school time, or the mental health issues, or a whole variety of issues,” Hutchinson said.
The pandemic also prevented in-person school board meetings for much of 2021 and some of 2022, making community engagement harder at a time when board directors were embroiled in important discussions about the district budget. When the board voted in favor of closing schools early this year, some community members accused it of rushing the decision without enough public feedback. Restoring trust with the community is one of Hutchinson’s top priorities for 2023, and he believes that reversing the school-closures decision is the first step.
Hutchinson has been a critic of school closures since 2012, when Santa Fe Elementary and Maxwell Park Elementary, schools where he worked, were both shut down. Rather than close schools with low enrollments, he’d like to see OUSD introduce a process to redesign and improve them, with input from school leaders, teachers, families, and community members. The school plans could include changes to academic programs as well as facilities improvements, he said. He pointed out how enrollment increased at Fremont High School after that campus was renovated—the D5 school now enrolls more than 1,000 students, up from about 771 four years ago.
He is critical of OUSD’s Blueprint for Quality Schools plan, launched in 2018, which sought to provide quality schools in every neighborhood by evaluating and reconfiguring the school landscape. The plan resulted in the closures of Kaiser Elementary and ROOTS International Academy, added seats at Coliseum College Prep Academy, MetWest High School, and Melrose Leadership Academy, and merged several other schools.
“The stated agenda was to expand access to quality. The school board at that time did that by trying to expand the enrollment of a dozen schools that were perceived as quality schools. I think that’s the wrong way to go about it,” Hutchinson said. “There has long been this belief that you have to go up the hill to get a quality education. That’s what we need to work against.”
At a school board meeting earlier this month, Chief Business Officer Lisa Grant-Dawson shared that OUSD’s general fund balance had grown to more than $47 million, up from $10 million in the 2020-2021 school year and a deficit of nearly $6 million during the 2019-2020 school year. But few people attend the board’s budget and finance committee meetings, where they’d have an opportunity to dive into the budget numbers, Hutchinson said.
While full school board meetings are held at La Escuelita twice a month and live-streamed online, the monthly budget and finance, charters, and facilities committee meetings still happen exclusively over Zoom. Hutchinson hopes that in 2023, committee meetings can be held in person again to invite more input from the community on budget priorities.
“It is hard for us to get anything done at this point [because] the community does not trust what they hear from most of the school board and from the district itself,” Hutchinson said. “So whether by having better messaging, including the community in decisions, [or adjusting] the way our outward facing school board meetings are set up and run, we need to do an explicit job of restoring the trust.”
Doing so will be especially important in the coming year, said Hutchinson, since the district should have meaningful revenue to put to use to improve Oakland’s public schools. In addition to increased funding from the state’s budget surplus, OUSD could also soon benefit from the payoff of a loan that’s saddled the district for two decades.
Last year, Hutchinson, along with directors VanCedric Williams and Aimee Eng, put forward a resolution committing funds to pay off the remainder of the $100 million state loan that OSUD received while under state control from 2003 to 2009. Once it’s paid, OUSD will still need to pass a financial audit, but the district will be one step closer to freeing itself from additional state and county oversight of its budget.
Despite fierce disagreements at times with his colleagues, Hutchinson said he’s accomplished a number of goals by working with other school board directors to pass resolutions. He noted the commitment to pay off the loan, the reparations for Black students policy he brought forward with directors Williams and Thompson, and a resolution he co-sponsored with former District 6 Director Shanthi Gonzales to allow children who aren’t vaccinated against COVID-19 to remain at school, as three examples.
“It’s very Oakland: We have these connections all over the place, that just cut different ways for different issues,” he said of the strong opinions about education that people in the city hold. “Some of the leaders of charter networks are people who I grew up with and I’ve known my whole life. I think it’s important that we can find ways to work together, even if it’s not on every issue, and I’m proud of my ability to be able to do that.”
As a nonprofit leader and a mother of three, Manigo spends her days training parents to become leaders in their school communities, while navigating the OUSD system and trying to make it more friendly to families, especially Black families. In encouraging other parents to use their voices, Manigo realized she too could take on a bigger role by running for the school board.
“I got to a point in May where I was just like, I can’t keep squeezing my testimony into two minutes. I needed to do more than that,” Manigo said, referring to the amount of time public speakers typically get to comment at school board meetings. “I needed to step up and be willing to be on the other side of the podium and put my experience to good use in a different kind of way.”
Manigo’s platform centers on providing more support to teachers and staff so that they remain in the district, creating a more transparent budget process, and re-establishing community trust and confidence in OUSD.
Manigo is the executive director of Bay Area PLAN, a parent advocacy organization. Her children attend the Spanish immersion schools Melrose Leadership Academy and Manzanita SEED. At the latter, Manigo helped launch a Black family-engagement committee. She also serves as the chair of OUSD’s Black Students and Families Thriving Task Force, which was created by the reparations for Black students policy.
Manigo chose to run for school board because she believes it should include the perspective of someone who is actively navigating the school system. Right now, the school board has just one member, District 1 Director Sam Davis, who has a child in an OUSD school.
“When you have as much fluctuation in enrollment as OUSD has been experiencing—one board meeting in August where we’re up in enrollment, and three board meetings later, we lost enrollment—that’s a signal that people don’t trust your system to do its very function,” Manigo said.
Manigo, like Hutchinson, believes the best thing OUSD can do to restore relationships with community members is reconsider its decision to close schools, which came eight days after the final plan was made public.
“Rescind that decision and go back to the drawing board and really engage Oakland in a process of saying, ‘Here are the constraints that we need to resolve. What can we really invest in and what are the things we might not have the resources to invest in?’” she said.
OUSD needs to honor its previous commitments regarding school closures, she said, like conducting community engagement for at least one school year before voting to close schools, and examining the equity impacts of proposed closures before making a decision, neither of which the board adhered to this year.
She also pointed to Assembly Bill 1912, first brought forward by Assemblymember Mia Bonta on the heels of OUSD’s vote to close schools. The bill will require districts considering school closures to create a set of metrics for things like facilities conditions, student demographics, traffic and transportation, and school attendance patterns, to better forecast the impact of potential closures and make that analysis public before a vote is taken. The bill was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom earlier this month.
Manigo is pushing for greater transparency, especially around the district’s budget process. She wants to see OUSD adopt a “zero-based” budgeting strategy, where the budget is built up from zero every year, instead of carrying over the previous year’s budget and making adjustments to it for the coming year. Starting from scratch on an annual budget of more than $700 million won’t be easy, said Manigo, but it will help OUSD be more accountable for its finances.
In addition, departments within OUSD should be made to present their annual budgets to district leaders to justify their expenses, said Manigo. Similarly, Alameda County and the city should provide more clarity on how their investments are supporting OUSD.
“If we say we want students to achieve learning how to read, write, and do math and science, and we’re not 100% clear on where that $700 million we’re investing to make that goal possible, how can you actually say that your investments and your goals are aligned?” said Manigo.
Teacher compensation and facilities improvements are high on Manigo’s list of spending priorities. “I have yet to see us discuss, on an intimate level, what it would look like to get to the salary scale that’s competitive with other districts surrounding the Bay Area,” Manigo said.
To improve school board meeting dynamics, Manigo supports creating a curriculum and instruction committee, something OUSD had prior to the state takeover. Doing so would allow the full school board meetings to be shorter, she said, since committees can hash out the most contentious items ahead of time.
One in three members of the Oakland Education Association—the teachers union that also includes nurses and counselors—are in the first five years of their career. A teaching force that young, said Manigo, requires a greater level of investment and support to ensure they don’t burn out.
Having more support in place for educators, she added, will also benefit students academically in the long run. For Manigo, the message to students needs to be: “Wherever you’re at, we’re going to work with you and get you there.”
Resnick, father to a 4-year-old and a 7-year-old Sequoia Elementary School student, said he was motivated to run in part because of the inequities he observed during his time as an OUSD teacher. Fifteen years ago, Resnick taught at Community Day School, which served students who had been expelled from OUSD’s traditional middle and high schools. Community Day School was closed earlier this year as part of OUSD’s school closure plan and as a result, students expelled from OUSD schools will now be referred to Alameda County programs.
Resnick saw how a lack of support in their previous schools led his students to wind up at Community Day.
“So many of them had just been so disenfranchised by the schools they were coming from. They didn’t have access to different types of electives or community partners or a lot of programs that you might see [at other schools] across the district,” Resnick said. Seeing their needs go unmet by the school district, he said, “put me on this track of trying to figure out what was happening across our city and why it appeared that some students from some neighborhoods were provided an academic program that actually set them up to be engaged in school or to feel like they belonged there,” while others weren’t.
Resnick, currently the CEO at Inquiry By Design, a literacy curriculum company, said his top priority as a school board director would be academic achievement and identifying opportunity gaps by introducing a committee to monitor data in tandem with the OUSD’s investments in academics.
“No school district or organization I’ve worked with has been able to achieve its goals without assertively monitoring its progress towards them. So I will be making progress on the school board when at least 50% of our agenda and the minutes relate back to our academic goals and we’re held accountable by the community for those metrics,” Resnick said.
At OUSD, those academic goals include ensuring strong readers by third grade, making sure middle school students are prepared for high school, and increasing the number of high schoolers who graduate and meet the entrance requirements for public colleges and universities in California.
Resnick criticized OUSD for being initiative-heavy, spreading investments wide instead of deeply focusing on core needs. As a teacher, this meant spending more time, often unpaid, figuring out how best to implement the newest programs, Resnick said. In addition to having fewer strategic initiatives, he said the district should be providing more support, including paid planning time, for teachers to try them.
Attrition rates in D4 are another concern of Resnick’s, especially following elementary school. While D4 elementary schools are some of the most competitive in Oakland to get into, many families from those schools leave OUSD after fifth grade. Last year, more than half of the fifth graders at Montclair and Thornhill went to a middle school that was not a district school or a public charter, making them the elementary schools with the highest attrition rates in OUSD. District-wide, the attrition rate between the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years was about 17%, according to district data.
Resnick would like OUSD to get to a place where families feel comfortable committing to the district through 12th grade. “That would take a focus on building a bridge between our elementary schools and our middle schools,” Resnick said. “I think there is more that we can do to make sure that our elementary school families really understand the programming and support, as well as feel like they have a place at our middle schools.”
D4 has three middle schools: Bret Harte, Montera, and the highly sought-after Edna Brewer. Located in Glenview, Edna Brewer received 553 first-choice applications last year for only 241 sixth-grade slots. Montera and Bret Harte received a combined 233 first-choice applications for 333 spots.
To alleviate that imbalance, Resnick said OUSD should talk to parents and community members at Edna Brewer about what programs that school has that can be brought to other schools. He also encouraged groups of elementary school families to band together and commit to going to an OUSD middle school even if they don’t get their first choice.
“I think Bret Harte has the power to be an Edna Brewer in five or 10 years if families are committed to going there in the same way families committed back in 2010 to Edna Brewer,” said Resnick.
Like other candidates, Resnick disapproved of the way OUSD handled its school closure decision this year, and believes district leaders should have abided by previous commitments to conduct equity analyses and spend more time engaging with the impacted communities. But ultimately, Resnick said having fewer schools could be one way to get more resources and programs to schools across the district. Hillcrest School, which serves kindergarten to eighth grade, is the only D4 school being impacted by the school board’s current closure plan. It will lose its middle school at the end of this academic year.
School closures should be viewed beyond their immediate ramifications, Resnick said. And while OUSD is making short-term decisions now, it should also be developing plans that envision the school landscape three, five, and 10 years out.
“Are we able to better educate our kids? And not just in District 4 schools and in a few schools across the district where principals secure grant funds, but for all of our children?” Resnick said. “If we can’t do that at the scale we are right now—which we can’t—then I think we need to be responsible for lifting that up and coming up with alternative solutions. And school closures is one way to help us get there.”
Resnick, a transgender man, also sees his candidacy and possible board term as a victory for the LGBTQ community and families, during a time when LGBTQ books are being scrutinized in schools across the country. If elected, Resnick would be the first known member of the LGBTQ community to serve on the OUSD board.
“I think we’re at a really critical time in our country for these kids,” he said. “And I would love to be that representation just as a first step.”