Three candidates are running to represent District 6 on the Oakland Unified School District board. It’s been a turbulent year for the East Oakland district, which has been at the center of Oakland’s school closures debate and saw its previous school board director, Shanthi Gonzales, abruptly resign in May after facing heavy criticism for her support of the district’s closure plan.
The candidates now vying for the seat are Kyra Mungia, a former teacher and the current director who was appointed by the board to serve out the remainder of Gonzales’ term, labor organizer Valarie Bachelor, and Joel Velasquez, an OUSD parent.
2023 has the potential to be another challenging year for the district, with Carl B. Munck Elementary slated for closure at the end of this school year. Two other District 6 schools, Parker K-8 and Community Day School, closed following the end of instruction last year. District 6 was also the site of a shooting at Rudsdale High School last month, which left six people injured, including students.
The Oakalndside interviewed each of the candidates about their platforms, and they are presented below in alphabetical order.
For Bachelor, many of the problems now confronting OUSD trace back to its pattern of closing schools, which was the motivation for her deciding to run.
“We are closing our campuses, pushing out our students, making them more vulnerable to gun violence and making them more vulnerable to the bad things in our society by not having the spaces for them to be able to get an education and get more opportunities,” Bachelor said.
Bachelor grew up outside of the Washington D.C. area, after immigrating to the U.S. from Bolivia as a child. She works as an organizer with the California Federation of Teachers and has lived in District 6 for the past two years.
District leaders supportive of the closures have said closing schools is necessary to balance the budget, and that the school district has too many schools for the number of students it has, straining resources. But Bachelor and others opposed to the closures have pointed out that after closing schools at the end of the 2021-2022 school year, the district saw higher attrition rates than anticipated—which also leads to less money for the district because school funding is tied to student attendance.
Nearly 1 in 5 students at Parker K-8 left OUSD entirely following the school’s closure, and at La Escuelita, which had its middle school shuttered, 1 in 4 students left the district, acting superintendent Sondra Aguilera said at a recent school board meeting.
“The decreases in staffing and utilities costs are really offset by the loss of students in the district and the loss of [average daily attendance] funding,” Bachelor said.
Instead of closing schools, Bachelor suggested OUSD could spend less on private consultants and service contracts with community organizations. During the 2020-2021 school year, OUSD spent about $33 million on these types of contracts, or roughly 5% of the district’s total spending that year.
Bachelor also proposed that OUSD trim costs by making cuts at the central office, especially for administrative positions. The district’s central office includes departments that cover the entire district and aren’t specific to school campuses, like payroll, human resources, the legal department, the office of equity, and more.
Because of the state budget surplus, OUSD will receive millions more in base funding and grants beginning this year—money that Bachelor feels could go to keeping schools open and investing in other areas.
“We have the funds. We don’t have the school board members currently on the school board that have the priority to support our students in our public education system,” she said.
To further strengthen OUSD’s financial situation, Bachelor recommended a “zero-based budgeting” approach, where the finance team would start each year’s budget from scratch instead of starting with the previous year’s budget. That way, Bachelor added, district officials can analyze spending and make sure that mistakes from past years aren’t continued the following year.
Addressing last month’s school shooting that injured six people at Rudsdale High School, Bachelor said that greater investment by OUSD in counselors, nurses, and restorative justice coordinators could help to prevent violence on Oakland’s campuses.
On academics, Bachelor, who is married to a teacher at Fremont High School, said she’s seen how frequent curriculum changes can take a toll on educators. Bachelor wants to see OUSD provide more preparation time, salary increases, and teacher supports, especially for veteran educators so they remain with the school district. She pointed to Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell’s current three-month sabbatical as an example.
“Why don’t we afford those kinds of luxuries to our educators so that they can gain more knowledge?” she asked.
Bachelor said the school closures and frequent curriculum changes have also served to erode trust in the district.. To increase confidence in OUSD, she said she would hold regular meetings with residents in her district, not just when there’s a crisis.
Bachelor lifted up Fremont High School as a model for other schools seeking to increase their enrollment. The school’s principal, Nidya Baez, has been proactive in visiting District 5 middle schools and encouraging families to choose Fremont. The school also recently underwent $133 million in renovations, which has helped. Fremont’s enrollment has been on an upward trajectory for the past four years, growing from 771 in 2018 to more than 1,000 students last year.
OUSD should also talk to charter school families in Oakland to learn what they like about their school, to see if those programs could be replicated in district schools to draw families back, Bachelor said. In Oakland, about a third of public school students are enrolled in a charter, which are public schools primarily authorized by OUSD, but run by their own unelected boards and management organizations.
“This takes bold leadership that isn’t just going to be cutting, cutting, cutting, but actually looking at every single piece of the budget and making sure that our workforce has everything that they need,” Bachelor said. “So that our students and families have everything they need, and we are in a space that we are growing long-term, versus just cutting for our short term.”
The current appointed director for District 6, Mungia said her main focus will be bringing a renewed emphasis to academic outcomes, especially across racial and income groups, and holding district leaders accountable for those results.
Student test scores in OUSD have stayed relatively flat over the past several years, according to state data. At a recent school board meeting, directors reviewed the latest results from the Smarter Balanced assessments, the state standardized tests. In language arts, 36% of 3rd through 5th grade students in OUSD are reading at grade level. Thirty-two percent of middle schoolers are meeting grade-level standards in language arts. And in math, only 30% of elementary students and 21% of middle school students tested at the grade-level standard.
“As a system we are failing too many of our kids, especially our Black and brown students,” Mungia said. “It’s unconscionable and we need to really be calling attention to that and ensuring that they get a quality education and, ultimately, that’s the [job of the] school board and the superintendent.”
A former teacher at Horace Mann Elementary, Mungia currently works as the deputy director of education in the office of Mayor Libby Schaaf. In her role, Mungia works on the mayor’s education initiatives, like Oakland Undivided, which provides laptops and hotspots to Oakland students, and Teachers Rooted in Oakland, a program that offers aspiring teachers subsidized housing in Oakland.
Mungia was appointed by the six other school board members to the District 6 seat in June, after former director Gonzales resigned in May.
Mungia identified three ways the board can help improve academic outcomes for students: spending more time at meetings analyzing and talking about student performance, directing district spending toward schools and students versus the central office, and supporting educators by offering competitive salaries and ensuring they have enough professional development and time outside of class to prepare lessons and understand the curriculum.
She said the board should listen to and partner with teachers to understand their needs and what could help make the most gains in the classroom. As a teacher at Horace Mann, Mungia said she worked with colleagues to combine aspects from different curricula for her students—something she said teachers shouldn’t have to do.
“So often, teachers are expected to play every role—the counselor, the nurse—but if we actually ensure that we are compensating our educators accordingly, giving them time to prepare and giving them the resources that they need to be strong educators, I think that they will do nothing but be successful,” she said.
While Mungia disagrees with the approach OUSD took to closing schools this year—she feels it was a rushed process that lacked transparency and community engagement—she acknowledges that maintaining the same number of schools despite enrollment declines will result in fewer resources for those schools. To reverse the declining enrollment trends, Mungia said that having high-quality programs that make schools unique, like athletics or arts, can draw students and families back to OUSD schools.
“We have buildings and grounds staff and custodial staff who are stretched across school sites and things don’t get done. We have facilities that are falling apart, and at the end of the day, I will always put our students first,” she said. “So while I would like to avoid school closures at any cost, if we can ensure that our schools are fully funded to the degree that they need to be, I’m not ruling it out.”
Earlier this month, a four-month-long occupation of Parker K-8 by community members opposed to the school’s closure came to an end, with the school board voting on a new use for the campus after weeks of outreach and engagement with the community. The building will be used for adult education and for community organizations to provide resources to the neighborhood.
Horace Mann, where Mungia taught, is on the list of schools to be closed in the next year. The staff and families at that school learned about the closure at the same time as the rest of the public, and Mungia believes OUSD could have done a better job of engaging school communities about the decision and why it was made.
“No one wants to close schools,” she said. “At the same time, if you look at our outcomes, we are failing far too many of our kids and that is not okay. And we need to always be going back to that.”
Velasquez has been involved in education activism in Oakland for 20 years, leading a sit-in at Lakeview Elementary in 2012, where his eldest children attended school before it was closed. A 30-year Oakland resident, Velasquez decided to run for the school board this year after former Director Gonzales resigned, viewing the moment as an opportunity for a parent familiar with the community to get a seat on the board.
Velasquez, who works as a safety engineer, has two children who graduated from Oakland Technical High School and another child in eighth grade at Edna Brewer Middle School.
“I have no aspirations to be a politician. I have no aspirations to climb any political ladder,” Velasquez said. “I literally just want to serve and create a voice that I think has been lacking and has been almost non-existent for decades here.”
At the top of Velasquez’s platform is rescinding school closures. He believes OUSD’s pattern of closing schools in Black and brown neighborhoods is racist, and that the district hasn’t shown that the practice saves money. In fact, it can have the opposite effect by driving families out of the district, Velasquez said.
“Once there’s a stigma or the perception that a school district is struggling, parents start pulling their students and their families out. Parents leave districts and areas where they feel that school closures are imminent or happening.”
Velasquez’s other critique of school closures is that it allows those buildings to be used by charter schools. Prop. 39, a state law, requires school districts to lease or make public school facilities available to charter schools. For example, Lakeview, which closed in 2012, is now the site of AIMS College Prep High School, a charter school. Marshall Elementary, which was part of the same round of OUSD closures as Lakeview, is now East Bay Innovation Academy, also a charter.
“Our schools are the hub for communities that may not have other resources,” said Velasquez. “It’s literally the only public building left that they can share, come together at, and have their children safe.”
Velasquez also wants to quash the notion that charter school families and families whose children attend district schools are competing with one another.
“They’re pitting our own communities to believe that somehow we’re on opposite sides and that we want different things, that our own communities are enemies, which is not true,” Velasquez said. “We have to look at this and ask ourselves, is this a healthy direction for our public education to head to? If we have a discussion in Oakland and nationally and say this is the direction we’re supposed to go, then I will help have that conversation. But I can’t support a two-tiered system.”
Velasquez wants to see the district resize its central office, and reinvest the savings from cutting top management positions into school sites. He also pointed to the state’s enormous budget surplus this year, which will funnel more money to school districts, as a reason not to close schools or claim that the district is short on resources.
In 2022, OUSD had about 883 full time employees working at the central office. That’s higher than the 811 workers employed in 2021, but about half as much as in 2016, when OUSD had 1,839 central office staff. About 247 of the central office staff are managers, according to district data. Overall staffing levels in OUSD have increased, even as student attendance has decreased or stayed flat over the past few years, which was one trend that Alameda County Superintendent L.K. Monroe pointed to for OUSD’s budget troubles in a November letter warning district leaders that they needed to make budget reductions.
The third part of Velasquez’s platform is using Measure H—a parcel tax on this year’s ballot supporting career and college readiness in Oakland high schools—to strengthen career and trade pathways in OUSD, especially in District 6 schools.
“It’s kind of the district that a lot of us feel hasn’t had a strong voice. And because of that, our school sites have been neglected,” he said. “I feel like the flats are just slowly, meticulously being choked out by resources. And that’s dangerous because that’s our most at-risk communities and children and families. Parker was one of those schools that was extremely needed in that community. It was kind of holding it together.”