nine candidates seated behind a table
Nine Oakland residents are running for three open seats on the OUSD board. Credit: David Meza

Dozens of students, families, and other community members attended a youth-led school board forum on Tuesday night, where all nine of the candidates discussed their platforms and visions for the district. 

The forum was hosted at Fremont High School by Oakland Unified’s All City Council, the district body of student-elected representatives, and the Oakland youth vote coalition, a group of youth organizations backing Measure QQ, a measure approved by voters in 2020 that lowered the voting age to 16 for school board elections. 

Throughout the discussion, students and candidates expressed their frustration that the Alameda County registrar of voters failed to come up with a plan in time to implement the youth vote for the upcoming November election.Such a plan would have required making adjustments to voting machines to recognize votes from people under 18, and printing separate ballots for youth voting only in a school board race.

Since those things weren’t done, the youth vote will be postponed for at least two years until the next school board election. 

“Most students cannot vote because they’re not 18, or they’re undocumented, and the registrar failed us by not developing a voting plan for us,” said Mira Misiluti, a student at Oakland Technical High School and an organizer with Oakland Kids First. “So our voices are not heard in the polling booth. They will be heard through each of you who can vote.”

OUSD student leaders Mira Misiluti, Natalie Gallegos Chavez, and Deric Chau presented the student justice platform during the forum. Credit: David Meza

Youth leaders appealed to the audience to vote with students’ priorities in mind, and presented a “student justice platform” they created after surveying 1,400 OUSD students. The platform has three priorities: access to resources and curriculum to support students’ mental and physical well-being, community-centered schools, and essential life-skills to help students navigate life beyond school.

During Tuesday’s discussion, candidates answered questions about prioritizing youth perspectives, improving school safety, school closures, and making sure the board honors its commitments and investments. 

Centering youth voices

The school board candidates expressed disappointment with the Alameda County registrar for delaying the youth vote, and spoke about how they would, as school board directors, continue to lift up youth voices and increase engagement with students.

“I think the fact that [Measure QQ] has not been implemented by county government, by the registrar of voters, is an outrage and a real slap in the face to the city and people of Oakland,” said David Kakishiba, who is running for the District 2 seat. “If I were to be elected I would be utilizing that role to organize on the outside and advocate on the inside with county government and county supervisors to get off their butts and implement this thing.”

Kakishiba, who previously served on the OUSD board from 2005 to 2013, also encouraged 18 and 19-year-old recent OUSD graduates to run for the board.  

Some candidates called for more participation from youth at school board meetings. Pecolia Manigo, running in District 4, said she supports ongoing investments in and partnerships with OUSD’s All City Council, the Oakland Youth Commission, and other student leadership programs, and suggested more students attend the district’s biweekly board meetings, especially to support the two student directors, who give a presentation at every meeting updating the board and the public on student concerns and upcoming events.

District 6 candidate Joel Velasquez proposed holding school board meetings at schools across the city, instead of only at La Escuelita near Lake Merritt. That way, he said, more families and school communities can have an opportunity to engage and weigh in on school board matters. Velasquez also supports giving student directors a real vote on the board. 

The OUSD school board includes one director for each of the seven districts, and two student directors who are elected by their peers, who serve for one academic year. While the student directors do cast votes with the rest of the board, their votes do not count or impact the outcome of board decisions. At times, student directors’ votes are in opposition to the majority of the board, causing tension when student directors don’t feel that their opinions are being respected.

Current District 5 Director Mike Hutchinson, who is running in District 4 because of a redistricting change, said if the board wanted to, it could change its bylaws so that student directors’ votes count, something the student directors themselves have been pushing for

“I’ve been watching over the last five years, and I saw thousands of students come out to protest the school closures plan. Nobody listened to your voice then,” Hutchinson said. “I saw thousands of students come out in the name of Black Lives Matter, in the name of police-free schools, that helped us get the George Floyd resolution passed. So we need to honor and harness the energy that already exists and if we don’t listen, you make us listen.”

Kyra Mungia, currently the appointed District 6 director, stated that she is planning to establish a youth board for District 6 students to advise her on issues and opportunities in her East Oakland district, and get paid for it. 

Student safety and mental health

Keeping students safe on campus was a major topic of discussion on Tuesday, especially in the wake of a school shooting that injured six people, including students and staff, at Rudsdale High School last month.

Many of the candidates pointed to staff shortages, and said that having more school-site employees in key positions would help make campuses safer and students feel more supported.

“We need more people on campus. We need more culture keepers. We need counselors, we need therapists, and we need resources to be able to support our students in this trying time,” said Valarie Bachelor, a labor organizer running in District 6. 

Hutchinson added that keeping students safe on campus should not only be a priority for OUSD.

“We need all hands on deck to address this. It is not up to the school district alone to solve a problem of people jumping out of their cars and shooting up our schools or calling in a bomb threat so school is canceled for it,” Hutchinson said, referring to the Rudsdale shooting and recent threats to schools. 

A student in the audience posed a question to candidates about hiring more staff who are adequately trained to interact with and support students with autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), without harming them. Jennifer Brouhard, a retired teacher running in District 2, suggested implementing a pay scale to raise the compensation levels for special education teachers and aides, to help fill those positions in OUSD. 

“It does break my heart that the counselors are overworked and that our students feel that they are being mistreated by staff and counselors. But I think we absolutely have to fund at top levels for special education,” Brouhard said. “The workload of those teachers is phenomenal—from IEPs to meeting with parents to advocating for students, our special education teachers and counselors are extremely overworked.” 

Brouhard and other candidates also pointed to school closures contributing to students’ anxiety about school. OUSD closed two schools completely and the middle school of a K-8 earlier this year, and there are five more schools, plus another K-8 middle school, on the closure list for 2023. Several school board hopefuls have said that they want to rescind the school closure decision if elected.  

Velasquez, a parent of two OUSD graduates and one current student, said ending school closures is the first step to addressing students’ mental distress.

“How can you provide ethnic studies or resources to all of us in the Black and brown communities across Oakland if you’re actually closing the physical space where all of that is supposed to happen?” he said. “We can’t get to the other pieces until we rescind and hold the school board accountable.”

Max Orozco, a parent running in District 2, also said school closures contribute to less safety at school campuses, because it can lead to larger class sizes and more traffic congestion when students from closed schools attend other schools.

“Markham is now a welcoming school for Parker,” Orozco said, referring to Parker K-8, one of the schools that closed this year. “Traffic was bad back then, but now that we have families from Parker, traffic is worse. Kids are in danger of getting hit by cars.”

The board should establish its own committees, one for each district, that meet with the school board director regularly to share updates on security and other issues on their school sites, said Kakishiba, who currently serves as the executive director of EBAYC, the East Bay Asian Youth Center. 

Honoring board investments

The students moderating the forum also asked candidates how they would make sure that board resolutions are fully implemented and that the district’s financial investments are monitored to ensure that students and schools are getting the resources they need. 

Nick Resnick, an OUSD dad and former teacher running in District 4, criticized OUSD for spreading its resources thin across various initiatives. He’d like to see the district focus on raising teacher pay.

“We have one of the richest districts—of the 50 biggest districts in the state of California, we are third in terms of how much revenue we have, but we pay our teachers the least,” Resnick said. “In order for us to have a district that is serving our students, we need to retain our teachers, which means we need to compensate them more. In order to do that, we’re going to have to say no to some other things.”

Kakishiba, a District 2 candidate, similarly pointed out that OUSD doesn’t have explicit spending priorities, and wants to see the board define what those are—whether it’s employee compensation, academic programs, student wellness, or anything else—and allocate funding according to those priorities.

District 6 contender Bachelor pointed to her experience as a labor organizer for the California Federation of Teachers as an asset that would help in contract negotiations with labor unions. OUSD board members don’t participate in bargaining, but they do approve the eventual contracts. 

“I know what it takes to make sure that educators are respected and I will do that as a school board member by making sure our district is held accountable to good-faith bargaining, and that they bring respectful proposals so that our educators and classified staff do not have to go on strike to get the bare necessities for their classroom,” Bachelor said. 

A few candidates said they would examine OUSD’s central office budget and consider cutting positions there before making reductions at school sites. 

“A budget is a reflection of our values. And right now we are valuing central office administrator managers over our students, our classrooms, and our school sites,” said Mungia, a District 6 candidate. “There’s a real opportunity to restructure our budget where we know our dollars are most effective. For the first time in 20 years, OUSD does not have a projected deficit, which is huge.”

District 5 director and District 4 candidate Hutchinson mentioned that in 2023, the district is expected to pay off the remaining balance of a $100 million loan OUSD received under state receivership in 2003, which has kept the district under enhanced financial oversight for the last 20 years. Once free of that oversight, district leaders will have more control over its budget decisions.

Manigo and Brouhard, running in Districts 4 and 2, respectively, support an independent audit of OUSD finances to identify where money could be spent more efficiently. 

“We’re in a place of not seeing our money get to the classroom,” said Manigo, who also serves on the planning board of the Oakland Fund for Children and Youth, which funds programs across the city for young people. “There are programs in OUSD we couldn’t fund, there were programs in our community we couldn’t fund, and yet we are sitting on a district budget of $800 million with positions that have not been hired.”

Manigo added that the district, the city, and the county could collaborate more to provide added resources and services for youth. 

Several candidates pointed to school closures for contributing to the district’s financial instability. The board voted to implement closures as a budget-balancing measure, but closures can also cause OUSD to lose money when students from schools that are closed leave the district altogether rather than go to a different OUSD school. 

“We have to stop closing schools,” said Orozco, a District 2 candidate. “We have to be sure of where this money is going. Because at this moment, we have not heard where the money from closing Parker went to, where the money from Community Day went to. So those are questions we have to get the district to actually tell us.” 

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.