aimee eng posing in front of lincoln elementary
Aimee Eng stands in front of Lincoln Elementary in Oakland Chinatown, where generations of her family attended school. Credit: Amir Aziz

District 2 school board Director Aimee Eng was first elected to the Oakland Unified School District board in 2014. At the time, the district was in flux: Superintendent Antwan Wilson had just taken the reins and was OUSD’s third superintendent in four years. The next eight years brought even more change. Over her two terms, Eng saw multiple budget crises, turnover in the superintendent’s office and across the district’s top posts, a teacher strike, a global pandemic, and several rounds of school closures.

Eng will step down from her post at the end of this year, but she won’t be straying far from Oakland. The granddaughter of Raymond Eng, Oakland’s first elected Chinese American city councilmember, is part of a family that’s lived in the city for six generations. And Eng, the mother of two young children, will soon get to experience OUSD from a whole new perspective as a parent.  

Eng sat down with The Oaklandside to reflect on her school board tenure and share her thoughts about school closures, how OUSD can regain trust with the community, and what she hopes the district will be like in a few years when her own children are old enough to enroll.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Why did you first decide to run for the school board in 2014? 

Six generations of my family have lived in and around Oakland. My parents are educators and I believe strongly that a healthy school system is the foundation of a healthy city. So it really came out of a passion for the Oakland community. 

I was born in Oakland, but my parents actually moved us to the suburbs for what they believed was a safer community and better public schools. But when I look back at my upbringing, what was lacking was the social and economic diversity and cultural vibrancy that comes with it. So that’s why I have been committed to creating a family-friendly Oakland where families don’t have to choose to go outside of our schools and our city. They can raise their kids here and really take advantage of all the city has to offer. 

During that 2014 campaign, you said you wanted to increase graduation rates, increase UC and CSU admissions, and prepare students for successful careers. Do you feel you’ve accomplished those things?

Yes, and I think that Measure N—which my predecessor David Kakishiba and the acting superintendent at the time, Gary Yee, [both supported]—played an instrumental role in creating the foundations for that with the College and Career Readiness Act, which is being run again this year as Measure H. Measure N was passed in 2014 and helped to expand linked-learning pathways and really helped to transform our high schools across the city. That has been a bright spot, frankly, that the district can look at and uplift. And that’s why it’s very important that we continue to invest in college and career readiness through Measure H.

Why did you decide to not run for school board again this year?

It’s been a really great opportunity and I’ve learned a lot over the past eight years. But at this point I’m excited to spend more time with my family and with my community. During my second term, we had a six-day strike when I was board president, we had multiple rounds of budget cuts, school closures, a global pandemic, all while having two pregnancies and two kids. It’s just been a lot, on top of working a full-time job. 

I’m proud of the service but excited for my next endeavor and I’ll continue to be involved in different ways, particularly for the Oakland schools. I’ll be a new OUSD parent in just a couple years. But at this point in my tenure, it was the right time for me to transition from my board service.

What are you proudest of?

I’m proud of what I’d like to think of as being a consensus-builder on the board. I believe I led with integrity. I always tried to listen to all sides. I’m proud of the relationships I built on the board and I would like to think that even though folks didn’t always agree with my decisions, we had mutual respect for one another’s perspectives. And particularly the relationships built both internally with board and staff and leadership, and externally with community partners, labor partners, parents, students, and family members. 

In terms of the work, my leadership around the budget, through not just multiple superintendent transitions during the first term, but also chief financial officers, chief business officer transitions. Being the Budget and Finance Committee chair and having to prioritize fiscal sustainability is something that I am proud of working on and being a part of, although challenging for obvious reasons.

I’m also proud of the mental health resolution that we brought to the board. Not only because of the need for allocation of resources—I think it was $9 million that was dedicated—but I’m really proud of the process that was used to bring it to the board. I partnered closely with then-Student Director Jessica Ramos. Over the course of several months we did a listening campaign, we listened to other youth, we listened to teachers, district staff, and co-created the resolution together. It stemmed from student board reports talking about how, during COVID, mental health was an issue that was coming up again and again as a priority for students. 

The real challenge of being a part of a large complex system is that there are amazing leaders at all levels—from the school site all the way to district staff leadership—but just [getting the district to move is] the challenge. And that reality is part of what I’ve taken away as a board member. It’s challenging working in public systems.

When you look back on your tenure, is there anything that you would have approached differently?

When I first joined the board, we were actually doing quite well financially. And I would have been more prudent fiscally and also held our superintendent—it was Superintendent Antwan Wilson at that time—and staff more accountable around some of the decisions or recommendations that were being brought to the board. The central office was expanded at that point, and there were decisions around re-centralizing some of the administration to 1000 Broadway. There were a series of decisions that, I believe, if we had more foresight, I would have been more fiscally prudent around. Some of those decisions, I believe, led to some of the challenges that we had to spend several years trying to address and undo.

What advice do you have for the next person who takes your seat?

Stay vigilant on our budgets, because we do have a flood of one-time funding right now. But all of our long-term trajectory in terms of enrollment, attendance, and state revenue is leading to some challenging longer-term economic times. Even though in the near term, in the next one to two years, it does seem like we have adequate resources available, I think we need to still be prudent and take steps as a district to be able to recognize that the revenue is not always going to be adequate, particularly to invest in compensation and fully fund school sites, which I absolutely believe we need to do.

You voted back in February to support school closures. Why do you feel they’re necessary?

School closures are necessary but difficult, given the way that we’re funded by the state on a per-pupil enrollment and attendance-to-enrollment ratio, and the fact that the pandemic has exacerbated our district’s challenges with both our attendance and our enrollment. I believe that we aren’t in a position to continue to operate the same number of schools because it spreads resources out so thin, and because all of our schools deserve resources. 

In addition, we know that we have to increase compensation across the board for both educators as well as other positions. I mean, we have a number of vacancies in our custodial and in our culture-keeper positions. We aren’t offering enough compensation to be able to attract people into these roles that are really vital, and so we have vacancies across our district. 

To fund racially just, relationship-centered community schools, which I believe in, we need to be able to support an array of services at each site. And it becomes difficult, in terms of economy of scale, to fund all of these different positions that our schools need when we have 83 schools, given the number of students at each of the schools. 

It becomes a double-edged sword. The challenge is that it takes an investment to attract students back to schools; students and families are looking for fully resourced schools. That becomes challenging when there are fewer resources being directed at schools due to enrollment and attendance declines.

School closures can also contribute to enrollment loss if families look at OUSD and feel that the district is unstable. They may choose to enroll elsewhere.

So historically, if you looked at the numbers, I believe it’s around 85% of students that we retained [after school closures]. They didn’t always go to the “welcoming school” but they stayed within OUSD. So the majority of students do stay within OUSD. Although in the short term, there are some students that decide otherwise, over the long term I still believe it is the right investment. The challenge is that school closures are not the only contributing factors to families choosing elsewhere. Families are looking for safe, quality, welcoming schools. That’s why families are making choices every day around where they’re going to send their kids to.

To be able to attract families to schools—to have safe, welcoming, high-quality schools that we know that our families want and that our students deserve—we need to have adequate resources at those schools. Families want libraries, art, after-school programs, restorative justice, community schools, and a lot of the support programs that we want to be able to provide.

Do you think that closing schools will be enough for OUSD to become fiscally sustainable? Or are there additional changes that you think the district should consider?

In terms of the longer-term trajectory, the district is going to need to look at how we are structured as a system, both at the school site and centrally. That’s part of what we’re doing in this central office reorganization audit that we’ve been talking about in Budget and Finance [committee meetings], just to be able to look at all of our central office positions too, and how those are being staffed. Although we have made a lot of cuts to central district positions, given the trajectory of where enrollment and attendance is, and the fact that folks aren’t having as many kids as they were in generations before, we have to just recognize that we are not going to be able to sustain [our current structure]. 

Part of the challenge is going to be around trade-offs. We have to have a real honest conversation about trade-offs, because folks say, “We don’t want to close schools, let’s cut central, let’s cut contracts, let’s close charters.” Over the course of [my tenure], we advocated at the state level around passing AB 1505, which helps us manage our charters locally. So we’ve done a lot to stem charter growth within the city. In terms of contracts, not only have we cut a number of contracts, but the majority of contracts at this point are either school-site decisions, or they are for services. For example, special education services or contracts for transportation or a range of services and programs that students rely on.

In terms of the central office, there have been cuts to business operations. But the challenge there is that [central office cuts] directly impact school sites too. There were some recommendations that had come in that were put forward by leadership around Oakland Athletic League and the meal program and the Office of Equity. These are all central office positions. So we can look at reducing central positions, but the challenge is going to be about trade-offs and where and how we want to allocate our finite resources. 

There was the board resolution brought in 2019 after the teachers strike that included a clause saying no closure or consolidation could occur without a planning period between voting and implementation. Why couldn’t that happen this year?

Director [Sam] Davis and I did write a resolution in the fall that laid out a community engagement process. So I agree that the process this year for closures and consolidations was not an ideal process. There was not adequate time at the site level to be able to engage in discussions. As I said, Vice President Davis and I brought forward a resolution, it did not pass at that time. As one board member, we don’t control all of the process or timelines or even what decisions come to the board. We have to make the best decision given what is in front of us.

One of the key tenets around opportunities for students at impacted schools is the “opportunity ticket.” And because of the rollout process, we wanted to make sure that students [at closing schools] were able to choose their first-choice schools, which is directly what I heard was the priority when I met with families of impacted schools.

Although I believe very strongly in engagement, my stance is that it’s going to be a difficult decision for families, regardless. We learned that in the case of Kaiser Elementary. With that resolution, we did extend it to about a nine-month process and I’m not sure it was any easier on those families. Closing schools is just a very difficult process and challenging for families to grapple with. 

Historically, District 2 school enrollment has been strong, attendance also. Last fall was the first time for almost all of the District 2 schools where we had to do teacher consolidations, six weeks into school. That was the impact of enrollment directly on sites that historically have not had challenges with enrollment. That was an incredibly challenging process for each of the school sites.  

How do you think school board governance can be improved?

I think the new format has helped in terms of creating more efficient, more productive meetings. I do believe that respect for each other’s opinions has improved. I think the committee structure has been helpful. Our Budget and Finance Committee meetings have been really productive in terms of creating space for dialogue and communication. 

We’ve been saying this for several years but we need to create more opportunities outside of the school board meetings for real engagement, like community engagement and dialogue and discussion. Because the challenge is that when folks feel that the board meeting is the only place that they can be heard and can make an impact, then all the focus is on the board meeting. But the way board meetings are set up, there’s not a lot of opportunity for dialogue.

At one point on the board we were doing special meetings in different districts. I know that with technology and the pandemic, some of this might be challenging. But we should be creating other opportunities for there to be dialogue and input. I do think the committee structure helps with that. For example, in the Budget and Finance Committee meetings, because it’s a smaller venue, we’re able to have more of a dialogue with members of the public that call in.

I think that the community schools partnership program grants provide a big opportunity for us to engage in a listening campaign, both at our schools and our district. I think we need to listen to our key stakeholders, which are our students and families, and understand what they want to see, and also our educators. And these aren’t necessarily people that are going to go to the school board meetings. These are folks that every day are choosing to send their kids to OUSD schools—understanding what their priorities are and then following through on those commitments. 

For example, what I’m hearing from a lot of our schools is around students and teachers feeling safe. But what does that actually mean? How can the district really lean in and provide those types of supports that meet a direct need in the school community? I’m a big believer in school-level autonomy, and really empowering those within the school community who are in the best position to prioritize their resources. 

You have young children and you’ll be an OUSD parent soon. What do you hope OUSD is like when your kids enter school? 

I want our schools to be full of joy. I want them to be well-resourced. At the school-site level, I want teachers to feel like they’re compensated adequately and that they don’t need to choose elsewhere, that there’s staff and leadership retention at their school and that there’s a vibrant school climate and school community where families feel that they are a part of the community and their voices are heard. I want OUSD to live up to our community school vision that we have set out over the last decade—where we’re seeing the needs of the whole child and have adequate resources to help address and support our students’ needs equitably. 

Ashley McBride headshot

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.