OUSD school board sitting behind the dais during a meeting
The OUSD school board at a meeting on Jan. 11, 2023. Credit: Carla Hernández Ramírez

The clock is officially ticking for the Oakland Unified School District board to fill its vacant District 5 seat. But board directors at a meeting on Wednesday couldn’t agree on how best to get it done.

The school board can either call for a special election or appoint someone. The latter would be quicker and less costly, but directors opposed to that option say it would disenfranchise voters in District 5 and could breed mistrust of the board. 

The District 5 seat became vacant earlier this week, after Mike Hutchinson resigned to be sworn into his new District 4 position. Hutchinson chose to run for District 4 last year because of a redistricting change. He won, but because of an error by the Alameda County Registrar’s office that initially awarded more votes to another candidate, Nick Resnick, Hutchinson had to file and win a court case before he could be sworn in. Hutchinson also serves as board president, a position he won by a board vote in January.

map showing school board districts and the schools in them
Director Mike Hutchinson was originally elected to represent District 5, but new district maps approved last year moved his address to District 4, leading him to run for that seat. Courtesy Oakland Unified School District.

The school board has 60 days from when Hutchinson resigned, on Tuesday, to decide how to fill his seat. OUSD was in this position last May, when former District 6 Director Shanthi Gonzales unexpectedly resigned about seven months before her term ended. At that time, the school board chose to appoint her replacement since her seat was up for election in November. Whoever replaces Hutchinson would serve out the rest of his term, through the end of 2024.

During Wednesday’s meeting, the board voted twice—once to call a special election, and once to start an appointment process. Each vote split along the same lines: Directors VanCedric Williams, Valarie Bachelor, and Jennifer Brouhard supported appointing someone, and directors Sam Davis, Clifford Thompson, and Hutchinson favored holding a special election. 

“Philosophically, I don’t think it’s our job representing other districts to tell District 5 who should be their representative,” said Hutchinson. “If we make an appointment, it is disenfranchising the voters in D5. This is a democracy and these are elected positions.”

The county registrar’s office estimated that a special election could cost between $483,000 and $534,000 with in-person voting, and an election using only mail-in ballots would cost between $229,000 and $280,000. 

If the board goes the appointment route, those who are interested would fill out an application and go through an interview process with the school board.

“Having run an election, what it took to get that together over time was a lot. It’s costly for candidates. We can’t go as a board with having a vacancy until November,” said Brouhard, a retired teacher who was elected in November to represent District 2. “Our constituents deserve a quickly filled seat and a full board.”

Bachelor proposed a process that would include a candidate forum led by students so that youth could weigh in on the appointment. She also suggested involving the parent-student advisory committee and undocumented community members who would not be able to vote in a special election.

“We’ve seen in elections over and over again in Oakland, how much dark money has played a part in those elections. By going through an appointment process we can get someone quickly,” Bachelor said. “If we were to go to an election, it would be an election in November and they would then have maybe six months to serve as an actual school board director before they would have to run all over again in the election for the same district.” 

OUSD’s student directors, Natalie Gallegos Chavez and Linh Le, emphasized how crucial it is for the board to get feedback from students in District 5, regardless of which option the board goes with.

“Each route should include opportunities for meaningful engagement with students who live and go to District 5 schools,” said Gallegos Chavez, a senior at Oakland High School. “An appointment should be made with community in mind, and not just supporting someone you may know because they agree with you. Making sure that these are people for the community.”

A special election could also bring a new sense of urgency to implementing Oakland’s youth vote measure. In 2020, voters approved Measure QQ, which lowered the voting age to 16 for school board elections. But before teenagers can vote, the registrar has to update voting systems to recognize people younger than 18, which wasn’t done in time for the 2022 school board races. The community coalition that fought for Measure QQ has been calling on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to put pressure on the registrar’s office to implement the youth vote as soon as possible.

Director Davis is also co-sponsoring a resolution with the student directors to have the board president write to the county supervisors, who oversee the registrar’s office, to urge them to do the same. 

On replacing Hutchinson in District 5, Davis supports a special election.

“There are some people who are suspicious of the motives and decisions of this school board. Some people might question if we appointed somebody, whether that person might be more beholden to us, the other politicians on the board board, than to the voters,” he said. “Yes, elections are hard, expensive, and messy. They’re not an ideal process but they’re the best process we have.”

If the board does nothing by the 60-day deadline, then Alameda County Superintendent Alysse Castro is required to call for a special election. 

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.