Members of the Oakland Unified School District board sit behind the dais during a meeting.
The OUSD board has had only six members since March, leaving many votes in a tie. Credit: Carla Hernández Ramírez

This fall’s special election to fill the District 5 seat on the Oakland Unified School District board of directors is a crucial one. Since March, the seat has been vacant, reducing the board to six directors—without a seventh to break tied votes—and leaving thousands of residents of Fruitvale and nearby neighborhoods without a representative on the board.

As a result, the school board has deadlocked on a number of decisions in the first half of this year, including how to fill the empty seat. Three school board directors, Jennifer Brouhard, VanCedric Williams, and Valarie Bachelor, favored an appointment process, which is how the board filled a vacancy last year after former District 6 Director Shanthi Gonzales resigned. The other three directors, Sam Davis, Mike Hutchinson, and Clifford Thompson, supported holding a special election. 

Because the board couldn’t come to a decision, Alameda County Superintendent Alysse Castro was required to call a special election for Nov. 7, 2023

The board has also deadlocked over how to handle staff layoffs, charter school co-locations, and closures of special education programs in the district. 

“There’s always a struggle just to make sure folks are informed enough about the elections. This one is going to be even more difficult because it’s a standalone special election in one district,” said Board President Hutchinson. “It’s very hard to function as a school board with only six members and we need that seventh member there.”

So far, only one person has declared their candidacy: Sasha Ritzie-Hernandez, the coordinator for Bay Area Coalition for Education Justice. She was formerly an organizer with Bay Area Parent Leadership Action Network and has also worked with the Alameda County Registrar of Voters and Oakland Leaf, a nonprofit provider of afterschool and summer programs. 

Ritzie-Hernandez moved to Fruitvale from Mexico when she was 12 and attended both district and charter schools growing up. She said one of her big priorities as a candidate is to ensure families are engaged and informed about decisions that the district is making about its schools.

“We need families’ trust and we can only do that by being consistent, having clear ways of communication, and encouraging them to be part of shared decision-making,” she told The Oaklandside. “I want to connect with every single one of my schools. I want to volunteer and do the work and cultivate a community in District 5.”

District 5 residents who are interested in running can get nomination papers from the city clerk’s office at City Hall and must file by 5 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 11. If only one qualified person runs, that person will be the representative. The winner will hold the seat through the end of 2024.

The special election is coming at a time when the school district is facing a number of challenges, which include balancing a budget that can accommodate higher teacher salaries and expiring COVID relief dollars. The school board will also be tasked with stemming enrollment declines that have led to lower revenues, addressing fixes at aging school facilities, and getting students up to speed after the pandemic and a strike at the end of last year reduced classroom time.  

What led to the vacancy was a series of events that started with Oakland’s redistricting process. After the citizen-led Redistricting Commission adjusted the city’s district boundaries, Director Hutchinson’s address was moved from District 5 to District 4. Hutchinson, who represented District 5 on the board at that time, then decided to run for the District 4 seat during last year’s election.

Hutchinson won the election but wasn’t sworn in until March due to a vote-counting error by the county registrar that resulted in another candidate, Nick Resnick, erroneously being named the winner in District 4. 

Last month, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors responded to last year’s local election problems by voting to establish a 13-member Elections Oversight Commission for races administered by the county registrar. County staff members expect the commission to be up and running before the special school board election in November. 

The Oaklandside will monitor candidate filings and continue to report on the election in the weeks to come.

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.