On the first day of the Oakland teachers’ strike in May, five months into his term as president of the Oakland Unified School District board of directors, Mike Hutchinson addressed a sea of reporters and news cameras. He wore a black jacket, emblazoned with the words, “Standing In Your Truth,” as he spoke about his family’s long relationship with the teachers union.
“This is a very disappointing day, and it’s not a position that I ever thought I’d find myself in,” he said at the podium. “I’m an OEA baby.”
His mother, Harriet Hutchinson, had served as the first vice president of the Oakland Education Association, the local teachers union. Other members of the family had been in the union, too, Hutchinson told the crowd. But it was OEA, he said—and not the school district—that had walked away from the negotiating table.
As Hutchinson spoke, three other school board members—Jennifer Brouhard, VanCedric Williams, and Valarie Bachelor—stood and turned their backs on him in a public rebuke. The moment was striking, given Hutchinson’s years as an education activist and community organizer. Although known to ruffle political feathers, his critics haven’t typically been other progressives.
An Oakland native who grew up attending and later taught in OUSD after school programs, Hutchinson has built a reputation over the years as a strong voice for local progressives on school issues, staunchly opposed to school closures and charter school expansions, and often pushing back when officials claimed that OUSD was in a budget crisis.
He campaigned on these issues during all four of his runs for the school board (he ran unsuccessfully in 2012 and 2016, before winning the District 5 seat in 2020 and District 4 in 2022) and was endorsed by the union in all but the most recent election in District 4, which he eventually won despite a vote-counting error and a court case that delayed the outcome. Earlier this year, Hutchinson was chosen by his colleagues to serve as the school board’s president, at a pivotal time for the district.
In his first six months as president, he undid a plan to close five elementary schools and one middle school this year, and played a lead role in approving a contract that provides significant raises to educators—but not without having to first navigate a teachers’ strike that put him at odds with the union he’d once counted among his strongest allies, in addition to some of his board colleagues.
Still, he takes pride in what the district was able to accomplish for teachers in the new union contract and maintains that his values have never wavered.
“I didn’t like being vilified during the strike,” he recently told The Oaklandside. “As a school board and as a school district, we worked very hard for two years to create the conditions to give away a historic raise. And that’s what we were able to do.”
The district is still in a precarious financial place: COVID-19 relief funding, which has masked some of the district’s money problems, will begin to sunset in 2024, leaving district leaders to figure out how and whether to sustain investments that extra funding enabled in tutoring, facilities, technology, safety precautions, and more. The union contract that the school board approved will require future budget adjustments for the district to remain solvent, and OUSD’s declining enrollment and high absenteeism could lower future revenues.
But Hutchinson is optimistic.
“I firmly believe that OUSD is in a much better position today than when I first got to the board and that the district is headed in the right direction,” he said. “I’m really hopeful that as a community, we can let go of some of this baggage and trauma that we all carry and see the opportunity we all have moving forward to finally make OUSD the district we believe it should be.”
For the new school board, reaching a consensus hasn’t come easy
To get there, Hutchinson will need to unite a school board that has at times been marked by its divisiveness, including under Hutchinson’s leadership. During their campaigns last year, both Brouhard and Bachelor emphasized wanting to restore civility and consensus to school board meetings. The board is also characterized by newness: Each of the current school board members was elected in 2020 or later.
In an interview with The Oaklandside, District 6 Director Bachelor explained why she’d stood up with her back turned during Hutchinson’s remarks about the teachers’ strike: to show that although the president was speaking for the school board, her views were not aligned with his message.
“As both a union organizer and someone whose partner works for the district every day in our schools and classrooms, I know the need to increase salaries for those folks as well as the working conditions. And I was hoping that we could address all of those things,” she told The Oaklandside. “I felt like none of my views were taken into consideration.”
Directors Bachelor, Wiliams, and Brouhard later went so far as to hold their own press conference, where they encouraged Hutchinson and district leaders to support the union’s “common good” proposals—a set of non-salary demands that had become a sticking point in the negotiations.
“I call on the other board members, president Mike Hutchinson, Clif Thompson, Sam Davis, to do the right thing and support OUSD in negotiating common bargaining and community schools,” Williams said during their press conference. “Now is the time to reimagine and transform our public education system and this is a step in the right direction.”
Directors Brouhard and Williams declined to be interviewed for this story.
“For school board directors to choose to show up at a press conference to turn their back on the board president and the superintendent and then call their own counter press conference really hinders the school board’s ability to work together and to move things forward,” Hutchinson told The Oaklandside recently when asked about his colleague’s actions at the press event. “It’s also extremely disrespectful that they chose to stand up at the point where I said ‘I’m an OEA baby.’ That was very disrespectful to my mother and to my family.”
Another stalemate came earlier in the spring when the board was debating how to fill the vacancy left in District 5 after Hutchinson became the District 4 representative. Bachelor urged the board to follow an appointment process that would involve students (since Measure QQ, which gives 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote in school board elections, has yet to be implemented), while Hutchinson favored holding a special election.
With only six members on the board, until the District 5 seat is filled, directors deadlocked twice over how to move forward, with Hutchinson, Sam Davis, and Clifford Thompson in favor of a special election and Bachelor, Brouhard, and Williams on the other side.
Without a decision, Alameda County Superintendent Alysse Castro was required to call a special election for November to fill the seat.
Despite their disagreements, Bachelor is optimistic that the board can find common ground moving forward, but it will take work to bring the district to a sustainable place.
“It is still really important to me that we do find consensus as a board and we move forward as collectively as we can,” Bachelor told The Oaklandside earlier this month. “I have seen over the last six months how our students have suffered because we haven’t been able to build that.”
Like Hutchinson, Davis joined the school board in 2020. They were familiar with each other, both having been involved in Oakland schools for several years, but Davis—more moderate than Hutchinson—admitted that he was unsure how their relationship on the board would play out.
“I was pretty trepidatious about being on the board with him because I’d seen him oppose a lot of things that I’d been in favor of, and in favor of a lot of things that I’d opposed,” Davis told The Oaklandside.
But they’ve since found some common ground, particularly in moving the district towards financial autonomy. Earlier this year, they co-sponsored a resolution to begin the process of exiting state receivership, a condition the school district has been in since 2003 that limits the financial decision-making district leaders can make.
Davis and Hutchinson still have some fundamental differences, like what to do with small schools, which Davis thinks are unsustainable. Hutchinson has long been opposed to closing schools, but is eager to begin this fall what he calls a “school redesign process.” It will examine the district’s schools and engage community members in conversations about how to improve them so that every neighborhood has a quality school. Changes could include things like adding STEM or dual-language-focused programs. But Hutchinson has also left the door open to reducing the overall number of district schools through consolidations at campuses that host more than one school.
“When we are looking at district redesign for district restructuring, that might include some of these things,” he said. “If you have two schools that share a campus and you plan to go from having two principals to just one principal, that’s not a merger plan because you’re not merging the programs together or any of those other things.”
A promising show of unity came in June at the final school board meeting of the year: The directors unanimously approved the labor contract that resulted from the teachers’ strike. That the board was able to make the necessary adjustments to the budget in order to afford the staff raises without having to close schools was viewed as a win by Hutchinson and a sign that the district can move away from school closures as a budget-balancing solution.
“I am encouraged that everything I hoped a different school board might be able to achieve is actually possible. I wasn’t sure if it was actually possible before I got in this position.”
For the first time, a split with the teachers union
Hutchinson’s decision to run for school board in District 4 last year divided his supporters. Because of a redistricting change, Hutchinson’s home address is now in District 4, a change from the District 5 neighborhood he’d lived his entire life. Hutchinson felt that residents should have representatives who live in their districts, so he made the decision to run again two years into his term representing District 5.
But when it came time for endorsements, the teachers union—which had supported Hutchinson in his three previous runs—decided to endorse another candidate, Pecolia Manigo, in the District 4 race.
“The union felt strongly that to put our best foot forward in our endorsements that they were going to endorse a different candidate besides Mike Hutchinson,” said Sophie Richman, a Roosevelt Middle School teacher who served on the union’s representative council. “It’s not hard to make a little bit of an assumption that maybe his feelings were a little bit hurt by us turning our backs on him and endorsing someone else.”
Hutchinson said the non-endorsement was upsetting given his family’s long ties to the union. He maintained that his stances hadn’t changed and that he still holds the same positions that the union favors: ending school closures, increasing pay for teachers, promoting reparations for Black students, and creating thriving community schools.
“It was hurtful to my family, especially to my mother. It wasn’t just that OEA didn’t endorse me, but OEA ran a candidate against me,” Hutchinson said. “There’s not a vote that I’ve made that’s been against what OEA’s stated position has been.”
For those hoping for a progressive majority on the school board, keeping Hutchinson in his District 5 seat and supporting another progressive candidate for District 4 seemed like the best strategic move, said Ismael Armendariz, the president of OEA. The group had also considered a dual endorsement, as it had made in the District 6 race, but decided against that.
“Pecolia was relatively newer and we needed to spend more resources on her to get her name out there. We needed to focus our membership on walking for her,” Armendariz said. “It was about what’s better for the district. We believed that what was good for the district at that time was having Director Hutchinson in District 5 and finish his term, and have Pecolia on the board as an ally.”
Hutchinson maintains that he still has the support of other organized labor groups, and said he’s willing to collaborate with the teachers union to achieve their common goals. Armendariz, the union leader, agrees.
“The decisions he’s going to make as board president have a profound effect on my members, on our students, and our community, and because of that, I’m rooting for him. I do want him to be successful because that means our district is successful,” Armendariz said.
Controversy over closures and cuts
In February, the board was attempting to make some budget adjustments to afford salary increases for teachers. Contention arose when the proposed solution included the possible mergers of 10 schools. To some community members, this meant closures—something Hutchinson had strongly campaigned against.
Scott Blakely, a Laurel Elementary parent, was one of the first to sign Hutchinson’s nomination papers when he decided to run for District 4. When the budget resolution was published, Blakely was surprised to see Hutchinson supporting the changes.
“It seemed odd, like he was suddenly for consolidating schools, which I agree actually is not exactly the same thing as closing schools, but I do think that potentially does a lot of the same damage,” Blakely told The Oaklandside.
Hutchinson didn’t see it that way. “To me, what was laid out in the plan is not mergers. It’s reconstituting five pairs of schools that share the same campus,” Hutchinson said. “And if we do that, and a couple more charter schools close, our number of schools is not that far out of line with other cities. It’s this larger question of, ‘What should our unified school district look like?’”
His stance on charter schools—that they aren’t public schools because they are run by private boards and organizations—has also caused tension with some education advocates in Oakland.
Kimi Kean, the executive director of Families in Action, a local parents’ group, grew up in Oakland and attended McChesney Junior High with Hutchinson in the 1980s.
They’ve crossed paths over the years, as she worked as a teacher and principal in OUSD schools and led Aspire Public Schools, a charter school network in Oakland. While they don’t always see eye-to-eye on school choice issues, Kean knows that Hutchinson’s passion is genuine and comes from a similar place of their experiences in Oakland public schools.
“I think it’s great to have someone who’s always cared deeply but is then kind of an adversary. I love it when those people get a chance to lead. They get to see that it’s really hard, and it’s not black and white,” Kean said. “It isn’t just pointing out problems all the time. He’s actually trying to solve problems, which for me garners a lot more respect.”
Hutchinson has used Facebook to share updates and talk candidly to community members about OUSD issues since before he was a board member. But since becoming president, Hutchinson said he’s become aware of how much more weight his words carry now. His posts about school topics often result in lengthy back-and-forths with parents, teachers, and advocates. Blakely, the Laurel parent, added that he has at times found Hutchinson’s Facebook conduct off-putting.
“Often the criticisms that I hear about have more to do with my style than my substance, and I’m very proud of my voting record on the board,” Hutchinson said. “There are times where I have gone back and edited or taken things off of Facebook because people reacted a certain way that I wasn’t intending or didn’t expect.”
The budget adjustments that the board considered also included layoffs of special education staff and a reorganization of the district’s special education offerings. Kristina Molina, a former Hutchinson supporter and mom of four boys with learning disabilities, was highly opposed to the changes. The cuts resulted in the elimination of some special education programs, requiring those students to attend other schools. To her, it’s the same as a full school closure. She felt blindsided.
“I never expected that he would support a policy that would displace children with learning disabilities,” Molina told The Oaklandside. “Moving children with special needs and closing their programs is closing their whole world to them. That was a fight that I felt that we had in common, and when he didn’t listen to the community, then he sent a message that our opinion doesn’t matter.”
Hutchinson disagrees that these are closures, but he acknowledged that the communication with the impacted families could have been better, and vowed to improve that process during the next budget cycle.
Looking toward the fall
Hutchinson is excited to begin a new school year next month, the first in a while without “some cloud of either the pandemic, closures or some sort of looming crisis.”
He’s eager to get the school redesign process rolling. He also said he’s looking into ways that school board members could get more support in the form of higher pay and staff. Right now, school board members receive just over $800 a month and have no paid staff. That essentially requires school board directors to hold full-time jobs, which restricts the amount of time they can dedicate to OUSD matters, or be independently wealthy, which limits the kinds of candidates who can run.
Hutchinson also wants to see school board meetings become more efficient and return to how they were run prior to the pandemic: Members of the public sign up using comment cards ahead of time to give public comments on certain agenda topics.
Since many directors are new to the board or new to Oakland’s education politics, Hutchinson added that he plans to hold more “study sessions” for the school board directors about district governance.
Despite some disagreements on the board, and an upcoming election to fill the seventh seat, Hutchinson is optimistic that the next school year will be a “re-envisioning” year for the district. But it will take work.
“My first concern is my responsibility to protect and defend the school district,” Hutchinson said. “I love OUSD. OUSD has given me and my family everything. I take this job very seriously and my mom would disown me if I ever did wrong.”