The Oakland Unified School District meeting dais at La Escuelita elementary school. Credit: Kathryn Styer Martínez

Two candidates who had been told this week that they didn’t qualify for the Oakland Unified School District special election for District 5 have now been deemed eligible, the city announced Friday.

Sasha Ritzie-Hernandez and Jorge Lerma had been informed that they didn’t qualify for the ballot because not all of the signatures they had gathered to support their candidacy came from people living within the correct boundaries for District 5. 

Because the candidates are running to serve out the remainder of former District 5 Director Mike Hutchinson’s unfinished term, which began in 2020, there was confusion over whether the signatures should have been gathered from within the city’s old district boundaries or new ones established last year through a redistricting process. 

A release from city spokesperson Sean Maher on Friday said the question of whether to use the new or old district boundaries did not have significant past precedent. Both candidates only had 46 of 50 required nomination signatures in the old boundaries, but both had all 50 within the new boundaries.

“The City of Oakland does not believe there is a basis for disqualifying the candidates on these grounds.  The City has notified the County Registrar’s Office that the City Clerk has no intention of disqualifying these candidates and the candidates will remain qualified as indicated on the City Clerk’s website,” the release said.

Ballots for the special election will go to residents living within the old district boundaries.

The Alameda County registrar of voters said this week that although the candidates do live in the old District 5 boundaries, they did not collect enough qualified signatures within the old boundaries, and so neither candidate qualified for the ballot. Since the deadline to file nomination papers was last Friday, this left no eligible candidates for the ballot, and the registrar’s office was waiting for direction from the city to move forward.

City staff spent Thursday and Friday researching the issue, said spokesperson Jean Walsh.

Alysse Castro, the Alameda County Superintendent who ordered the special election, expressed relief Friday that the city had found a way to move forward with the candidates.

“A November election will provide Oakland students and families the support of a full school board,” Castro said. “I appreciate the commitment of the candidates to the students in their community and I’m glad that this obstacle is out of the way.”

The OUSD school board has been operating with six directors since March, when Director Hutchinson was sworn into the District 4 seat. As a result, the board has deadlocked on a number of votes on issues ranging from budget cuts and layoffs to charter school co-locations.

The special election snafu is not the first time an OUSD election has been complicated by errors in recent months. The Alameda County registrar made a ranked-choice vote-tallying error after last November’s election and wrongly declared another Oakland school board candidate, Nick Resnick, the winner in District 4. Hutchinson, his challenger, filed a lawsuit in January that led to a judge in March declaring him the rightful winner. Hutchinson then stepped down from his District 5 seat, creating a vacancy. 

The school board could not come to an agreement on whether to appoint someone or hold a special election to fill the open District 5 seat, requiring Alameda County Superintendent Castro to call the special election for Nov. 7.

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.