Student achievement, a greater voice for parents, and protections for charter school students were the big themes Thursday night during a candidates forum for November’s special election to fill Oakland Unified’s vacant District 5 school board seat.
The forum was hosted by Families in Action, a parent-led group that advocates for better public schools in Oakland.
Only one of the two candidates competing for the seat, Jorge Lerma, participated in person. The other, Sasha Ritzie Hernandez, did not appear but submitted pre-recorded answers to some questions that were played for the audience. Ritzie Hernandez said she chose to sit out the event because she was still shaken up by an incident earlier this week when her home was vandalized.
Held at Lazear Charter Academy in Fruitvale, the forum was presented in Spanish and English and included questions focused on family engagement, school safety, racial achievement gaps, and bridging the charter-district political divide. Questions were posed by student and family leaders from Families in Action, which formed in 2019 to advocate for charter school families but today pushes for quality public school options across Oakland, whether charter or district-run.
This special election will be a pivotal one for the OUSD school board, which has had a vacancy since February, when Nick Resnick stepped down in District 4 due to a vote-counting error during the November 2022 election. His challenger and the rightful winner of that race, Mike Hutchinson, was sworn into the District 4 seat in March. Because Hutchinson had already been serving as District 5 director, his move to District 4 created a vacancy.
When the remaining six school board directors could not come to a majority decision on how to fill the seat—either by appointment or election—Alameda County Superintendent Alysse Castro was required to call a special election for November.
“For the past year, District 5 has lacked representation on the OUSD school board, leading to a divided board that has deadlocked on voting on important issues,” said Viveca Ycoy-Walton, the family engagement coordinator for Lazear Charter Academy. “Our hope is that the upcoming D5 board director will play a pivotal role in advancing effective decision-making and, ultimately, supporting improved educational outcomes for every student.”
During Thursday’s forum, Lerma, a former school principal, highlighted his experience as a longtime educator in Oakland. He is currently the president of the Educational Coalition for Hispanics in Oakland.
“Why am I running? Because I want to change the system that we have. I want to make sure that the kinds of schools that I went to don’t exist anymore,” said Lerma, who also ran for the seat in 2020. “Yes, I learned how to read and write, but I was also damaged on that journey. I don’t want the children here to suffer that damage.”
In her pre-recorded answers, Ritzie Hernandez emphasized her history of working with families in various roles. She currently serves as the coordinator of the Bay Area Coalition for Education Justice and previously worked as a parent organizer for Bay Area Parent Leadership Action Network.
“Over the past decade I’ve dedicated my life toward enhancing students and families, working tirelessly to improving learning conditions and educational outcomes,” she said. “Knowledge is power, and I firmly believe that when families are aware of their rights, they can advocate effectively for their children’s education.”
Parents asked questions to gauge the candidate’s friendliness to charter schools and families, and whether the candidates would protect charter schools’ access to district-owned facilities as mandated under propositions 39 and 51, which have sometimes led to contentious discussions at board meetings about charter school access to district buildings.
This week, a months-long saga for students and families at Cox Academy, a public charter in East Oakland, came to an end when the OUSD board approved a contract outlining terms for the school to receive millions of state dollars for much-needed building upgrades.
“The children here are residents of Oakland. They don’t live in another place or in another city,” Lerma said. “So what I want to do is eliminate this fear, this barrier, these artificial differences that exist between the charter schools and the district schools. I believe that there are schools and schools choose their own philosophy.”
Ritzie Hernandez acknowledged that while it is the responsibility of the board to ensure every child in Oakland has a safe learning environment, she does not support expanding charter schools in Oakland. Oakland currently has 39 charter schools, down from 45 in the 2019-2020 school year. Charter schools in Oakland grew rapidly between 2000 and 2010, and some point to the increase in charter schools for the school district’s enrollment decline, which has had debilitating effects on OUSD’s revenues.
“I am committed to strengthening our district-operated public schools as the cornerstone of our public education system,” she said. “To achieve this, I believe in increasing funding through measures like average daily attendance for district-operated public schools. It is my priority to work towards adequately funding and improving our public schools, addressing disparities, and ensuring that every student has access to a high-quality education.
In her pre-recorded responses to a question-and-answer lightning round, Ritzie Hernandez disagreed that charters are public schools.
This year, Families in Action published “The Unspoken Pandemic,” a report laying out the glaring gaps in achievement for Black and Latino students in Oakland. Across district and charter schools in Oakland, a minority of Black and Latino students are reading and doing math on grade level. To questions about improving school quality and academic outcomes, Ritzie Hernandez pointed to the legacy of systemic racism and eliminating the school-to-prison pipeline.
“I have seen firsthand the impact of underfunded schools and the consequences for students of color. These experiences have made me acutely aware of the role that implicit bias and systemic racism plays in our education system,” said Ritzie Hernandez, who was born in Mexico and moved to Oakland as a child. “We must prioritize resources and support for struggling students, invest in early childhood education, implement culturally relevant curriculum, and provide professional development for educators to recognize and address their own biases.”
Lerma, who helped found OUSD’s La Escuelita as a bilingual school in the 1970s, said it’s time for schools to try new strategies to address the “unspoken pandemic.”
“The failure is not the children. The failure is in the system that relies on antiquated approaches that have never really been effective for us,” Lerma said. “We want a program that understands who we are, what we are, and prepares us for a better world than the one we exist in right now.”
This election has not been without hiccups. Last month, both candidates were led to think they’d been disqualified from the ballot because of confusion over the district boundaries, which were changed in 2020. The city has since announced that both candidates will be on the ballot.
The Oakland Youth Vote Coalition will also be holding a candidate forum at Fremont High School on Oct. 12. Since 16- and 17-year-olds still haven’t been able to cast a vote, the youth vote coalition plans to hold a mock vote.
Only residents of District 5’s previous boundaries will be eligible to vote in this election, which will be held on Nov. 7. Vote-by-mail ballots will be distributed beginning Oct. 9, and the deadline to register is Oct. 23.
The Oaklandside plans to publish profiles of each of the candidates in the coming weeks. If you have questions you’d like us to pose to the candidates, you can email email@example.com.