Dozens of Oakland high schoolers gathered at Fremont High School on Thursday to lay out their priorities for the next school board director in District 5 and question the candidates about how they’ll represent students if voted into office.
Organized by All City Council, Oakland Unified’s student leadership body, and Oakland Youth Vote Coalition, a group of organizations that’s been working to lower the voting age to 16 for school board races, Thursday’s forum covered topics ranging from student mental health to campus safety, nutrition, youth homelessness, and academics.
Since Oakland’s youth vote initiative—approved by voters in 2020—has yet to be implemented, student leaders canvassed their peers and created a “student justice platform” that prioritizes health and wellness resources, community-centered schools, and life-skills education. Towards the end of the forum, mock ballots were distributed to students so they could cast a vote for one of the two D5 candidates, Sasha Ritzie-Hernandez and Jorge Lerma. The results of the mock vote will be revealed at an upcoming school board meeting.
“Typically, school board members have the power to decide what schools need, how funding is spent, how students and parents will be engaged in decisions, what students learn, and what will be the priorities for the next four years,” said student leader Maximus Simmons, one of the emcees for the forum. “So what’s your vision for OUSD students in schools?”
Fremont Principal Nidya Baez, who also graduated from the school in 2003, talked about the demographics of District 5—which includes Fruitvale and surrounding neighborhoods in East Oakland—and why this election is critical. Since March, District 5 has been without a representative, leaving thousands of students and families without a voice on critical school district matters. The district has 14 OUSD schools and several more charter schools.
The majority of District 5 students are Latino (72%), with the next largest groups being African-American (10%) and white (7%).
“For almost a year, our schools have gone unrepresented on our school board, which is why we’re having this event and the community events that have been happening to create more awareness,” Baez told the audience. “That’s about 9,000 students, young people that are not being represented at this moment.”
Candidates Ritzie-Hernandez and Lerma laid out their platforms during the discussion. Ritzie-Hernandez, the coordinator for Bay Area Coalition for Education Justice, said her priorities as director would be improving campus safety, fully implementing the Reparations for Black Students policy that the school board passed in 2021, building up OUSD’s community schools, and establishing robust family engagement plans.
Lerma, a former teacher and principal, said he’d first focus on improving student performance in literacy and math. His second priority would be to produce a balanced, self-sustaining budget.
One notable difference between the two is their stance on school closures. Last year, OUSD closed Parker Elementary and Community Day School, combined New Highland Academy and RISE Community School, and shuttered the middle school at La Escuelita. Last year’s school board had also voted to close five more schools this year, but in January the newly elected board rescinded that plan.
Ritzie-Hernandez does not support closing schools. But if they must happen, she said, she would want to see a report on the impact of the closures, and a thorough plan for how the district will retain students attending closing schools.
“We also need to make sure that if we’re looking at school closures, it needs to be equitable. It does not always have to be in the Black and brown communities,” she said. “Whatever challenges our schools are going through, our goal is to invest and not abandon our schools, because we need them.”
Lerma, who helped to found bilingual schools in Oakland, pointed to the loss of enrollment that OUSD has seen over the past two decades in explaining why he doesn’t oppose school closures. Closed school sites, he said, could also be used for other purposes.
“We can develop the land for employees, for parents, for teachers, for homeless youth,” he said. “There’s other purposes that the land could be used for, and I’m willing to consider other options than just the traditional school site.”
One student in the audience asked how the candidates would work to avoid future teacher strikes. In the last four years, the Oakland Education Association has gone on strike three times. This year, teachers held a strike for seven days.
Lerma argued that avoiding strikes will require being prudent with the budget to ensure there’s enough money to pay teachers and other staff well, and room for future wage increases. Ritzie-Hernandez likewise said that paying competitive wages and improving working conditions are what will retain teachers and avoid future strikes.
Alani Wilson, a senior at Oakland High School who attended the forum, agreed with Ritzie-Hernandez’s answer about school closures and having a retention plan for impacted students.
“Closing down a school is enough to harm students,” Wilson said. “But for them to not have a plan for where they’re going to go is putting in obstacles for them to get an education.”
Marri Hazzard, also a senior at Oakland High, agreed. She thought back to her eighth and ninth grade years, when school was virtual because of the pandemic.
“They told us that we were going to have two weeks off of school, and then all of a sudden it was the rest of my eighth grade year, and my whole ninth grade year,” Hazard said. “[Not having a plan] can cause trauma because I felt like when I got back to school, I didn’t know what to do.”
Both students said youth mental health should be another priority for the district’s next school board director.
Election Day is Nov. 7, and mail-in ballots have been distributed to eligible voters. Because this election is to replace Director Mike Hutchinson, who was elected prior to the redistricting process in 2021, only residents living within Oakland’s previous District 5 boundaries can vote in the special school board election. Those boundaries can be viewed here.
The winner of the special election will be sworn in once the results are certified, and will serve until January 2025.