With one week to go before Election Day, the two candidates running for the Oakland school board are making a final push to convince voters why they should be elected on Nov. 7.
Sasha Ritzie-Hernandez, a coordinator with Bay Area Coalition for Education Justice, and Jorge Lerma, a veteran teacher and administrator, are seeking to represent Fruitvale and surrounding neighborhoods in East Oakland. The District 5 seat has been vacant since March, leaving nearly 9,000 students and their families across about two dozen district and charter schools without a representative on the board.
A lot is at stake. The winner of the District 5 race will be a tie-breaking vote on a board that has faced gridlock on major issues like budget cuts, charter schools, and special education program closures.
Vote-by-mail ballots have already been distributed. Voting is currently underway for those who want to mail in their ballot, drop it off in a secure dropbox, or vote in person at Think College Now at 2825 International Blvd. The last day to vote by any method is Election Day on Nov. 7.
Voters who currently reside in the previous District 5 boundaries are eligible to vote in this race, which is to fulfill Director Mike Hutchinson’s term. Hutchinson was first elected to represent District 5 in 2020, and after the redistricting process was complete in 2021, Hutchinson decided to run for the District 4 seat since his address became part of the new District 4.
Both candidates have raised thousands of dollars for their campaigns, buying ads and mailers and paying for other voter outreach efforts. This race, however, hasn’t seen hundreds of thousands of dollars in independent expenditures like some previous OUSD elections. Still, some groups, like local progressive organizations and labor unions, have thrown support behind Ritzie-Hernandez.
We took a look at the money powering both candidates’ campaigns to get a better idea of who’s supporting Ritzie-Hernandez and Lerma.
Ritzie-Hernandez has raised $17,530 through the end of October. Individual donors to her campaign include current school board members Jennifer Brouhard, VanCedric Williams, and Valarie Bachelor, former District 5 school board director Roseann Torres, several Oakland teachers, and leaders in the Oakland Education Association teachers union.
The Oakland Education Association, Peralta Federation of Teachers, which is the faculty union at the Peralta Colleges, SEIU 1021, which represents school support staff, Laborers Local 304, representing construction workers in Northern California, and UA Local 342 representing plumbing and welding trades, have all given the maximum legal amount of $1,200 to Ritzie-Hernandez’s campaign.
Ritzie-Hernandez, whose platform centers robust family engagement and budget transparency, said the support from the teachers union and other labor groups is crucial, but it doesn’t mean she will only side with the unions.
“It’s really disheartening to hear that getting the support of OEA means you’re only going to side with OEA or only with teachers. My platform does not run on that. My platform runs on supporting and putting our families at the center,” she told The Oaklandside. “I’m focusing on our students and ensuring that our teachers have great working conditions, because we have a challenge. We’re not retaining our teachers, so of course I’m going to look for the support of teachers.”
There’s no limit on how much independent expenditure committees can spend on elections, so long as they don’t coordinate with a candidate. The Oakland Education Association political action committee has spent $30,192 in support of Ritzie-Hernandez’s campaign, on mailers, consulting, and canvassing.
The Oakland Rising Committee, the political arm of the social justice organization Oakland Rising, has spent approximately $4,179.94 in support of Ritzie-Hernandez, and SEIU’s California Workers’ Justice Coalition has spent $15,800 on mailers for Ritzie-Hernandez’s campaign, according to the groups’ most recent disclosure filings.
“I want to stay in partnership with everyone, including those who didn’t endorse me, because I don’t think this is a popularity contest. This is about building relationships and how we can move together as a village to really shift what is currently happening in Oakland,” she said. “I’m running for District 5. My hope is to represent the community of District 5 to the best of my ability.”
At the end of October, Ritzie-Hernandez’s campaign had just under $5,500 cash on hand. The campaign has spent nearly $10,000 on maintaining a website, printing materials, postage and delivery costs, and campaign consultants.
Lerma, who unsuccessfully ran for the D5 seat in 2020, raised about $23,000 from June through the end of October. Individual donors to Lerma’s campaign include former school board directors Gary Yee, Clifford Thompson, Jody London, Jumoke Hinton, Shanthi Gonzales, Nina Senn, James Harrison, David Kakishiba, Greg Hodge, and Kyra Mungia; former school board candidates Leroy Gaines and Nick Resnick; and charter school industry leaders Rich Harrison, Sue Park, and Maribel Gonzalez.
Lerma’s donors also include real estate investor Isaac Abid and accountant Len Raphael, who are helping fundraise and gather signatures for the campaign to recall Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price.
Through September, Lerma was still using his 2020 campaign account to collect donations. At the start of this year, that account had about $5,400 in it. Lerma told The Oaklandside he thought he could use his previous campaign account for the current race, and he raised thousands from individual contributors until he was informed that he needed to create a new account for this year’s election. Lerma set up the new account for the 2023 race in October, and transferred most of the balance, about $12,000, to that account.
“It’s a learning curve. I thought in the beginning, ‘Well, we have an account, we’ll continue to use it.’ We were informed it needed to reflect 2023,” Lerma told The Oaklandside. “I said no problem, and opened up a new account. The intention was not to have two accounts.”
Lerma also missed the deadline for filing September campaign contributions, which incurred a fee, he said. Lerma explained that his treasurer, Jose Dorado, runs a small mom-and-pop business, and was hospitalized from a hip operation and COVID, which slowed down the paperwork.
OUSD parent Kim Davis first noted the discrepancies on her blog, Parents United for Public Schools, when Lerma was late filing his September contributions. Davis argued that it’s critical for the OUSD board to re-establish trust with the community around budgeting, and part of that process is having school board members who are accountable and transparent.
“We have had in OUSD, in our school board, a real lack of transparency and a definite lack of accountability for how they spend money and decisions they make,” she told The Oaklandside.
Lerma maintains that the error was an oversight and that his campaign wasn’t trying to hide anything.
“My opponent, if they want to exploit the fact that my accountant got sick and was unavailable, they can use that. It got slowed down, and I’m embarrassed about the whole thing,” Lerma said. “My accountant got sick, was in the hospital, got home, and recovered. Everything has been taken care of.”
Lerma told The Oaklandside his campaign is focused on academic achievement rates for students of color.
“I have the full spectrum of people supporting the campaign. There are no deep pockets or corporate connections,” he said. “I have a laser focus on the achievement gap in Oakland. I’ll do anything necessary to close that achievement gap, particularly Black and brown and minority children in Oakland.
Lerma has about $4,000 left in his 2020 campaign account, which was still receiving donations through Oct. 1. In his 2023 account, Lerma has about $18,000 on hand, which included the $12,000 transfer from the 2020 account. Lerma’s expenditures include printing yard signs and door hangers, accounting services, voter information from the Alameda County Registrar, and fees to ActBlue, which operates software for collecting donations.