School Closures Drive Oakland School Board Races 

Oakland's school board races are highly competitive this November, in part because of the decision last year to close five schools.

Oakland public schools have made a remarkable turnaround in recent years. The district has successfully emerged from state control, has balanced its budget, has consistently improved test scores, and has hired a superintendent — Tony Smith — who many educators believe possesses one of the brightest minds in the business. With that kind of record, it would have been no surprise had several school board members faced no opposition this year. In fact, in two of the three school board races in 2010, the incumbents ran unopposed, and the third won by a landslide. This year, however, is different.

Three Oakland school board incumbents are facing challengers, and a fourth race for an open seat could end up being tight. Why the competition? It has to do, in part, with the board's decision last year to follow the advice of Superintendent Smith and close five schools.

As the Express was first to report, Smith had come to realize by the spring of 2010 that Oakland Unified has far more schools than it needs (see "Oakland Unified Has Too Many Schools," 5/5/10). The numbers tell the story: With more than one hundred schools, Oakland has more schools per student than any other district in Alameda County and any other comparable district in the state. And the big problem with having too many schools is they cost too much. They each require their own principals, staff, and maintenance crews. Other districts don't have these extra costs because they have fewer schools that are much larger than Oakland's — and so they take advantage of economies of scale.

As a result, other districts can pay their teachers much higher salaries. In fact, Oakland pays the lowest teacher salaries on average in Alameda County, and has among the lowest salaries in the state. In Oakland, the average teacher salary is $54,035, while the statewide average is $67,448, according to the California Ed-Data Partnership, a state information clearinghouse. In Alameda County, the average teacher salary is $69,553, when excluding Oakland. OUSD's low, uncompetitive salaries also have serious consequences. The school district typically has difficulty attracting and retaining qualified teachers, which leads to high teacher turnover and forces students in many schools to go without competent instruction.

How did this happen? Two major shifts: Thousands of families left Oakland during the last decade as the city's population shrank, and there has been an explosion of charter schools in the city. As a result, Oakland Unified has lost about 30 percent of the student population it had a dozen years ago, yet has about the same number of schools. And since school funding in California is based on the number of students in each district, Oakland now operates on a smaller budget than it did before, yet still has many of the same structural costs.

Smith clearly understands these issues, and that's why he proposed in 2010 that the district begin the process of closing 25 to 30 schools over the next several years. Smith's plan was to use the money the district would save from the school closures not only to boost teacher salaries, but also to turn many of the remaining schools into community learning centers that offered a variety of programs and services to both students and their families (see "Tony Smith's Vision," 10/11/2011).

However, closing schools is the electric third rail in education, and the first round of school closures sparked a fierce backlash. Parents and some people who worked at the first five schools packed school board meetings and yelled at the board members. The fury was so strong that Smith and the board decided to postpone more school closures, even though Oakland still has far more schools than it can afford.

Some members of the Oakland teachers' union also joined opponents of the closures. Although closing 25 to 30 schools could ultimately help raise teacher salaries, the union has been dominated in recent years by far-left activists who view virtually everything the school board does with suspicion and who have refused to endorse Smith's plan. In addition, the teacher's union is now working to oust board members who voted for the closures.

District 1

One of the board members being targeted is President Jody London, a parent of two students in Oakland public schools. London firmly supports Smith's vision for OUSD and his plans to refocus the district on students who are most in need. "I know I have made decisions that have not been popular," said London, whose District 1 seat includes North Oakland, Rockridge, and Temescal. "But they've helped return us to financial health."

London, who was first elected to the board in 2008 when she defeated charter-school advocate Brian Rogers by more than twenty percentage points, has numerous endorsements, including both from labor and business. She also strongly opposed the license renewal of the scandal-plagued American Indian Public Charter Schools. During her tenure on the board, she has worked to improve OUSD's lunch program and has focused the district on using green-building materials, including solar panels on school campuses, and on hiring local construction workers.

But one endorsement London doesn't possess is that of the Oakland teachers' union. That group instead is backing Thearse Pecot, a local activist who decided to run for office because she adamantly opposed the school closures. Pecot is particularly upset about the closing of Santa Fe Elementary School in North Oakland. She's says it was unfair to that community. "They closed the last public elementary school in the 94608 zip code," she said, adding that she will vote against any more school closures.

Pecot, however, does not appear to have a clear plan for addressing the district's structural financial issues. She contends that the school board should stop approving charter school applications, although she acknowledges that state law gives the board little choice in such matters when charter schools have viable proposals. She also argues that teachers deserve a raise and contends that the district must slash expenditures on consultants, yet didn't realize when interviewed that many of those consultant costs are related to the district having too many schools. She also argues that the district should work harder to improve community involvement in order to entice parents back from charter schools.

District 5

Although incumbent Noel Gallo is not seeking reelection and is instead running for city council, the school closures and other school board decisions are nonetheless playing a significant role in this race. The teachers' union is backing Mike Hutchinson, an activist who worked at Santa Fe Elementary. Hutchinson also was involved in an unsuccessful Occupy-style sit-in at Lakeview Elementary, another school that closed last year. Hutchinson is running against Rosie Torres, a criminal defense attorney who also has a child in Oakland public schools. District 5 includes the city's Fruitvale and Glenview districts.

Hutchinson's positions are very similar to those of Pecot. He strongly opposes any more school closures, and contends that the school board should stop approving charter school applications — even if it means possibly defying state law. He said that school board members should "see how far they can push" the law.

Hutchinson also noted that Lazear Elementary, one of the schools that closed, reopened as a charter school. But left unsaid was the fact that the Oakland school board had rejected that charter school application, and it was then later approved by the Alameda County Board of Education. In other words, even if the Oakland school board does what Hutchinson suggests and turns down charter applications, those charter schools can still get approval by the county or the state.

As for Torres, she's been an active parent in her kid's public school for several years, and she said she would have voted for the school closures because of the district's structural financial issues. She also supports Superintendent Smith's vision for OUSD. "His ideas resonate with me," she said. However, Torres, who is bilingual, said that she would also push to supplement Smith's attempts to focus on African-American boys in the district by also doing more to help Latino students.

District 7

In East Oakland, incumbent Alice Spearman ultimately voted against the school closures, although she said she understands that the district has more schools than it can afford. "I was not comfortable with the way the schools were selected" for closure, she said, explaining her vote. Earlier, Spearman had voted to approve the comprehensive process that the district used to determine which schools to shutter. It turned out that one of the schools that closed, Thurgood Marshall Elementary, was in her neighborhood. Over the years, Spearman's support for Superintendent Smith has grown tepid.

In terms of her record on the board, Spearman pointed to the district's local vendor policy for hiring Oakland companies and residents for school construction projects. "We're doing extremely well," she said, noting that the major remodel of La Escuelita school in Eastlake has included "more than 70 percent local participation."

Running against Spearman is James Harris, a former high school teacher in San Francisco. Harris said he fully backs Superintendent Smith and his vision for community-based schools. "I'm a big fan of his work," Harris said. "I really want to get on the board and support the work he's doing."

Harris, who sends his kids to private school, said he would have supported the school closures plan but believes the district and the board could have done a better job in communicating with parents and staff at the affected schools. "I want to make sure that even if the community is unhappy with a decision that they at least feel that they were a part of that decision," he said.

Harris also said he would have voted with the school board majority last month to begin the revocation process of American Indian Public Charter schools, which have been plagued by a financial fraud scandal. Spearman voted against that revocation, and has been a longtime supporter of American Indian.

The Oakland teachers' union, which strongly opposes charter schools, did not make an endorsement in this race.

District 3

The race to represent voters in West Oakland, downtown, and Adams Point is the only one in which the school closures do not appear to be playing a significant role. The contest features two main candidates: incumbent Jumoke Hinton Hodge and Richard Fuentes, a policy analyst for Oakland Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente.

Hinton Hodge was first elected to the school board in 2008, and was part of the board majority that led the district out of state control and hired Superintendent Smith. She voted for the school closures and is an ardent supporter of the superintendent. "He's a really strong leader," she said of Smith. "And I think he's created a really amazing management team."

If reelected, Hinton Hodge said she would continue to emphasize the need to close the achievement gap and improve the district's dropout rate. Last spring, she voted to renew the license of American Indian Public Charter schools, but then changed her mind and voted last month to the begin the process of revoking it. She noted that the schools traditionally have had very high test scores, but she said that after she thoroughly reviewed evidence that the schools' director, Ben Chavis, was involved in fraud, she decided to vote for the revocation in light of the "fiscal impropriety going on."

As for Fuentes, he said he did not get into the race because of the school-closures issue, although he indicated that he would have voted against the plan. He said one of his driving forces is erasing the millions of dollars of debt incurred by the State of California when it operated OUSD. The state is now forcing Oakland to pay that debt to the state.

Fuentes, who has worked as a volunteer at Hoover Elementary School in West Oakland, has numerous endorsements, both from labor and business, and has extensive Democratic Party connections in Sacramento and Southern California. Even State Superintendent of Schools Tom Torlakson endorses him. He said he plans to use his connections "to eliminate a portion of the debt" that the state ran up at OUSD. But it's unclear how he would convince Jerry Brown to go along with that plan since the governor has expressed no interest in doing so.

In terms of the school closures, Fuentes said he would have worked harder to find alternative solutions. He had a similar response when asked how he would have voted on American Indian Public Charter schools. He said he would have approached other charter school organizations to see if they would take over the financial operations of American Indian, "so we could bring stability to those sites."

The Oakland teachers' union endorsed Fuentes.

Correction: The original version of this story erroneously stated that candidate Mike Hutchinson had worked at Lakeview Elementary. He had worked at Santa Fe Elementary. Both schools closed last year.

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