In Oakland School Board Races, A Crowded Field of Newcomers 

As eight residents fight for three seats, endorsements from influential groups shed light on the candidates' priorities — and the importance of the charter school debate in this year's election.

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For his part, Debro said that "there are excellent charter schools that the district should fully support." But he said that there are simply too many charter schools in Oakland and that they "pose a serious question about the financial viability of the district in the long run as they continue to grow."

He said that some of them "aren't playing fair in terms of recruitment," arguing that they siphon off high-performing students from traditional district schools. And he said he is further concerned about reports of charters pushing out low-performing students. He did not seek the charter association endorsement.

Debro further argued that he was the most qualified candidate, with a doctorate of education and 25 years of experience, teaching middle school and high school in San Leandro, before working as a director of a Contra Costa College program that serves high school dropouts.

The fourth candidate in the race, Spigner, said she is the only candidate with a resume that is very different from past board members and current candidates, emphasizing that she is a political outsider with a strong business and technology background.

"I don't come encumbered with previous relationships or agendas," she said, adding that she would be the best candidate to analyze the district's finances, given her experience managing large budgets in the private sector. "That's a very necessary perspective on the board and one that's been missing for a long time."

District Six

In the race to represent portions of East Oakland, voters have a choice between a candidate with a background in education and youth programs and a candidate with a background in labor and community organizing. The former is Renato Almanzor, a program director for an organization that does professional development for nonprofits, and the latter is Shanthi Gonzales, who is the former vice chair of the Oakland Library Advisory Commission and vice president of the board of La Raza Centro Legal, a social justice organization.

Almanzor has extensive experience working in Oakland schools. He served as chair of the school site councils in his son's elementary, middle, and high schools and previously served as director of the school district's family and community office. He also served on the planning and oversight committee of the city-run Oakland Fund for Children And Youth, which provides grants to youth programs. He scored endorsements from the charter school association and GO Public Schools.

"Renato has been steeped in this world for a long time," said Kate Nicol, chair of Oakland Families for Quality Schools, a local pro-charter political action committee that is supported by the state charter association. "His understanding about the education space is profound." GO Public Schools has spent at least $23,000 so far to support Almanzor.

Despite the support of the charter group, Almanzor told me that while charter schools in Oakland foster innovation and school choice for families, he felt that there are currently too many charters, and that the proliferation of these schools has exacerbated the financial challenges of the district. But, he said, "charters are gaining momentum and Oakland is a test case. The conversation can't just be about yes or no to charters."

He criticized union leaders for uniformly dismissing charter schools and said that it is important that charters are evaluated based on data, not ideology.

Gonzales — who previously worked for the healthcare workers union and currently works as the membership and program coordinator for the Women Donors Network, a progressive advocacy group — has endorsements from a long list of labor groups, including the teacher's union, as well a number of East Bay Democratic and progressive groups.

In our interview, she pointed out that Oakland teachers have the lowest pay in Alameda County and said that, in addition to prioritizing a salary increase, she would advocate for improvements in professional development for teachers.

Gonzales said she remains concerned that students with special needs are underserved at charter schools. "What I want for charter schools is the same as what I want for district schools," she said. "I want schools that are accountable for the public money that they use and are inclusive of all the community."

Gorham, from the teacher's union, said Gonzales' background in community organizing would be an asset on the board, adding: "Shanthi is one of the most determined and forceful women I have ever met."

District Two

Two young candidates are competing for the District Two seat, which is currently occupied by David Kakishiba, the outgoing school board president. Aimee Eng, a 33-year-old program officer at a Walnut Creek-based foundation, is facing off against Bo Ghirardelli, a 29-year-old nonprofit executive director. Eng has earned endorsements from the charter school association, GO Public Schools, and Kakishiba. (The teacher's union did not make an endorsement in this race).

Through the Thomas J. Long Foundation, Eng has brought funding to nonprofits that partner with the Oakland school district. "I bring a different lens of professional expertise," she said. "I have a track record of bringing resources to the community." She said she has worked on grants that support summer internships for students as well as early childhood education initiatives.

Nicol, of the Oakland Families for Quality Schools (the pro-charter group), said that Eng "demonstrated a depth of knowledge of the charter sector that was important to us."

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