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.

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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."

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