Across Oakland, candidates for mayor and city council are promoting their plans to improve public schools in the city. In reality, however, the mayor and the council are limited in what they can do to address the challenges of the public education system. Instead, it's the down-ballot Board of Education races that matter most to the future of the city's schools, and this year is particularly critical. With no incumbents running for reelection in three districts — Two, Four, and Six — a total of eight newcomers are now fighting for spots on the seven-member governing board that oversees the city's public school system.
In the coming years, the school board will face a number of key issues, including negotiating teachers' contracts; overseeing the implementation of new funding for high schools (if voters approve a proposed tax on the ballot, Measure N); reviewing potential school closures; examining applications for new charter schools; and working to address the "perilous financial status" of the school district — as the Alameda County Grand Jury recently described it.
The endorsements of the most influential education groups — the California Charter Schools Association, the Oakland Education Association (the teachers' union), and Great Oakland Public Schools (a nonprofit that has spent big on this year's races) — shed light on the priorities and accomplishments of the eight candidates: two each in districts Two and Six, and four in District Four. And based on conversations with representatives of the three organizations and interviews with the eight candidates, it's clear that the most controversial topic is the role of charter schools in Oakland.
Charter schools, which are publicly funded, but privately operated, have proliferated in the city and now educate more than 25 percent of all public school students in the city. Critics say these schools take students and funding away from the traditional schools, which are left with fewer resources to educate some of the most disadvantaged students.
It is the candidates' divergent stances on charters, along with their varying backgrounds in education, that helped influence the endorsements and can help voters make their choices in November.
In the crowded race to replace school board member Annie Campbell Washington, who is giving up her seat to run for city council, the four candidates have very different professional backgrounds. The Charter Schools Association and Great Oakland Public Schools (GO Public Schools) both co-endorsed Nina Senn, an attorney and mediator, and Saleem Shakir-Gilmore, a juvenile justice consultant. In fact, the charter association and GO Public Schools, an education coalition made up of community members and representatives from charters and traditional schools, had identical endorsements in all three districts.
Karl Debro, a community college administrator and longtime public school teacher, nabbed the endorsement of the teachers' union — which he said encouraged him to run — and in our interview made some of the most critical comments about charter schools of any of the eight candidates running this year in Oakland. The fourth candidate in the District Four race is Cheri Spigner, who works in technology sales and has few high-profile endorsements, but has the lead in fundraising.
In addition to her work as an attorney, Senn previously served as a vice president of the parent teacher association of Montera Middle School and as the board president of a nonprofit focused on mediation and restorative justice. She said she would support expanding restorative justice efforts in Oakland schools; she helped bring a restorative program to Montera.
Senn said she is the only candidate in the race with a background in nonprofits, business, and school leadership. "That package of skill sets is extremely valuable on a board as complicated as the Oakland school board," she said. Despite the charter association's endorsement, Senn said she is "not a charter school ideologue" and is "not afraid to make those tough decisions if charter schools are not fulfilling their obligations."
Jessica Stewart, managing director of GO Public Schools, argued that Senn's background in mediation would make her a uniquely valuable resource in contract negotiations and praised her reputation as a "tireless parent volunteer."
Shakir-Gilmore earned the GO endorsement because "he has just been a warrior for students of color and traditionally underserved students," said Stewart. She noted that Shakir-Gilmore has been a student, teacher, and parent in Oakland public schools, making him unique among all board candidates.
"I have a lot of direct experience in Oakland," Shakir-Gilmore said. He has worked as a classroom teacher and teacher's assistant and has done education consulting and curriculum design. He also sat on the oversight committee for Measure G, a parcel tax that brings funding to the school district for teacher retention, class-size reduction, and other programs.
Shakir-Gilmore said he would like to see more ongoing evaluations of charter schools and "apples-to-apples" comparisons of charters and traditional schools. He criticized groups that promote a "charter school-public school debate that is really, in my mind, paralyzing the ability for us to make decisions and work together." That attitude may have contributed to the lack of an endorsement from the teacher's union, which picked Senn as a second choice, behind Debro.
The union has been a vocal opponent of charter schools, which are excluded from the district's contract with teachers. "The promise of charter schools is not the current reality," said Trish Gorham, president of the Oakland Education Association. "[Debro] has seen how it has drained the resources in the schools that he works in and the schools that his children have attended in Oakland."