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The candidates for four open seats on the Oakland school board generally fall into two camps — those ready to address the district’s serious problems, and those in denial about them.
The district of 49,000 students must confront poor academic performance, an excess of schools that drain money, projected budget deficits and inadequate online teaching time during the pandemic.
With a majority of the seven school board seats on the Nov. 3 ballot, and no incumbents seeking reelection, this is a critical election. Voters who care about the future of education in Oakland should look for candidates serious about change.
The standout candidates are Austin Dannhaus in District 1; Mark Hurty in District 3; Leroy Gaines in District 5; and Clifford Thompson in District 7. They will bring the proper focus on student performance and district financial sustainability.
The district continues to have a state trustee overseeing its finances because it still owes money from a $100 million bailout in 2003, when the district was unable to meet its financial obligations.
In January 2019, Alameda County Superintendent of Schools Karen Monroe, who also monitors district finances, warned that the district’s reserves “may be insufficient to avert insolvency.” Steps taken since then have brought some stability back, but the district, by its own, often-optimistic projections, still faces a deficit of more than $10 million next fiscal year.
A key factor: Too many schools. For years, district officials have warned that dozens of schools, often located in areas where few students live, are underenrolled. The district has nearly 11,000 empty seats. The cost of maintaining buildings, utilities and staff drains too much money from the classroom, where it’s most needed.
Trustees have started to act: The district operates five fewer schools than it did in 2017-18, the result of the consolidation of eight schools into four and the closure of another. But much more is needed.
At the same time, in a district in which about 33% of students are English-language learners and 71% are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, only one-third of the district’s students are reading at or above grade level. One-third. The numbers are much worse for just Black or Latino students.
Now, with the pandemic, students are likely to fall further behind. But the district’s politically powerful teachers union has insisted on full-time pay with minimal online instruction time for students.
Under a September agreement, elementary-school children will receive an average of less than two hours daily of teacher instruction and students in grade 6 and higher will receive slightly over two hours. That’s ridiculous. Amazingly, it’s better than the teachers’ starting position.
With a new board majority at stake in this election, here are four impressive candidates who are clear-headed about the need to correct these obvious problems.
District 1 – Dannhaus
Former third-grade teacher Austin Dannhaus runs a social-impact consulting firm serving organizations focused on education, economic opportunity and community development.
He understands that the district has a structural budget deficit that must be addressed, and that includes school consolidation. He also wants to address the district’s troubling accounting practices and excess of employees in the central district offices. Finally, he says teachers should be providing more online instruction time during the pandemic.
District 3 – Hurty
Mark Hurty, a former Oakland special education teacher, is an information technology guy working for a nonprofit devoted to upgrading internet access public schools.
He cuts right to key issues that need to be addressed: Oakland students’ poor reading proficiency, the excess number of schools and the poor performance of district-run schools that helps explain why more than a quarter of the district’s students are enrolled in charter schools.
For a second pick under Oakland’s ranked-choice voting, look to Maiya Edgerly, who works for a program that helps youth with disabilities find work. She echoes many of the same positions as Hurty, but she hasn’t mastered the details nearly as well.
District 5 – Gaines
Leroy Gaines is the standout candidate in this race, someone who could have a major positive impact on the district. The principal of Oakland’s Acorn Woodland Elementary School for nine years, he is now California director of a national program that trains school leaders so they can improve academic performance for students in poverty and students of color.
Gaines is the only one of the District 5 candidates who acknowledges the problems posed by the district’s oversaturation of schools; despite all the clear evidence, none of the other candidates believe there’s a problem. Gaines seeks to end the fighting between district-run and charter schools, improve academic performance and make sure that funding reaches the classroom, where it’s needed most.
District 7 – Thompson
Clifford Thompson has been a principal and teacher in Oakland and he’s been a professor training future teachers. He understands that the district faces serious budget issues driven significantly by the excess of schools, draining money that should go toward helping students. And he’s clear that teachers during the pandemic need to be spending more time teaching.