The past several months have been rough on the Berkeley Unified School District. Last winter, a proposal to eliminate science labs from the high school in the name of racial equity made national news and sparked bitter debate, and in February, Jim Slemp, principal of the district’s only high school, announced his resignation. The district is starting off the academic year having cut millions of dollars from its budget, and now, with at least two of the five seats on the school board set to turn over — not including the token seat reserved for a student — November’s election could mark a seminal moment for the district, according to Karen Hemphill, who was elected to the board in 2004 and is the race’s only incumbent.
“We had a board that was really able to come together, despite some challenges,” she said. “With [longtime board members] Nancy [Riddle] and Shirley [Issel] leaving and with such a new board, that’s going to be a process.”
Hemphill is running against five other candidates. Julie Holcomb, a small-business owner who has sat on several advisory committees and school governance councils over the past five years, said she hopes to improve and expand technical and career-oriented education. Josh Daniels is a young school finance lawyer and graduate of Berkeley public schools who co-founded Berkeley High’s student court in 2005 and who favors greater transparency on the board and more responsible financial decision-making. Longtime volunteer and committee member Priscilla Myrick, who has been active in literacy programs in the district, touts her extensive experience as a CFO and controller for biotech companies and is making the budget a top priority. Leah Wilson, a juvenile court program manager and parent of three, said she would devote much of her energies to program evaluation and closing Berkeley’s persistent achievement gap. And finally, Norma Harrison, who was the only candidate to receive zero votes at the Berkeley Democratic Club’s endorsement meeting last month, said she would like to dismantle Berkeley’s school system as it currently exists and work to implement one where students are not segregated by age.
The candidates’ priorities scarcely differ. Each except Harrison named closing the district’s budget deficit and improving instruction as their top priorities if elected, though Myrick has differentiated herself by being the only candidate to oppose Measure I, a school bond. “This is a moment when we really need to take a look at experience,” said Cathy Campbell, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers.
Campbell’s organization has endorsed Hemphill, Daniels, and Wilson, and Wilson and Holcomb have the support of the Berkeley Democratic Club, though Hemphill only missed the Club’s endorsement threshold by a single vote.