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.

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.

District Four

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.”

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.”

Both Nicol and Stewart, of GO Public Schools, said that Ghirardelli simply has not invested enough energy into his campaign, especially compared to Eng. He doesn’t have a campaign website, and he told me he doesn’t have time to campaign because he is focused on expanding his nonprofit.

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