The story in Oakland’s schools this year has undoubtedly been the strained relationship between the district’s teachers and its school board. In April, the teachers’ union, the Oakland Education Association, staged a one-day strike after the school board approved a contract that didn’t increase teacher pay, and the two parties still have yet to resolve the dispute. Now, the only contested school board race in the district is also playing out as a fight between the union and the board, as incumbent Gary Yee faces off against former union president Ben Visnick.
Visnick and Yee are vying to represent District 4, which covers Montclair and the Laurel District. Elsewhere in the city, incumbents David Kakishiba, of District 2, and Chris Dobbins, of District 6, are both running unopposed.
Visnick, who teaches at Oakland High and who ran the teachers’ union from 2000-2006, is being strongly supported by the union. “He’s raising really important issues that teachers are really concerned about,” said Betty Olson-Jones, Visnick’s successor as president. “He reflects the issues that the [teachers’ union] thinks are important.” Indeed, Visnick has long been a voice of union platforms, especially in his outspoken opposition to merit-based pay and charter schools. He also believes that instead of continuing to make cuts, the city should look to progressive taxes and taxes on container ships and airline tickets to raise revenue for the cash-strapped district.
Visnick has come out as a strong critic of Yee, in part because Yee was president of the school board when it imposed a contract on the union earlier this year. Visnick follows the union’s line when it comes to Measure L, which would raise teacher salaries via a flat parcel tax, and is neither endorsing nor opposing it officially, though he told The Express he’s planning to vote for it himself, because he can afford the tax.
Yee, on the other hand, is casting himself as both as an academic — he wrote his doctoral dissertation at Stanford about the history of Oakland’s schools — and as a longtime teacher, administrator and board member who has seen the district through 2003’s fiscal crisis and subsequent state takeover. Yee, who was first elected to the board in 2002 and re-elected in 2006, is a strong proponent of Measure L and has said that he’d like to reward teachers who take on leadership responsibilities. Last week, he was endorsed by the Oakland Tribune.