Residents with a direct stake in Oakland schools share their thoughts about this year’s school board races.
Oakland Unified School District has been among the most chronically challenged districts in the Bay Area. Years of fiscal mismanagement and declining enrollment have contributed to what feels like a never-ending series of budget crises. Well-resourced public schools, supported by fundraising from strong Parent Teacher Associations, exist side by side with schools in lower-income neighborhoods that are critically underfunded.
Tensions around equity came to a boil earlier this year when the OUSD board approved a plan to permanently close, downsize, or merge 11 schools over two years in an effort to improve the district’s financial outlook. The decision prompted marches, a hunger strike, and an occupation of one of the closed schools, Parker K-8, that is ongoing.
Now, three of Oakland’s seven school board seats (in districts 2, 4, and 6) are up for grabs, and whatever happens in November, it will usher in a new era for the OUSD board.
We talked with Oakland residents who have a direct stake in OUSD about what education issues matter most to them. This article is part of a series by The Oaklandside and Oakland Voices giving residents an opportunity to directly weigh in on local election issues.
Jan Lozito operates a preschool in the Trestle Glen neighborhood of Oakland’s District 2. She has lived in Oakland since 1978 and raised all three of her now adult children in Oakland. All three attended OUSD schools, and one is now an OUSD teacher.
Lozito says that there are “a number of issues” that are important to her in this year’s school board elections, starting with school closures. She is against the closures and calls public schools the “bedrock” of Oakland’s neighborhoods. Lozito also doesn’t want to see any further renewals of charter schools or any more co-locations of charters on public school campuses.
“So much damage has been done already,” she said. “I’m not sure if anything can be done about it.”
Lozito wants the district to look into cutting the salaries of executives and upper management and increasing funding for school sites instead. In particular, she would like the district to increase teacher pay. Lozito said she knows many who grew up in Oakland that want to give back to the community, but know they can make more money in another district.
She knows of other teachers who are considering leaving the profession entirely due to the high stress of the job and the high cost of living. “Find funds to pay teachers so we don’t lose anymore,” Lozito said. “They shouldn’t have to give up their hopes and dreams (of being a teacher) to live in Oakland.”
Joulanda Murphy is the parent of a fourth-grade student at Carl B. Munck Elementary in Oakland’s District 6 and a member of OUSD’s Community Advisory Committee for Special Education.
Murphy lives down the hill from Munck in the East Oakland flatlands. She said that race is an important factor for her when considering school board candidates, but it is not the only factor.
“As a Black woman, I want to see our people represented, but you have to be the right choice,” she said. “I don’t just see a face.”
Murphy said she researches candidates online by searching their names on Google and looking at their social media presence and said she’s more likely to vote for people that she sees at school sites and at community events; it’s important to Murphy that elected officials be present in their community, learning about the challenges and struggles faced by the people that live there. She also pays attention to who is giving money to election campaigns, something she learned from her mother.
Murphy said she takes her responsibility as a voter seriously, “especially now that my daughter’s school is on the list of closures and my nieces’ school is on the list of closures.” Both Munck and Grass Valley Elementary, where three of her nieces attend school, are scheduled to be permanently shuttered at the end of this school year.
“I felt personally attacked,” she said about the school board’s decision to close schools last year and this year. “It’s heartbreaking.”
Meghan Langston used to organize successful fundraisers at Hillcrest School in Oakland’s District 4. But in the wake of the school board voting to shutter Hillcrest’s middle school program back in February, the mother of a fifth-grade student is now organizing her neighbors to elect school board candidates that are “on the record to oppose and rescind the closures that are on the docket for this year.”
Because of the scheduled closure of the middle school that her son wanted to go to next year, Langston and her husband aren’t sure where their son will go. “We don’t know,” Langston said. “It’s super frustrating.”
So in this school board election, her family has a clear priority. “This house is a one-issue voter house,” Langston said.
The family has another son who graduated from Hillcrest in May. While they had planned to send him to an OUSD school, their distrust of the current school board caused them to send him to a private high school instead.
Langston blames the district for not engaging with the communities enough prior to making the decision to close schools. She cited the lack of a transportation plan and a strategy for welcoming families displaced by closures to new schools. “It’s expecting a lot of parents and students that have already been through a lot.”
“There are a lot of families that the board is basically traumatizing. It’s disgraceful, the whole thing,” she added. “All of our Oakland neighborhoods deserve a neighborhood school.”
Holly Yu graduated from Oakland High School earlier this year and is currently a student at the University of California, Merced. This will be Yu’s first time voting in an election.
Yu’s high school years were marked by disruptions. In 2019, when she was in ninth grade, teachers went on strike. A year later, as a sophomore, the COVID pandemic struck and shut down schools. Her 11th-grade year was in distance learning, and by the time Yu was a senior, she said she didn’t feel all that prepared for college.
“I felt like there was always some issue during the school year, whether it be drama or teachers not being able to teach or there not being a teacher at all, there being a substitute, having an administrator as the sub, or budget cuts, which cause strikes and school closures,” she said.
Yu is looking for a candidate who can work to make sure schools are staffed and stable, she said. And she’d like to see a stronger emphasis on college readiness for students.
“I’m really trying to find a candidate who I can trust and feel like they will follow through on the promises that they make and listen to the community and students and what our needs are.”
Yu is also disappointed that the Alameda County registrar’s office won’t be able to accommodate 16 and 17-year-old voters in this year’s election, which she believes will encourage more civic education in schools.
“Had I been able to participate in school board voting back when I was 16 or 17, and we could talk about it in classes and get different viewpoints and have discussions, it would create a space where we can learn a bit about the process of voting and how to pick who you want to vote for,” said Yu. “That would’ve gotten me ready for now, to be like ‘Okay, I’ve done this in the past, so now on the bigger scale of California and America, I’ll feel more confident in what I need to look for.’”
Owen O’Malley grew up in Oakland and now lives in the Laurel District. He attended OUSD schools and graduated from Skyline High School.
O’Malley is now a dad and plans to send his son to OUSD schools when he’s old enough, but he’s concerned about the district’s stability.
“Essentially all my life, [OUSD] has always seemed in a bit of disarray. It never seems to have enough money and it never seems to be going in a coherent direction,” O’Malley said. “OUSD always seems to be coming up with progressive plans and ideas, ones that I support generally, but ones they never seem to pull off with any actual ability.”
Because of that, O’Malley wants to hear candidates be specific about what actions they’ll take to address declining enrollment, budget issues, and other problems.
“I would be interested to hear, especially given recent problems with enrollment and money for the district, what coherent plan do they have? Not just platitudes, but a concrete plan,” O’Malley said. “And plans to work with other members of the school board and administration. It’s so easy to say ‘I want to do XYZ,’ but if you don’t have the backing of other people, then it’s not something that’s going to get done. You’re just running on a platform to get elected.”
Another quality he wants to see in school board members is dedication. Earlier this year, District 6 Director Shanthi Gonzales stepped down several months before the end of her term, in the wake of intense criticism aimed at her for supporting the school consolidation plan.
“The school board seems burnt out over the last few years. I’d be interested in seeing someone who’s actually energized to do the work that’s needed … I understand the last few years must’ve been difficult for the school board, but I’d be looking for someone who will have solid leadership going forward.”
Semuteh Freeman is an attorney who moved to Oakland with her husband and two sons last year. Although her sons are still too young for public school, Freeman and her husband had researched Parker K-8 and were excited about the possibility of sending their children to a school that would be walking distance from their home in Eastmont Hills. And since it included elementary and middle school grades, the family wouldn’t have to look for another school until the boys got to high school. But OUSD closed Parker earlier this year.
“We would’ve given Parker a chance,” Freeman said. “I know it’s probably been a long time coming, but it seemed like a missed opportunity for the district to put resources into Parker and make it a place that folks like us would be excited about.”
As a new resident of Oakland and a mom to a baby and toddler, Freeman said she would like to hear school board candidates say that no more neighborhood schools in her district will be closed.
“Do I want to take a chance on OUSD and put my child in a school and then have it close in a couple of years? [As a parent], you just don’t have faith that the schools are going to be there, and that’s not a good feeling to have,” she said.
Another of Freeman’s biggest concerns is the achievement gap for Black boys, she said. “As parents of two Black boys, we want to make sure that they’re not in a district that isn’t going to educate their whole selves,” she said. “Not just academically, we’re concerned about school discipline, implicit bias, all those things.”
Ultimately, Freeman said, if low enrollment is a problem, the current board and school board hopefuls should think about how to attract prospective parents and whether their actions are helping or harming the district’s reputation to those families.
“A lot of the stuff that happened this last year kind of fulfilled a lot of those stereotypes about the dysfunction of OUSD, and it was sad to see that what people say is right: The district isn’t functioning, it’s running out of money, they’re not able to keep schools open, they’re not able to make sure there’s equity for all students in Oakland, no matter where they live and go to school.”