Board members will soon have to decide whether to appoint a new board director or order a special election. It’s not yet clear which route they’ll choose.
OUSD’s school board has to decide between two methods of filling a soon to be vacated District 5 board director seat: appointing a director, or ordering a special election for District 5 voters.
The seat will soon be vacant due to Board President Mike Hutchinson, who had served as the District 5 Board Director, leaving that seat in order to serve as District 4 Director. Hutchinson had lived in District 5, but his residence ended up being located in District 4 after Oakland redrew its districts early last year. Hutchinson then ran to be District 4 Director, and eventually was declared the winner after Nick Resnick, who was originally declared the District 4 winner and served as a director briefly, resigned while facing a trial contesting his win due to the Alameda County Registrar of Voters announcing its voting machines made an error counting votes.
After Hutchinson vacates his District 5 seat and is sworn in to be the District 4 Director, which the Oakland’s City Clerk said is likely to happen sometime this week, state law dictates the board will have 60 days to order a special election or make a provisional appointment. This reporter received comments from five of the six current board directors who will have the formal power of deciding how the new board director will be selected. Director Clifford Thompson did not respond to multiple emails requesting comments. Four of the directors said they saw benefits and drawbacks to both appointing a director and holding a special election, and weren’t ready to declare a preference.
“There’s pros and cons with either option,” stated Hutchinson in a message. “The board will be discussing this issue at the next meeting.”
The board’s next meeting is scheduled to take place on Wednesday, March 22.
One board director said he has made up his mind. In an email, District 1 Director Sam Davis wrote that he supports an election.
“I think with well over a year left on the term, it’s important for whoever fills the role to feel accountable to the voters of Oakland, not to their fellow directors,” reads Davis’s email.
The District 5 Director term will end in January of 2025.
Some board members are concerned with the role wealthy individuals and PACs could play in a special election
In interviews, District 2 Director Jennifer Brouhard and District 6 Director Valarie Bachelor both said that while they want the District 5 community to determine who will fill the seat, they have concerns that holding a special election with little time for candidates to prepare could put those with connections to wealthy groups and individuals at an unfair advantage.
“We’ve seen how organizations or individuals will start PAC committees to quickly throw in hundreds of thousands of dollars into elections,” said Bachelor.
In 2020, OUSD school board candidates Austin Dannhaus, Maiya Edgerly, Leroy Roches Gaines, and Clifford Thompson all received campaign donations from political action committees (PACs) including Go Public Schools and Power2Families. Those PACs, which spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, were funded in large part by billionaires like Michael Bloomberg, Arthur Rock, and Bill and Linda Gates; all of whom have encouraged the development of charter schools. While Thompson won, Dannhaus, Edgerly and Gaines all lost to Sam Davis, VanCedric Williams, and Mike Hutchinson, who raised much less money and ran grassroots campaigns supported mostly by the Oakland Education Association and small donations from individuals.
Bachelor, who ran and won on a grassroots campaign last year, said such campaigns take a lot of time and effort.
“As a grassroots candidate you need time to do fundraising, outreach, engagement with community,” she said. “That can be extremely difficult in a sudden off-year election.”
District 3 Director VanCedric Williams pointed out that appointing a director would be “the least expensive process.” In addition to candidates having to raise campaign funds, setting up polling places and counting votes would have to be paid for if a special election occurs. It appears OUSD would not have to pay for the election though. According to OUSD spokesperson John Sassaki, “The City of Oakland has traditionally paid for school board elections.”
Both Williams and Bachelor spoke about how appointing the board member would fill the seat quicker than an election. There are currently six board members, so there is no tie-breaking vote if directors split their votes three to three. That happened on February 28 when the board was deadlocked over whether or not approve budget cut proposals to allow OUSD to lay off some workers such as literacy tutors, library technicians, and restorative justice facilitators, eliminate vacant positions, and merge schools starting in the 2024–25 school year. The deadlock briefly stopped the cuts from being approved, which Hutchinson said would prevent OUSD from giving teachers an adequate raise. They were later unanimously approved, though, during a meeting on March 9 after directors agreed to amendments to the cuts proposed by Brouhard, including requiring the district to provide an equity analysis and community engagement before any mergers could occur, as outlined in AB 1912.
The board’s student directors support a special election
OUSD’s school board has two student directors, but their votes are not counted so they don’t have any formal decision making power. These student directors voiced support for having a special election during a report they presented at a board meeting on February 22.
“As student directors we do not believe that appointing someone allows for much community engagement or gives an opportunity for residents to be meaningfully involved,” said Student Board Director Natalie Gallegos Chavez. “An election or special election is more democratic.”
Chavez also said she hoped students “will be kept in mind” during the process of selecting who will fill the District 5 seat.
Student Director Linh Le referenced work that the student directors and other young people have been doing through Oakland Youth Vote to implement Measure QQ, which Oakland voters passed in November 2020, and allows residents as young as 16 to vote in school board elections. Despite the measure passing, students under 18 still couldn’t vote in the last year’s school board elections, because Alameda County’s Registrar of Voters failed to update their voting machines to recognize 16 and 17 year olds as voters. But Le hopes that with a special election, students living in District 5 will be able to have a say in who their new school board director will be, as the Registrar now has more time to update.
“As students we believe it’s important to be represented in the process as we are affected most,” said Le. “This is an opportunity for our district to set a precedent for more youth engagement.”
Board directors say they want students to play a role in selecting who fills the vacant seat
Davis described the Registrar’s failure to implement youth voting last year as “a terrible mistake,” and stated that he was working with Oakland Youth Vote “to call on the [Alameda County] Board of Supervisors to direct the Registrar to implement youth voting for a potential special election this fall.”
Although Brouhard, Bachelor and Williams all said they haven’t decided whether they will vote to appoint the next District 5 director or vote for a special election to be held, they also said they want to include student voices in the decision making process.
“I want to be sure that young folks do have a say,” said Williams. “Can we do something unique to make sure that students can finally have a voice in how their school district is run?”
The last time there was a vacant board seat in OUSD occurred last year when former Board Director Shanthi Gonzales resigned with about half a year left on her term. The board appointed Kyra Mungia to fill her seat, but Mungia then lost her bid to keep the seat when Bachelor beat her in last years’ District 6 school board race. Student Director Le said students had “little meaningful impact” on Mungia’s appointment. Bachelor said that this time, the school board could have the option to fill their vacant seat in a different way.
“There is no set appointment process that we have to follow every time,” said Bachelor, who suggested getting student input on writing questions for questionnaires for those attempting to fill the District 5 seat, and/or having them attend student forums where students would ask them questions directly.
With the majority of board members saying they have not decided whether they prefer appointing a director or holding a special election, it’s still unclear how the board seat will be filled. If the board does choose to go the appointment route, though, there is still a path that could ultimately put the decision into the District 5 voter’s hands. California Education Code would require a special election to be held if at least 1.5% of the registered voters in District 5 petition for an election within 30 days of the board appointing a replacement director.
Note: A slightly different version of this story is scheduled to be published in The Oakland Post and on the Post News Group’s website soon.