There are high hopes in the community for a newly energized school board as four new members set to take office in January pledging to disentangle the multiple crises facing the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), including shuttered classrooms and COVID-19 enforced distance learning, ongoing threats of austerity-driven budget cuts and state-enforced demands to close more neighborhood schools.
This week, the Oakland Post interviews two new board members, Sam Davis and VanCedric Williams. Last week, the Post published interviews with Mike Hutchinson (D-5) and Clifford Thompson (D-7).
Davis, who represents District 1, worked as a teacher and family outreach coordinator in Oakland schools for 10 years. Originally from Queens, New York, he has lived in Oakland since 2001. He has a son in the 9th grade at Oakland Technical High School.
Looking at hopes for recovery this year from the impact of the pandemic, he says he is aware of the huge controversy surrounding the reopening schools. “Now, we’re going to have a vaccine, (ands) kids are dying for some interaction.” (Yet) a lot of families have serious concerns (about safety) …(while) some people want to open schools immediately.”
Once the schools are reopened, he said, one of the biggest questions will be whether “there is going to be money for summer schools for the kids who have the most need,” Davis said.
He sees mixed indicators on the district’s financial condition. “The good news is that we have much stronger financial management within the district (now),” he said. Because of the pandemic there are a lot of state and federal emergency funds coming into the district, but at the same time there is a high risk of recession in the coming year.
Though there is a high level of mistrust in the community of district leadership, residents continue to strongly embrace the public schools and in November passed Measure Y, a school bond measure to repair and renovate schools across Oakland. Among other projects, the bond will improve school ventilation systems — needed to protect teachers and children from COVID in tight spaces — and also to protect air quality during fire season. The funding will also help the district move out of its downtown Oakland offices, which at present costs several millions of dollars a year to lease.
To come to grips with the looming challenges, the district needs to improve its approach to interacting with the public, he said. “OUSD has a history of “last-minute public engagements,” organized as “afterthoughts,” creating the impression that community engagement is being done in a “perfunctory way.”
Davis says his first step as a board member will be create an advisory group of family and teachers and school site staff “that will help me stay rooted in their concerns.”
“As a board member, you hear a lot from senior leaders,” he said. He says the advisory group will provide “balance,” which will “help me keep my feet on the ground.”
Williams, who represents District 3, has lived in Oakland for 12 years. He has been an educator for 17 years, teaching high school social studies including ethnic studies and honors U.S. history. He currently is treasurer of the San Francisco teachers’ union, on release as a union representative. He has lived in San Diego and was born in West Covina in Southern California.
Williams says his immediate goals are to start conversations with parents and students in District 3 schools and has already met with Black students. “I’m reaching out to each of the District 3 school sites,” he said. “It is very important to market and showcase the schools and the District 3 neighborhoods, to build trust and engage the community.”
A top priority is to strengthen the feeder-school system, which functioned in the past but has decayed, so neighborhood elementary schools again will lead students to neighborhood middle schools and from there to neighborhood high schools.
“I’m a big proponent of neighborhood schools, sustainable community schools,” he said. “Kids in a neighborhood will go to a (nearby) school, building the feeder system. The school choice system has not been helpful to neighborhood schools. We have to move to sustain District 3 enrollment, to keep more students in District 3.”
Williams will hold a town hall meeting in January, to talk to the community “about their perspectives, what they’d like to see,” and to answer the question, “What is it going to take to make the schools competitive?”
Getting the schools reopened will require labor negotiations, he said. “Labor is asking for protection for their members: testing, contact tracing, a formula for what happens if a student comes in and is found to have COVID. There are lots of parts that have to be negotiated.”
The district has to be willing “to engage its labor partners with honest dialogue,” he said, “It’s a work in progress but it’s going slowly.”
One of the challenges the district faces is that Alameda County is “giving directives” on the pandemic and other basic decisions, cutting out the teachers and the local community.
“Overseeing the direction of the budget and overseeing the district, the county is going forth to give directives without providing OUSD with additional funds, the necessary resources to get it done,” he said.
“The district is squeezed between parents and Alameda County telling them what to do,” he said. But these are decisions that should be made, he said, with participation of parents and teachers.