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Progressives Win in School Board Elections – Oakland and Richmond

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Jemela Smith-Folds

The Oakland Unified School District recently grabbed  headlines when progressives won three out of four open seats on the school board, for the first time in years giving a major voice on the board to public school advocates who say teachers and families deserve to have a say whether their schools are allowed to stay open and how the schools are run.

In Oakland it was grassroots teachers who worked through their union, parents and families and community members who helped elect the new school board members in Districts 1, 3 and 5,

They faced down campaigns fueled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in corporate and billionaire donations that flooded into the races.

Occurring at the same time but with not so much publicity, progressive candidates made an astonishing clean sweep on Nov. 3 in West Contra Costa school board elections., defeating candidates who had more money  and were supported by real estate interests and others.

Winners in the West Contra Costa County Unified School District (WCCUSD), which includes Richmond, El Cerrito, Pinole and Hercules were  Jamela Smith-Folds (Area 1); Otheree Christian (Area 2); Demetrio Gonzalez-Hoy(Area 4); Lelie Reekler (Area 5); and Consuelo Lara, who won the Area 1 seat on the county board.

In an interview recently with radio station KPFA host Kitty Kelly Epstein were two of the spokespersons of this movement: United Teachers of Richmond (UTR) union and political action leader Francisco Ortiz and newly elected county board member Lara, who discussed strategies and hard work that yielded such a major victory.

In previous elections, those with big money had frequently won in Richmond, utilizing tactics that allowed them to win all of the seats, said Ortiz. but this time, big money did not call the shots.

Fundamental to winning victory were the solid community backing for the candidates and strong solidarity of the teachers’ union and community organizations.

The approaches they used:

  • “We started early.” Trying to organize against those who outspend you requires more organization and more time to build unity, he said.
  • “We raised money from the community,” he said . Grassroots fundraising takes time since money is not coming from those who are used to bankrolling campaigns.
  • “We did a thorough endorsement process,” to find candidates with a strong base and track record in the community, according to Ortiz.
  • “Once we picked the candidate, we elevated them through social media and interviews,” he said. “They showed they were really working as a team and were going to work collaboratively.”

The five winning candidates had the kind of community support individually that lent strength to their coalition:

  • Smith-Folds was formerly a teacher in the district. She is an active community leader and parent advocate throughout the Hercules community.
  • Christian is a youth minister. He is past president of the Iron Triangle Neighborhood Council and past president of the Richmond chapter of the NAACP.
  • Gonzalez-Hoy is a former educator and past president of United Teachers of Richmond.
  • Reckler is an active parent and past president of the PTSA and worked on bond programs to help rebuild the schools.
  • Lara, who served a term on the school board and is now moving to the county school board, is a retired teacher and was encouraged by community leaders to run for the position.

Lara said she was interested in working at the county level to increase the numbers of Black and Brown teachers and implement distance learning without the digital divide.

“These are issues not just in Richmond” but all the 18 districts in Contra Costa County, she said.

“All of advocacy is about building relationships,” said Lara. “Many of those who make up the county board are potential friends and allies,” she said.

Summarizing the lessons of the winning campaign, Ortiz said, “We followed the money and revealed to the public what we found.”

“We did not want school board seats to be bought by corporations,” he continued. “They may had the money but the individuals we chose were experienced in public education.”

“Our candidate had community accomplishments, and we had great endorsements and there was a clear message. This was a movement that won over voters.”

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