Robert and Kweko are students and organizers with Californians for Justice, and consistent collaborators with me in my work on the board.
Well, that was fast. I can't believe I am already in my fourth year on the board. Time seems to pass in quadruple time when you are in elected office. It has been a tumultuous first term, but even with all the drama, there is a lot that I am really proud of having done in my first term. I am going to use this blog post to share some of those things.
- I am super proud of all the venues I have created for learning about the issues facing OUSD, both to educate myself, but also the community. Just about every month, I host some kind of community engagement meeting, and they have focused on everything from how to communicate about public education to how to inform OUSD's budget, special education, the impact of common enrollment in other school districts, improving teacher retention and the needs of newcomer students to what we can learn from OUSD's past efforts to redesign schools. This month we'll be learning about OUSD's previous efforts to merge schools together. In addition to these community meetings, I hold monthly office hours and also send out a newsletter to keep constituents informed.
- In the planning for most of my events, I have collaborated with students, parents, teachers and the Oakland community, (and also in writing legislation and other board work I have led), which has meant that more voices are being included in formulating the agenda and policy solutions for the school district. As an example, CFJ student organizers have participated in numerous conferences and programs I have organized, on the Superintendent Search, Taking Action on Attendance and Organizing for Equity and Integration. I wish that School Board members had staff because that would make collaboration easier. With just me, I don't always have the capacity to collaborate with community as much as I would like to. However, I am proud of the efforts I have made to bring a broader range of experts to lend their experiences and ideas to my work on the board.
- I have supported parent and community groups in their organizing around many issues including special education, creating a more equitable school district, preventing the growth of charter schools and trying to win a more equitable legal framework at the state level to govern charter schools. This level of deep collaboration is slow and time-consuming work, but over time I believe that developing new leaders will pay dividends for our public schools. I see this as an important part of my role, helping to channel the energy and commitment of people who are passionate about public education, and I'm really proud of creating more avenues for people to become involved.
This forum in January was focused on collecting input from District 6 parents and educators on some of the Blueprint options for District 6.
- It may not look like it from the outside, but we have made progress during the time I have been on the board to improve OUSD's finances in some important ways. For example, I was a proponent of bringing back board committees, which were abandoned prior to my time on the board. Bringing back the Budget & Finance Committee (which I currently chair) has been critical to the efforts of the board to provide adequate oversight to OUSD's budget, and to ensuring that we have adequate information about OUSD's finances. Through the committee, we moved a Financial Reserves policy that will help us to rebuild OUSD's reserves and avoid state receivership, and we are more closely monitoring the work of the staff to change the practices that have led to overspending and having to make severe mid-year cuts. This is another area where our work would be much more manageable if we had staff to support the board.
- I have also consistently advocated for changing our practices around the use of no-bid contracting and our consent agenda, and have voted down millions of dollars in wasteful contracts. While many in the community are still upset about the mid-year budget cuts in 17-18 and 18-19, I have worked hard to center students and equity in these decisions and I was able to get a better deal for our low-wage employees and our students. It has been frustrating to be part of a collective body that often does not vote the way I would like them to, but I am still proud of the leadership I have provided to bring more fairness, even if I have not always prevailed. I also believe that, over time, my willingness to vote against the budget and other staff recommendations has challenged the culture of complacency on the board (rubber stamping) and led to a much-needed, emerging willingness to provide more vigilant oversight.
Me with some of Skyline's teachers and administrators. I attended a conference with them on strengthening the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program at Skyline.
- I am proud of building relationships with principals, teachers and parents in District 6 and around the city. It is only through these relationships that I can learn about the site-level impact of the decisions that we make at the board level, and also how I verify whether the information we receive from central staff about what is happening in schools is accurate. These relationships (and trust) take a long time to develop, but are the only way to really get a sense of what is happening in our schools and what we need to do to build stronger schools. This is one of the most important things for me to do as a board member and also one of the hardest since there is no deadline to do it. I still have some principals that I don't know well, but I'm working on it. As almost everyone knows, it is not easy to get time on a principal's calendar.
- I am also proud that while I am very clear about my values and who I am working for as a board member, I try to be willing to talk with anyone in our city who wants to talk with me. Oakland has many groups who disagree about education policy (among other issues) and don't speak with one another. I have reached the conclusion during my time on the board that this approach is not very helpful. I think it is possible to remain committed to my beliefs and still be willing to hear what others have to say, even if I disagree with them. We all love this city and have to be able to talk with one another.
My role on the School Board takes a lot of time. What constituents see at board and committee meetings is only a small fraction of what we do. We meet with staff, constituents, principals, parents, attend school events, review board meeting materials, and those of us who chair committees also write materials for board agendas, we do research and write legislation, plan and convene community meetings, respond to parent complaints, attend professional development training, and some of us are involved in national or regional bodies concerned with education, in my case, the Network for Public Education and Local Progress, a national body of progressive elected officials with a School Board caucus.
The expectations that the community has of its School Board members are justifiable; we are entrusted with massive amounts of public money and the education of Oakland's children. But this role would be more manageable if it were my paid job, or if I had staff to help with the workload, but I don't. So while there is more that I'd like to do, I am often not able to do this job to the standard that I'd like to.
For example, I would like to collaborate with teachers, parents, students and community in the planning for all that I do. I'd like to become an expert on budget and finance, and am trying, by participating in Government Finance Officers Association conferences and spending more time with finance staff and by serving on the Budget & Finance Committee, but it's not the same as getting intensive training in finance. I'd like to be able to take on all the things that community members request of me, but it's not realistic given my other roles as the breadwinner for my family, the daughter of a frail father, a spouse, sister and friend. I constantly have to prioritize, and the choices about what falls off my plate are often hard ones.
But I am still proud of what I've spent my first three years on the board doing, even given all the other demands on my time. I hope to continue serving District 6 families for another term.