June 16, 2024
Whoever fills the seat may either cement or erode the growing political power of the Oakland Unified School District teachers union.

OAKLAND — The immediate future of the Oakland Unified School District could be heavily influenced by a special election in November for a crucial swing seat on the divided school board.

The two candidates, Jorge Lerma and Sasha Ritzie-Hernandez, have strongly differing views on the key question that has led the board into all kinds of political strife: how to tackle the district’s deficit.

Whoever wins would take office immediately after the election and serve out the final year in the District 5 seat, which by that point will have sat vacant for roughly eight months.

The election will also determine the balance of power between the district’s central office and the Oakland teachers union, which went on strike in the spring to demand that socially progressive policy changes be embedded in the language of the faculty labor contract.

While students waited on the sidelines, the board repeatedly hit a 3-3 deadlock on votes that could have resolved the strike much earlier, eventually lasting eight school days.

Ritzie-Hernandez, who works for an education advocacy group, helped the striking teachers organize their demonstrations. She wants to focus her board tenure on monitoring the progress of social-justice efforts secured by the strike while establishing solidarity between various ethnic groups.

Lerma, a former teacher and school principal at the Oakland schools, wants better Latino representation among the faculty ranks and to turn some of the district’s smaller schools — which struggle with enrollment — into part-time community centers.

The race between them is in full swing after an administrative error by city officials in August nearly led to both candidates being declared ineligible.

Here’s a look at the two candidates and their goals for District 5, a largely Latino area south of I-580 that spans parts of East Oakland, including Fremont High School and the Fruitvale neighborhood.

Sasha Ritzie-Hernandez

An immigrant who arrived from Acapulco without any documentation, Ritzie-Hernandez received more than just her education from two different Oakland middle schools, a now-shuttered charter high school, Laney College and Holy Names University.

Those campuses were also where she says she became fluent in English, learned about Oakland’s diverse culture, developed strong feelings about the limitations of charter schools and got involved in organizing for immigrants’ rights.

She earned her U.S. citizenship just after last November’s election and currently works at the Bay Area Coalition for Education Justice.

A newcomer to politics, Ritzie-Hernandez acknowledges she hasn’t yet developed fresh policy ideas or become fully versed in the board’s procedures.

Sasha Ritzie-Hernandez (Courtesy of Ritzie-Hernandez campaign) 

But she does want to ensure that existing measures — such as sanctuary protections for immigrants and reparations for Black students — are fully implemented. And she intends to tap her Afro-Indigenous and queer identity to inform strong advocacy.

“When we have the support of the union, it gives us a lot more room to implement those (policies),” Ritzie-Hernandez said in an interview. “It was such an amazing moment for (the union) to win, particularly because we’re not just talking about wages any more — we’re talking about (social) conditions, about impact.”

She has strong ties to labor; last year, she volunteered for the school board campaign of her work colleague, Pecolia Manigo, who was heavily backed by the teachers union, but ultimately lost the election. Ritzie-Hernandez’s wife, who is helping organize her campaign, also did communications work for the previous campaigns of labor-backed board directors Jennifer Brouhard and Valarie Bachelor, who won their races and openly sided with the union against district administrators during this year’s teachers strike.

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But the first-time candidate has little patience for the notion that labor organizers would dictate her eventual policy decisions if she’s elected.

“I’ve been getting nasty attacks that I don’t have any agency, that I’m being controlled,” she said. “When really I want to run to help our students thrive, and because I love what educators contribute to the community.”

Jorge Lerma

Lerma’s primary reason for running comes intuitively to him: Latino residents, he said, comprise 45% of the student population but only 17% of the teaching force.

An Oakland High graduate who attended Laney College and then Cal State East Bay in Hayward, Lerma taught at the now-closed Grant Public School in Oakland before becoming the founding principal at La Escuelita Elementary.

His children, now grown adults, also attended the Oakland schools, and his wife taught in the district for four decades.

Now Lerma mainly serves on community oversight committees for education and policing. His first bid for the District 5 seat in 2020 ended poorly, with just 11% voter support.

“I was a late entry as a candidate, because I felt there needed to be more diverse choices,” he explained of his last-place finish in the four-candidate race.

Lerma shares Ritzie-Hernandez’s concerns about the proliferation of charter schools in Oakland and how they have drained the enrollment levels of smaller neighborhood campuses.

They also both agree that small schools shouldn’t be closed down just because of low enrollment numbers, however much it costs the district.

But Lerma says that keeping those campuses viable in the long term will mean “redefining and revitalizing them” as community centers that provide adult education, childcare and community medical needs while the school day isn’t in session.

ALAMEDA, CA – SEPTEMBER 15: Oakland School Board District 5 candidate Jorge Lerma poses for a photograph in Alameda, Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group) (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)

“Right now those schools are like feudal castles — they roll up at night,” he said. “They need to become lighthouses. Think of how schools were dairies and agricultural land in the old days — they should be augmented so they can stay in the hands of the community.”

Lerma disagrees with the notion — promoted by the union and its progressive supporters — that a bloated, bureaucratic central office is to blame for the district’s financial woes.

Rather, he wants to carefully assess the district’s inventory, including its large number of facilities, to determine what can be “thrown off the ship.”

Although he kept his distance during the teachers strike, Lerma agreed that the union’s policy demands would have more “teeth” as part of the language of its labor contract, rather than simply being a district policy.

The strike initiative he said he aligned with the most was establishing committees at individual school sites where parents and even students could have a say in administrators’ decisions.

On the other hand, he said, the strike “got to be too miniscule in its concerns  — in some cases, some of the union voices were using parents and families for their own interests.”