District 5 of the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) has not held a school board seat since March of 2023, leaving its thousands of residents without representation. What started as redrawn district lines a year ago has led to a special election being held next month, but why?
After Oakland redistricted city boundaries in 2022, Mike Hutchinson, the D5 school board director, found himself living in District 4. The alteration showed two paths forward: he could continue as the D5 representative until 2024 but lack the residency required to run for another term, or he could run for the D4 seat in 2022. He chose to try for D4 director, for even if he lost, he would still hold the D5 seat.
In the November election of 2022, Nick Resnick, another D4 candidate, received more votes than Hutchinson to win the D4 board seat. The victory was certified by the Alameda County Registrar office and Resnick was sworn in as the D4 board director on December 20th, 2022. However, eight days later, the registrar announced they had made an error when counting the votes. Hutchinson, who finished third in the race with the least number of first place votes, was the winner by ranked-choice voting. These mistakes would be common through the following months. Hutchinson filed a petition contesting the first election result, and a trial date was set for March 16th, 2023.
But a month before the trial, on February 14th, Resnick announced his resignation as D4 board director. In a statement made on his website, he wrote “At this time, I don’t think that [contesting the election result] is what’s best for this community and I don’t think that’s going to help get our schools where they need to go.” His resignation was the second of the year, with D6 Director Shanthi Gonzales resigning in May, seven months before her term would have ended. Resnick’s resignation was upsetting for many as he would have been the first transgender school board director elected in the state of California.
In an interview with Radar held on September 28th, Hutchinson, now the Board President, admitted that he only won the election by 37 votes. However, with his switch to the D4 director, he left the D5 seat vacant. The board was given a choice as to whether they’d like to appoint someone, as they did with Director Gonzales’ resignation, or to hold a special election. There was a 3-3 split when it came to this decision, one of many important resolutions that the board has deadlocked on since the vacancy of the D5 seat. As such, Alameda County Superintendent Alysse Castro was required by law to put forward a special election for November 7th.
The board members who voted against appointing a director were D7 Director and Vice President Cliff Thompson, D4 Director and President Mike Hutchinson, and D1 Director Sam Davis. Thompson told Radar that he voted no “for equity and to give families a choice.” Hutchinson gave a more detailed response, saying that “I went back and forth, yet I would always rather defer to the voters for this is a democracy.” He stressed the importance of having a D5 director in place over the next thirteen months, explaining that the school board votes on many things on a yearly cycle, including the OUSD budget that’s allotted $1 billion dollars per year in funding from the government.
That said, the OUSD board has deadlocked on numerous occasions, a clear consequence of the vacant seat, proving that true democracy requires representation.
The first person to announce candidacy for the newly available D5 seat was Sasha Ritzie-Hernandez, who is endorsed by the Oakland Education Association. Another organization actively involved in the D5 political scene is Families in Action for Quality Schools (FIA). Christian Martinez, a FIA member, started planning his candidacy this July and announced to his community that he would be running for the vacant seat. For many, Martinez seemed like the ideal candidate as he co-founded a nationally recognized high school in the Fruitvale, has worked in D5 schools for over twelve years, and reports that he attended and was failed by D5 schools as an immigrant student, sharing that he dropped out of the same D5 high school three times.
In order to run for this school board seat, Martinez had to verify his residency in D5. Once a candidate’s residency is confirmed by Oakland’s City Clerk, that candidate can then collect the required 50 resident signatures to get their name on the ballot. Martinez, unfortunately, was told that he had only been registered to vote in D5 for 28 days and not the required 30 days, and he was led to believe he could not run for that seat.
One week later, the City Clerk called him back to say he could in fact submit other proof of residency, but by then, Martinez was unable to collect the requisite number of signatures by the city deadline and had already announced his support for a new candidate, Jorge Lerma. On a phone call with Radar, he noted that on a personal level, “It really made me feel that once again the system is pushing me away from something I really wanted to do… but when they called me back, I was really upset because it changed the trajectory of my career as I had already aligned myself to run.”
Lerma, who announced his candidacy upon learning Martinez was unable to run, is a longtime Latino education advocate and veteran educator. He is endorsed by the three school board members who voted no towards an appointment: Davis, Hutchinson, and Thompson. Conversely, Ritzie-Hernandez is endorsed by the three school board members who voted yes towards an appointment: Brouhard, Williams, and Bachelor.
However, the City Clerk failed to inform Lerma and Ritzie-Hernandez that their signatures needed to be from voters in the old D5 boundaries, not the new, redistricted ones from 2022 that caused Hutchinson to run for D4 director in the first place. The Alameda County Registrar determined that since both candidates had collected signatures within the wrong boundaries, and the voting deadline had already passed, both candidates were disqualified from the race. Realizing their mistake that resulted in zero candidates for D5, and after already misinforming Martinez months prior, the City Clerk announced that both Lerma and Ritzie Hernandez could run.
After six months of errors and confusion, the D5 school board election will take place on November 7th 2023.