As new school board members across California prepare to take the seats they won in the election earlier this month, Oakland Unified’s only newly elected board member Gary Yee knows there will be no honeymoon. In January, he will join a board whose first challenge is finding $30 million in spending cuts in next year’s budget to stem the district’s deficit spending. Failing to do that could result in the county or state intervening.
Decisions about those cuts must be made by February by the seven-member board, which will also include incumbents Aimee Eng and Shanthi Gonzales, who both ran unopposed in their districts and were re-elected on Nov. 6 to four-year terms. Yee stands apart from most new school board members because he’s no newcomer to education issues or district politics. Coaxed out of retirement to run for the board, Yee will bring more experience to the job than most. He’s served on the board in the past and has also been the district’s interim superintendent, a principal and a district teacher.
But he doesn’t want to be perceived as a know-it-all. Instead of coming onto the board and shaking things up, Yee said he wants to contribute to the team.
“I hope to be as boring as possible,” he said. “I don’t want to be seen as if I’m coming in and trying to take charge.”
Yee, who is 72, said he hopes his fellow board members will see him as someone “like a village elder,” but not someone who’s so old that it’s time for him to be “put out to pasture.”
Being a school board member can be one of the most challenging elected offices to hold, since it requires balancing the needs and demands of multiple constituencies, including parents, teachers, staff and students. But in districts like Oakland, which is facing a cascading series of budget and other problems — from a possible teachers’ strike to the need to compete with charter schools for students while making massive budget cuts, including closing schools — board members must make choices that have a good chance of antagonizing constituencies and interest groups in the district.
Yee’s prior service could give him an advantage, since he’s been there before. He said his primary area of interest and expertise is instruction. He’s also interested in providing high-quality schools and balancing charter schools with district schools.
“That kind of stuff is where I bring the best value,” he said, “because I know quite a bit about school operations and instructional strategy.”
He said it will be important for the district to figure out how many quality district and charter schools each neighborhood needs, while also considering choice-based schools such as Dual Language Immersion schools, magnet schools such as Life Academy, which focuses on health and bioscience, and “preserving enough resources for teachers’ salaries.” The board is currently grappling with how to significantly increase teachers’ pay in the hopes of stemming the district’s high teacher turnover, as it works to negotiate a new contract with the Oakland Education Association union.
Yee was elected with 59 percent of the votes in District 4, which includes 10 elementary and middle schools in the northern and eastern parts of the district. He beat Clarissa Doutherd, a nonprofit executive director backed by the California Teachers Association and local Oakland Education Association, who received 41 percent of votes. Eng’s District 2 in Central Oakland includes Oakland High and Gonzales’s District 6 in Northeast Oakland includes Skyline High.
GO Public Schools Advocates, an independent expenditure committee, spent more than $100,000 to support Yee’s election. His campaign also got direct contributions from the building trades unions and an endorsement from the local Chamber of Commerce.
Independent expenditure committees are allowed to receive donations of unlimited size, but are barred from coordinating their activities with candidates. Direct contributions from individuals and political action committees to campaigns are limited in Oakland.
Yee credits his win to being well-known in the community, in part due to spearheading the successful Measure N parcel tax in 2014, which funds career-related “Linked Learning” programs and classes for district students. He also got to know a lot of people when he was an interim superintendent in 2013-14 and board member.
“When I was a school board member, I attended PTA meetings and all kinds of school activities, so I think people are still aware of who I am,” said Yee, who was on the board from 2003-2013 before assuming the interim superintendent position. “The other thing people know is that I’m pretty fiscally careful. There’s a real awareness that we need to really pay attention to the budget.”
The district is currently facing a fiscal crisis that has prompted the state to provide bailout funding over the next four years if the board follows through with making $30 million in cuts next year to balance its 582.3 million budget. The district is still paying back a $100 million loan it received from the state in 2003. The board has asked Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell to cut staff, reorganize the district and recommend schools for consolidation or closure. If the district fails to make the cuts, county and state officials have warned they could step in and take control.
GO Public Schools Oakland endorsed Yee because of his experience, said Jessica Stewart, the organization’s CEO. They wanted a school board member who could “hit the ground running on Day One” and help solve the district’s financial crisis to “avoid being taken over by the state again.”
“When Gary (Yee) was superintendent,” she said, “he left the district with a surplus and that is the kind of experience we need right now in OUSD.”
GO Public Schools Oakland, which includes members who support both district-run schools and charter schools, has two main priorities or “campaigns” in Oakland: 1Oakland to ensure that schools — whether district or charter — are quality schools and Budgeting for Impact to improve the district’s fiscal practices.
GO believes that Yee and Eng are aligned with their goals in both campaigns. But Stewart said while the group appreciates Gonzales’ leadership on the district’s Special Committee on Fiscal Vitality, GO has been “disappointed” that she voted against the district’s “Community of Schools” policy. It calls for a citywide plan that will review all district and charter schools in Oakland with a goal of reducing the total number of schools and ensuring those that remain are high quality. Gonzales voted against the plan after failing to get support for amendments that would have added more scrutiny to the district’s approval and renewal of charter schools regarding suspensions, expulsions and transfers, along with innovation and special education enrollment.
Yee said he’s being careful not to weigh in too early on matters up for discussion before the board and instead plans to wait until he assumes his elected position in January. However, he said he hopes to ask good questions to make sure board members and staff consider the possible consequences of budget cuts or other actions.
He also said he’s very supportive of Johnson-Trammell, who was the assistant superintendent of curriculum and professional development when he was interim superintendent.
“I just have a lot of respect for her,” he said. “I’m really focused on stability and experience and having a plan that you can actually carry out. That requires her to stay, so I want to do everything I can to be seen as a supporter.”
In the meantime, the board on Wednesday adopted recommendations
- Reduce central office staff.
- Redesign the district by eliminating programs and initiatives that aren’t helping students and reduce the number of district schools.
- Increase teachers’ pay.
- Consult with constituents before making final decisions.
In February, the board will consider closing or consolidating schools. The district has 24 more schools than it will need in five years to educate the students it expects to enroll, according to a presentation by Johnson-Trammell and her staff.
Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments this year in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts as a way to illustrate some of the most urgent challenges facing many urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.