OAKLAND — The candidates running for an Oakland school board seat this November were aware of the stakes: Winning the race would give one of them unique sway over the district’s future via a crucial swing vote on the often-deadlocked board.
But what they were stunned to learn Thursday is that, due to an error by the city clerk’s office in setting the voting boundaries, neither is in fact eligible to run for the seat — and it’s possible there won’t be an election at all.
City officials were scrambling to figure out on Thursday how to remedy the screw-up after it was pointed out to them by one of this news organization’s opinion columnists.
It is just the latest election debacle to play out in Oakland, a city that in the past year has been plagued by an incorrectly called school board race, controversy around the ranked-choice voting rules in the mayoral election and inaccurate filing deadlines for candidates.
“Hopefully it’s not impossible to adjust, but man, what a late moment to pull the carpet out from under us,” said Jorge Lerma, who had met this month’s filing deadline to enter November’s school board race. “It’s their mistake, their error, and now we’re left to pay the price. It’s outrageous.”
The other contender in the two-candidate race, Sasha Ritzie-Hernandez, was also shocked by the news.
“We are deeply disappointed that Oakland is once again suffering from an election error that leaves our parents, teachers, and students in limbo about the future of OUSD,” she said in a statement, noting plans to “take all necessary action to protect democracy.”
Both candidates said in interviews they are assessing their legal options.
The election was meant to fill a vacant seat in the city’s District 5, a largely Latino area south of I-580 that spans parts of East Oakland, including Fremont High School and the Fruitvale neighborhood.
The boundaries were adjusted last year, meaning District 5 lost some voters to adjacent districts while absorbing others.
But the old borders should have continued to apply to the District 5 school board seat, even after it became vacant later that year, because the previous director was elected before the city’s redistricting process took place.
That aligns with the opinion of Attorney General Rob Bonta, whose office published a legal analysis last year addressing the very question of redistricted voting boundaries in special elections.
But when Lerma and Ritzie-Hernandez gathered signatures to enter the special election to fill that seat, they followed the city’s guidelines and approached voters who live within the new boundaries.
The discrepancy was first reported in an opinion column published by this news organization — and it was the author’s questions to city officials that alerted them to their error.
Both Lerma and Ritzie-Hernandez live in District 5, but neither received enough eligible signatures to be qualified to run for election, said the Alameda County Registrar of Voters Tim Dupuis.
In a text message, Dupuis said he was awaiting further direction from the city, noting that the deadline to file for candidacy has passed.
Asha Reed, the Oakland city clerk whose office is in charge of informing candidates of election rules, could not be reached for an interview.
“The priority of all city staff is to ensure this is a fair election, and staff are focused today on researching the issues at play,” said city spokesperson Sean Maher, who in an email described a “layered” set of procedural questions that are complicating the path forward.
Left unchecked, the inaccurate formatting could have spilled over into the actual election, allowing the wrong set of voters to pick a key decision-maker for the future of Oakland’s schools.
Whoever fills the seat may break a tight political deadlock on key school board issues, including those involving the teachers union that on May went on an extended labor strike that brought education to a halt for 35,000 students.
It’s unclear whether the filing deadline can be extended so that candidates who live within the old District 5 boundaries can enter the race.
The prospect of a special election itself prompted a 3-3 split on the politically divided board — the alternative was to simply appoint someone to the seat — leaving Alameda County Superintendent of Schools Alysse Castro to call the election in May after the board’s deadline to act had passed.
Castro, in a statement, said she hopes the relevant parties can “remedy the issue of the signature shortage and proceed with the election to get Oakland students and families the support of a full board.”
Ironically, this very board vacancy was prompted by another school-board race last year that descended into its own drawn-out legal mess.
Mike Hutchinson, the last District 5 director, had his address relocated to District 4 when city officials adjusted the boundaries last year. But instead of finishing out his term in District 5, Hutchinson ran for the open seat in his new district.
He won that race — but not before county election officials called the race in favor of another candidate, Nick Resnick, due to an administrative error in how ranked-choice votes were tabulated.
After attorneys got involved, a judge earlier this year ruled that Hutchinson had won the race, allowing him to hop seats from District 5 — which, months later, still has no elected voice in the Oakland school district.
“It’s like the twilight zone has settled on District 5,” Lerma, one of the special-election candidates, said in an interview Thursday, “in that it’s just one thing after another.”