Editorial: Elect Jorge Lerma to fix Oakland schools in crisis

Editorial: Elect Jorge Lerma to fix Oakland schools in crisis

The future of the financially beleaguered and educationally challenged Oakland public schools will be determined by a special election Nov. 7 to fill a vacancy on the district’s governing board.

Voters in District 5, which stretches from the Fruitvale to the Glenview neighborhoods, will select a new director who will hold the crucial swing vote on the seven-member board.

That person will help determine whether the district continues its skid toward fiscal insolvency, or the governing board makes tough decisions needed to ensure quality education for Oakland’s kids.

Like most of Oakland politics, this is not a choice between left and right, or liberal and conservative. This is a pick between two progressives, Jorge Lerma, a career educator with strong financial acumen, and Sasha Ritzie-Hernandez, a community organizer with little understanding of the district’s fiscal plight.

Voters in Oakland District 5, which stretches from the Fruitvale to the Glenview neighborhood, will select a new director who will hold the seventh and swing vote on the currently evenly divided Oakland School Board. (Courtesy of Redistricting Partners)

This is a pick between Lerma, an independent thinker looking to put student interests first, and Ritzie-Hernandez, who will ensure the teacher union’s control of the school board. Teachers deserve community support and to have their voices heard, but they should not be running the school district.

Lerma is the only candidate prepared to meet the moment. An Oakland native and graduate of Oakland High School, Laney College and Cal State East Bay, he has been a teacher, assistant principal and principal in Oakland schools.

Lerma claims to be in semi-retirement, but you would not know it from the schedule he keeps. He still fills in when Oakland schools need a substitute principal. He serves on the city’s Children’s Initiative Oversight Committee and the Community Policing Advisory Board. And he is president of the Educational Coalition for Hispanics in Oakland and a member of the executive board of the Latino Education Network, both education policy advocacy groups.

The District 5 vacancy that’s the subject of the special election was created after incumbent Mike Hutchinson won election in 2022 to the adjacent District 4 seat. In the city’s redistricting following the 2020 census, Hutchinson’s home was moved from District 5 to District 4.

The upcoming special election will select someone to fill the remaining year of Hutchinson’s District 5 term. Until we caught the error, the City Clerk’s Office had planned to use the wrong boundaries for the special election. It will now be conducted using the correct boundaries, the ones that were in place when Hutchinson won that seat in 2020.

Whichever candidate wins will join a currently evenly divided board that faces monumental challenges. In a district where 76% of students are socioeconomically disadvantaged and a third are English language learners, graduation rates and test scores in math and English fall far below state and national standards.

Student enrollment has declined about 8% in the past five years, and projections show the trend continuing, meaning less per-student money coming from the state.

At the same time, the district continues to face daunting economic challenges. After teachers, egged on by three union stalwarts on the school board, conducted an apparently illegal strike in May just before graduation, the board agreed to a new contract the district could not afford.

Even Alysse Castro, the Alameda County superintendent of schools elected with labor union backing last year, says the district is at least $69 million short of covering the cost of the new three-year deal with the teachers.

And that doesn’t account for the additional costs of contract renewals the district is currently negotiating with its other labor unions, which are likely seeking similar increases.

No one should begrudge the teachers the raises that all the board members understandably agreed they deserve. The issue is how to pay for it — how to responsibly manage the rest of the district’s finances to cover the salary costs.

Yet, for more than a decade now, district leaders had been avoiding a big financial elephant in the room — the excessive number of public schools in Oakland.

As Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell reported last year, the average enrollment of Oakland schools was the lowest of California’s 50 largest districts. Keeping open small schools creates wasteful administrative and maintenance costs, draining money that could be better used, and is desperately needed, in the classroom.

That led to a board decision last year to plan for necessary school closures, a move that was reversed this year after three school board members quit or retired and directors opposed to closures took control.

That reversal undermined the district’s fiscal sustainability plan, according to the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team audit required by the state Legislature. The district still owes the state money from a bailout and takeover of the district in 2003, when the district was facing insolvency.

School closures are never popular. And under state law, they must undergo a process to protect racial equity. But the process must not be used as an excuse for not responsibly closing schools.

Lerma is realistic. “We can’t be holding on to buildings that don’t meet our needs,” he said. “I would hate to close any schools, but if it has to be done, I’m going to do it. Why? Because I want to avoid the financial crisis where we are going to be taken over by the state again.”

Lerma has been around long enough to remember the state takeover. Ritzie-Hernandez, in contrast, admits she knows nothing about the district’s finances. Nevertheless, she says she couldn’t think of any reason to close a school.

Oakland is on the brink of another financial crisis. Those who don’t understand the district’s history are destined to repeat it. It’s why District 5 voters should elect Lerma in the Nov. 7 special election.