Cash Influx Makes Oakland School Board Races Competitive

by Lillian Mongeau

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Mary Prime-Lawrence canvasses East Oakland voters for GO. (Lillian Mongeau/KQED)

The role of money in politics is a big issue in many elections this year – including the race for four seats on the Oakland Schools Board of Education.

A local non-profit, the teachers’ union, and the board candidates themselves are expected to spend more than $300,000 on seats that have been uncontested in more than half the races since 2004.

Mary Prime-Lawrence is a dozen doors into her list of registered voters on 88th Avenue in East Oakland. She’s standing in the dark hallway of a rundown fourplex. Most people haven’t been home, so she smiles when the deadbolt slides open.

“Hi there. Is Michelle Logan in? Are you Michelle? She’s not here right now? Can I leave some information for her? If you can give her that. James Harris is running for school board. We hope she can give him her support November 6,” Prime-Lawrence asks.

After 40 minutes, Prime-Lawrence has met only two of the voters she’s looking for. The low numbers haven’t dampened her conviction that this is the right way to spend her Saturday morning.

“In Oakland if you are un- or under-educated, you are more likely to get pregnant, get someone pregnant. Be involved in gangs, in drugs, in violence. It’s a life and death issue for some people, for some children,” she says.

Prime-Lawrence, a mother of three, lives nearby and teaches afterschool math at a charter school. She’s working with “Great Oakland Public Schools,” known around town as “GO.” The group is campaigning for big changes in Oakland’s schools. They want schools to have more autonomy and a better teacher evaluation system, and they want bond measures that support both traditional and charter schools.

And they want school board members who will make all that come to pass.

“The school board is really important in Oakland,” says GO’s Managing Director Jessica Stewart. “They control a $600 million budget. They choose the superintendent. They just make really important policy decisions for our kids.”

This is GO’s first political campaign and its political action committee has raised $184,000 to spend on supporting the three candidates and two ballot initiatives they’ve endorsed. In addition to dozens of small donations, GO has received three checks for $50,000 each. Two came from individuals: conservative philanthropist Gary Rogers of Oakland and moderate venture capitalist Arthur Rock of San Francisco. The third is from the California Charter Schools Association.

The city’s teachers’ union is backing different school board candidates. The union says it’s concerned about the motives of GO’s big donors.

“It’s just not healthy for democracy when two people can come in and just flood an election with huge amounts of money,” says Steve Neat, vice president of the Oakland Education Association, the city’s teachers’ union. “I’m sure they’re expecting to get something for that kind of investment. Nobody puts $50,000 into a campaign unless they expect something back in my opinion.”

Both Neat and Stewart say they welcome the competition.

The groups also agree on several other points. Both want the state to spend more money on K-12 education, smaller class sizes in schools and for more Oakland grads to go to college. But they often disagree, sometimes profoundly, on how to get there. GO’s heavy duty fundraising illustrates that point, and Stewart makes no apologies.

“We’re just doing whatever it takes because this really matters. This is a one in four years opportunity to have four seats up on the school board,” she says.  “And we’re in this to win it.”

Whoever wins will have to take on budget challenges, the new union contract, controversies over charter schools and how to tackle the job of educating all of Oakland’s kids.