New Oakland school director preparing for clash with labor



OAKLAND — Jorge Lerma’s election to a vacant Oakland Unified school board seat could prove decisive for the political and financial future of a district that’s been in a perpetual state of crisis.

Lerma, a retired former principal who captured 57% of the vote in a special election that concluded last week, already is leaning away from the core priorities of the district’s robust faculty union, which spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to defeat him.

The votes he will cast as a representative for District 5 — a largely Latino area that includes parts of East Oakland, including Fremont High and the Fruitvale neighborhood — could break a political deadlock that involves an increasingly hostile dynamic between the union and board President Mike Hutchinson.

“My focus will be on bringing some healing, meeting with everybody,” Lerma said in an interview following his election victory. “There are a lot of people in the teachers union who told me that they didn’t agree with who their organization endorsed.”

The political differences at Oakland Unified are broadly traceable along the district’s demographics: lower-income, densely housed neighborhoods in town tend to support the union allies more than those in higher-income, residential areas.

The latter group has a larger concentration of people who vote in elections, and so Lerma said he focused his canvassing north of Interstate 580, in areas such as the Trestle Glen neighborhood.

Incidentally, those residents no longer live within the current District 5 boundaries, but they were still able to vote in the special election because the old boundaries apply to seats that become vacant in the middle of a term.

Specific voting data for precincts — including how the people in different neighborhoods voted — has not yet been made available by Alameda County.

Among those going door to door with him in the campaign’s waning days were former Mayor Libby Schaaf and former mayoral candidate Loren Taylor — politicians who are often associated with Oakland’s moderate political ranks.

His opponent, Sasha Ritzie-Hernandez, received just over 42% of the vote after a campaign that focused on building coalitions among traditionally marginalized groups, such as undocumented families. Through independent committees, labor unions spent nearly $50,000 on mailers endorsing Ritzie-Hernandez that were sent out to District 5 residents in the final days before the election.

Lerma’s political affiliations could influence his votes on the district’s finances. Oakland Unified faces an ongoing deficit that was not alleviated by the new labor contract signed in June, which will cost approximately $110 million. Officials are exploring where else to make cuts.

Lerma has spoken often about wanting to convert Oakland Unified campuses with decreased enrollment into community centers to save on salaries of school-site administrators and faculty — a kind of middle ground between closing them altogether or doing nothing.



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