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.
Earlier plans for campus closures were so widely unpopular that it led to a near-total overhaul of the school board, which reversed some of those plans in January — risking a fight with California legislators who had made closures a condition of annual bailout money that the district receives after almost going bankrupt in 2017.
Lerma leans away from the union’s key prescription for fixing the budget woes, which is to cut back spending in the Oakland Unified central offices. Labor backers often characterize the staffing in those offices as bloated and needlessly bureaucratic.
“We need more than a skeleton crew running the district,” Lerma said.
The newest addition to the school board also has clear views on the notion that the school board would formally support a ceasefire to Israel’s assault in Gaza. The teachers union has already adopted such a resolution, and one of its members — with the backing of a large number of residents — had been pushing for the board to do the same.
Pro-ceasefire speakers at a recent board meeting led Hutchinson, who opposes such a resolution, to adjourn the proceedings early because the advocates were using time dedicated to other agenda items to make their case.
At a board meeting last week — the first since the ceasefire meeting ended in chaos — a group of pro-Palestine demonstrators stood with taped mouths in front of the board dais, indicating they were being silenced. One of the organizers, a parent in the Yemeni-American community, said more of those demonstrations are to come.
“At this point, I’m inclined to say I won’t vote for anything that isn’t OUSD business,” Lerma said. “I consider it to be outside my domain to speak on anything else.”
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