6 Berkeley school board candidates vie for 3 open seats in upcoming election

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Berkeley residents will have the chance to elect three new members to the Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, school board this November.

According to Berkeley Federation of Teachers, or BFT, President Cathy Campbell, this election is important because the elected board will have to tackle ongoing union contract negotiations and will have to choose the next BUSD superintendent.

Six candidates — Ty Alper, Norma Harrison, Dru Howard, Abdur Sikder, Julie Sinai and Ka’Dijah Brown — will be vying for the three open board seats. Read on to learn more about each candidate, what they stand for and their goals for improving BUSD if elected.

Ty Alper

As a UC Berkeley clinical law professor, Alper is currently serving as the director of the school board. He is the only one of the candidates running for re-election.

In addition to being graduates of BUSD, Alper and his wife have three children who are students in BUSD.

Alper said he decided to run for re-election because he is “proud” of the progress he made during his first term.

“During my first term on the Board, we revamped the ninth grade at Berkeley High … and made difficult but prudent budget cuts to keep our district fiscally sound,” Alper said in an email. “I want to continue to be part of the leadership team that helps us meet those challenges responsibly and creatively.”

Alper has been endorsed by a number of local organizations and officials, including BFT, International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 21 and California state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley.

Norma Harrison

As an activist, community volunteer and self-proclaimed communist, Harrison ran for office during the past four school board elections. She is of the belief that school is a “very alienating structure” and wants to change this.

In order to achieve her vision, Harrison said she wants to organize the community, expose students to professional work environments and create ways to intersect different subject matters within classrooms.

Harrison said she has taught and organized throughout her life. She said she has learned that the community should be more involved within the classroom and that students should be involved outside the classroom as well.

“I would try to organize the community, to create arrangements for people to do work together,” Harrison said. She would like “to have people around in the scientific laboratory, not in a student arrangement but to be part of the room and space and poke around and learn.”

Dru Howard

Howard is an instructional technician at BUSD and an organizer for Parent Voices. Parent Voices is a statewide grassroots organization that works on child care policy issues and making child care affordable for low-income families.

Howard has also been on many city of Berkeley commissions, including the Commission on the Status of Women, the Community Health Commission and the Human Welfare Commission.

Howard could not be reached for comment as of press time.

“(My job) entails working with children during the before-care and after-care programs, including homework, health, enrichment, and recreation,” Howard said in a Candidate Questionnaire from the BFT.

As a member of both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Berkeley Council of Classified Employees union, Howard has prioritized hiring more teachers of color and increasing the cultural competency of teachers across BUSD.

Howard has been endorsed by Berkeley City Councilmembers Ben Bartlett and Cheryl Davila.

Abdur Sikder

Currently a part-time faculty member at San Francisco State University’s business school, Sikder said he is running to bring a new perspective to the school board.

Among other things, he said he believes his educational experiences in five countries — Bangladesh, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore and the United States — will make him a good fit for the school board.

“In my view, if you want to see change, you need to have a new face,” Sikder said. “Many of (the other candidates) went to the district, grew up there. … If you want to see significant change in board decisions, you need someone who can think out of the box.”

If elected, Sikder’s goals involve reviewing different BUSD programs to see where the board can implement budget cuts. He also wants to reallocate more resources to BUSD’s Special Education program.

Sikder does not have any official endorsements, as he said he does not “like the endorsement process.”

Julie Sinai

Citing her past work with both BUSD and the city, Sinai said she hopes to add her experience to the school board.

“I think we’re losing the depth of experience with Josh Daniels and Karen Hemphill stepping down,” Sinai said.

Sinai previously served as a member for part of a board term in 2013. She also had two children graduate from BUSD.

If elected, Sinai said she wants to re-evaluate Berkeley’s 2020 Vision Plan — a BUSD initiative to reduce the achievement gap in Berkeley schools — to determine which programs are working.

“While there have been some gains, … we haven’t moved the needle on success. In my opinion, we have not succeeded in helping our African American and Latino kids succeed in our schools,” Sinai said.

Sinai is endorsed by the BFT, Berkeley Firefighters Association and numerous other local organizations and officials, including International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 21 and several members of the City Council.

Ka’Dijah Brown

A BUSD graduate, Brown said her current job as a fifth-grade teacher gives her unique insight into how school board decisions affect everyday classroom activities.

“I’m running because I want to give back to the school system that gave me so much,” Brown said.

If elected, Brown wants to update the BUSD Master Plan for English Learners to reflect Berkeley’s changing demographics in light of recent gentrification in the city. She also wants to increase BUSD’s efforts to lower the racial achievement gap.

“BUSD is suspending African American students at disproportionate rates,” Brown said. “In BUSD, there’s a 4.4 percent (suspension rate), which I think is ridiculous, especially in 2018 when there’s so many other communication tools.”

Brown said she believes that current programs addressing the issue should be expanded through further staff development.

Along with numerous other local officials and organizations, Brown is endorsed by Sen. Skinner, the BFT and Assemblymember Tony Thurmond.

Contact Alexandra Stassinopoulos and Mariam Zagub at [email protected].