2 candidates challenge incumbent slate for school board seats

Michael Drummond/Senior Staff

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From handling union negotiations to implementing new curricula, the Berkeley Unified School District Board of Education is responsible for discussing the long-term vision of the city’s local schools. This year, five candidates, three of whom are incumbents, are vying for three open seats on the board.

The incumbents, Josh Daniels, Karen Hemphill and Julie Sinai, have publicly endorsed one another and encouraged voters to elect them as a slate. UC Berkeley School of Law professor Ty Alper and Berkeley resident Norma Harrison are running independently.

The Berkeley Unified School District presides over nearly 10,000 students.

In past years, the district has been embroiled in union negotiations and addressing the achievement gap in local schools. The new board will be faced with passing a parcel tax that will provide crucial district funding and implementing Common Core standards, a set of learning objectives that allows districts to write their own curricula to meet standards.

Daniels and Hemphill sat on the board during the controversy surrounding the selection of Edmond Heatley as superintendent in 2012 — a hiring process from which Heatley withdrew after community pushback regarding his support for the anti-same-sex marriage act Proposition 8. Sinai was appointed in May of 2013 after board member Leah Wilson resigned.

The three incumbents share a commitment to promoting equity in education. During their time on the board, they spearheaded a multimillion dollar plan, the Local Control and Accountability Plan, to benefit at-risk students.

All three incumbents agree that Common Core provides the district an opportunity to promote creativity in classrooms. In 2009, Berkeley schools already fulfilled the Common Core English language and literature standards, so the board focused predominantly on implementing a new math curriculum called “the story of units.” The debate that faces the future board is on how to best implement the standards.

Alper — who graduated from Berkeley High School in 1991 — raised concerns over what he considers a test-driven culture in the district, saying he would hope to see standards implemented in a way that de-emphasizes standardized testing.

“There’s a sense that this testing culture has not permeated the Berkeley public schools,” he said. “But … I hear from teachers all the time that the tests narrow the curriculum and constrain their ability.”

Harrison, the other nonincumbent candidate, condemned standardized testing as “absolutely terrible.”

A self-proclaimed “devout communist,” Harrison has run for a school board seat before, campaigning for radical change in the education system. Her philosophy advocates a school system that gives everyone a purpose “from the time they can walk.” She condemns practices of age segregation and classroom-based learning.

“People don’t like school — they hate it and they put up with it,” she said. “We just keep on doing these very uncomfortable very oppressive things, and we don’t have the opportunity to ask about an alternative way.”

Sinai highlights providing adequate professional development so that staff have the skills to deliver curriculum to students with different needs, in addition to more support for parents. Daniels, too, has said providing resources to families and staff are a priority.

Hemphill, who is running for her third term on the board, noted that curriculum is not yet offered in Spanish, something she sees as “hugely problematic” for non-English-speaking students and their families.

Her platform emphasizes the need for career and technical education in middle and high school to expose students to opportunities in postsecondary education.

Daniels, who is currently the president of the board, highlighted his background in finance, noting that under his leadership, the board saved $12,000,000.

“I oftentimes disagree with other board members over the use of our resources,” he said. “That has meant I have been less quick to approve a new expenditure and more demanding on staff that they demonstrate genuine need.”

Another function of the board is to settle contracts with unions. On Oct. 22, a contract with the Berkeley Council of Classified Employees was finalized after more than three years of negotiations.

BCCE president Paula Phillips said she was “disappointed” with the result. Following negotiations, Alper is the only candidate endorsed by both BCCE and the Berkeley Federation of Teachers.

“We know what we’re getting with the current board, and that’s nothing,” Phillips said. “We’re willing to take our chance with someone who is unknown rather than support the current administration.”

The incumbents all maintained that negotiations were taken very seriously.

“I think that the current board has a history with all these programs, so they know why they’re shaped this way and what discussions we’ve had,” Daniels said. “This board would be able to keep doing the work we are doing without slowing down or restarting.”

A radical change in board culture might not be likely, Sinai indicated. She said that even if a nonincumbent candidate were elected, his or hers would be a minority voice.

But the challengers think one voice might be enough to make a difference. Harrison said she wouldn’t shy away from criticizing institutions, while Alper said his background as an educator would be unique.

“We have an opportunity in Berkeley that we don’t have in many other districts,” he said, “which is to better harness the resources at Cal, because we have this great research university in our backyard. As a faculty member, I’m excited about the new ideas I will bring to the table.”

Polls open Tuesday.

Contact Arielle Swedback at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @aswedback.