OAKLAND -- Local school board races are often low-budget, low-profile affairs, and until now, Oakland has been no exception. But this year, two new political action committees have thrown themselves into the election, infusing once-lethargic races with energy -- and cash.

The teachers union brought back its PAC after a 20-year hiatus and plans to spend $20,000 on its three candidates. A school reform-minded group, Great Oakland Public Schools, has amassed a whopping $123,000. Most of that money came from two individual donors, including the San Francisco-based venture capitalist and philanthropist Arthur Rock, who gave $49,000.

Four of the seven Oakland school board seats are at stake on Nov. 6. In a departure from previous years, every one of them is contested.

Henry Brady, dean of UC Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy, said it's not surprising to see different groups or wealthy individuals investing in these races. The polarization of the American political system, he said, is "now getting all the way down to local politics." In addition to old debates about textbooks and curriculum, he said, districts are grappling with another layer of division: sharply different views on school board governance and the role of publicly-funded, independently run charter schools.

"I think there's a big ideological fight out there right now with how schools should be controlled," he said.

In Oakland schools, where passions and divisions are known to run high, the election also comes during a time of flux. Superintendent Tony Smith is advancing a host of initiatives while grappling with the aftermath of school closures and a steep enrollment drop. Six new independently run charter schools opened this fall, including three that broke away from the district, bringing the total to 40.

The board races also coincide with Prop. 30, a statewide ballot measure proposed to close the state's budget gap. If it fails, California's public schools face the prospect of deep, midyear cuts -- and school boards will be faced with some weighty decisions.

Ideological differences, while not apparent in all of the candidates, are certainly driving the organizations supporting them. While the union and GO agree on some points -- for instance, increasing teacher pay and funneling education dollars to schools, rather than to administrative overhead -- it's telling that they chose to support none of the same people. (Each group chose to endorse candidates in only three of the four races.)

GO Public Schools, a 4-year-old coalition that includes many teachers, wants the district to give individual schools more control over their operations, including who they hire and how they spend their money. The group is also in favor of adopting new systems to evaluate teachers. The coalition includes charter schools as well as traditional public schools. It is backing Jumoke Hinton Hodge, Rosie Torres and James Harris.

The union has resisted many of the popular education initiatives of the day and remains adamantly opposed to charter schools. It does not support tinkering with seniority-based layoff policies, and it rejected a district effort to rewrite teacher transfer rules so that principals and other school leaders would have a greater say in who fills vacant positions. Its leaders have pushed for smaller class sizes and a more consistent teaching force.

If union-backed candidates Thearse Pecot, Richard Fuentes, and Mike Hutchinson are victorious on Nov. 6, the Oakland Education Association will have certain expectations of them, said Trish Gorham, the union president.

"We expect a settled contract," Gorham said. " ... We expect accountability. We expect real oversight."

Gorham said she had no problem with a group advancing its interests -- the California Teachers Association, after all, is contributing to the union's PAC. Still, she said, she was troubled to see such a large donation from Rock, a philanthropist with no obvious connection to the city.

"The question has to be asked: What is your interest in Oakland's little school board?" she said.

Jessica Stewart, GO's managing director, said Rock was inspired by the energy and excitement surrounding these Oakland races. "Like us, he thinks school board leadership really matters," she said.

GO's other big donor, Gary Rogers, gave $49,900. That link is more straightforward, as his Oakland-based family foundation provided the seed money to start the coalition in the first place. Rogers's son, Brian, ran for school board in 2008 and lost to Jody London. GO has not endorsed London or her opponent.

Stewart said much of the PAC's funding has gone to buy materials and to support volunteers -- more than 60 per week on average -- who have manned phone banks and gone door-knocking on Saturdays to reach voters. Some of it will be spent on direct mail, another rarity in school board elections.

When it comes to school board elections, Stewart said, "Our city has got to pay attention."

David Kakishiba, an Oakland school board member who's not up for re-election, said he isn't worried about the extra money in play. He said the level of civic engagement has been far too low in these races, and that it makes sense for groups such as the Oakland Education Association and GO Public Schools to support candidates who share their values.

"Why OEA has never been a player boggles my mind," he said.

Brady, who co-authored a book this year about campaign contributions, "The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy," said that's one argument. Some say there's not enough money in politics -- that if there were more, citizens would be better informed.

What's worrisome, Brady said, is that the money fueling campaigns and influencing policy is coming, increasingly, from the very wealthy. It's not always clear that those donors have the best interest of everyone else at heart, he said.

The public might never know what motivated Rock to jump into Oakland school board politics. He declined to be interviewed about his contribution, saying his backing of the candidates "speaks for itself."

Read Katy Murphy's Oakland schools blog at www.IBAbuzz.com/education. Follow her at Twitter.com/katymurphy.

Go Public schools AND the Oakland teachers union: Who's backing whom?

District 1 -- North Oakland: Incumbent Jody London (neither) vs. Thearse Pecot (Oakland Education Association).
District 3 -- West Oakland/Adams Point: Incumbent Jumoke Hinton Hodge (GO Public Schools), vs. Richard Fuentes (Oakland Education Association) and Ben Lang (neither)
District 5 -- Fruitvale: Open race between Mike Hutchinson (Oakland Education Association) and Rosie Torres (GO Public Schools)
District 7 -- East Oakland/Elmhurst: Incumbent Alice Spearman (neither) vs. James Harris (GO Public Schools)