OAKLAND — A West Oakland community activist who hopes to succeed her husband on the Oakland school board is facing a challenge from the criminal justice sector — a man who helps former San Quentin prisoners reconnect with their children, some of whom attend local schools.
Olugbemiga Oluwole Sr., a Nigerian-born immigrant who has lived in Oakland for 33 years, says he would improve school safety and reduce truancy with greater family involvement and more opportunities for vocational education and hands-on elective courses.
"If these children are not properly educated, we are looking at another generation of prisoners," said Oluwole, who goes by "Olu."
Jumoke Hinton Hodge, 44, says her community development experience and deep knowledge of the district's reform efforts make her the best person to affect positive change in District 3 schools. Her campaign materials promise "real talk" about the issues.
"On Day 1, I can have serious conversations about the achievement gap, safety and how to strengthen the (school district's) Office of Community and Family Engagement," said Hinton Hodge, who directs the West Oakland Education Task Force.
Whoever wins this race, as well as the seats representing Districts 1, 5 and 7 on June 3, will oversee the Oakland school system during a time of great transition. Five years after a fiscal crisis and state takeover, the school board is slowly regaining authority. The elected officials will be responsible for making sure the budget is balanced amid state cuts and a shrinking student population. They also are likely to re-examine major district reforms — such as the small schools and the charter schools movements and the way schools are funded — and to hire a permanent superintendent.
Though a relative newcomer to the educational policy arena, Oluwole, 53, has won the endorsements of the Oakland teacher's union, the Alameda County Democratic Party and the Oakland Chamber of Commerce's political action arm, OakPAC. Oluwole has billed himself as the change candidate, although neither candidate has served on the school board.
"She's coming from the same household of the incumbent of eight years," Oluwole said. "I'll bring a new perspective, a new direction, new ideas."
Oluwole says Greg Hodge, the sitting District 3 school board member who is running for a seat on the Oakland City Council, has not done enough to reduce truancy or to make sure the schools in his district have the resources they need. Oluwole said he would help raise money from businesses and possibly through sister relationships with other school districts.
"I know how to get people together to work on the same issue," Oluwole said.
Hinton Hodge took exception to Oluwole's characterization of her husband's legacy on the school board. She also said that she and her husband have different backgrounds — his, in policy, and hers, in youth development — and that she has a mind of her own.
"I am not running to maintain a status quo district where less than 50 percent of students graduate high school or are ill-prepared for careers," Hinton Hodge said.
Hinton Hodge said she brings a more "hopeful" message than Oluwole, and that she is more knowledgeable about the successes in District 3, as well as the failures, and the possible reasons behind each. "You've got to know your schools. You've got to know your leadership. You've got to understand what their vision is, and you've got to support it to the hilt," she said.
The candidates have different stances on the independently run, publicly funded charter schools that educate more than one in six public school children in Oakland. Oluwole said he supports Assembly bill 2008, which would prohibit the opening of new charter schools until Oakland's state debt is repaid — which take decades — in order to stabilize enrollment and funding in the district's non-charter schools.
Hinton Hodge, on the other hand, says she has yet to see an analysis that shows how the bill would affect public education in Oakland. She said the politics surrounding charters are "divisive," and that policy discussions should be framed in a more nuanced way.
"There's too many big elephants in the room about what you can talk about, what you cannot, what's too political, what's not," she said.
"I would like to have an open-eyed leadership."