By Katy Murphy

OAKLAND — An administrative assistant and a retired private school principal aim to unseat incumbent Alice Spearman in the race to represent District 7 on the Oakland school board.

Beverly Williams, 59, and Doris Limbrick, 54, each say they would bring more "accountability" to the school board and that the public schools in the predominately low-income East Oakland district would improve under their leadership.

"When I looked at the schools in District 7 and saw the condition they were in, it was appalling," Limbrick said. "Somebody has to be the voice for the children and their parents."

Spearman, 56, says she has been that voice for the last 31/2 years. In 2004, in the midst of a state takeover that stripped the board of its powers, she ran for office at a time when, she said, "nobody else wanted to run."

Four years later, Spearman has racked up endorsements from the Alameda County Democratic Party, the Oakland teachers union and dozens of other organizations and elected officials.

District 7, which stretches from the flatlands of 98th Avenue up to the tree-lined streets of the East Oakland hills, has been at the center of a growing reform movement fueled by funds from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and others. During the last five years, its only large, comprehensive high school — Castlemont — and at least three other schools were broken down into small schools with new names.

Whoever wins Tuesday's election will have to contend with a shrinking student population. The district's CFO last week recommended the closure or merger of 10 to 17 of Oakland's some 100 schools. As the school board continues to regain the authority stripped during the 2003 fiscal crisis and state takeover, it is poised to take a hard look at some of the reform initiatives, including small schools, charter schools and the way the central office allocates funds.

Like the majority of the current board members, Spearman believes the infusion of more than 30 charter schools has destabilized the school district's enrollment and, by extension, its funding. She is against opening new charter schools until the district repays its loan.

In board meetings, Spearman also has expressed some skepticism about the small schools movement, and why it has been concentrated in Oakland's higher-poverty areas.

"We need good, independent evaluations of the reforms," Spearman said in a recent interview. She added, "A lot of our small schools are feeling a pinch because they're not able to offer a full range of academic subjects and still have a small school environment. I think it's going to be inevitable that some of them will be merged."

Last year, Spearman supported the decision to close the small East Oakland Community High School, which had high attendance and a rich array of arts electives, but low enrollment, a poor relationship with the neighbors and among the lowest math and reading scores in the district. At an emotionally charged meeting at the school, after a teacher loudly berated the board member for her role in the process, Spearman gave him a chest bump before security escorted her to the door. She later apologized publicly.

Limbrick and Williams have suggested that they would take a more even tone on the board than Spearman, who is known for her colorful and sometimes confrontational statements. (During a May board meeting, in a discussion about consultants, she remarked, "This educational pimping has gone to a new level.") The two challengers have not drawn many policy distinctions with the incumbent, instead focusing on their approaches to board leadership and their ideas for improving the schools.

Williams said she would push for smaller class sizes, greater parent involvement and the recruitment of teachers who have a long-term commitment to Oakland. "I think they need to invest in people who are willing to stay for a long time," she said.

Williams, whose son attends Castlemont's Leadership Preparatory High School, said her involvement in the school council, as a volunteer tutor, and as a community leader for the national ACORN organization gives her a good idea of what the schools in her area need.

Limbrick emphasized her 15 years of experience as principal of Acts Christian Academy, a K-8 school in East Oakland with about 250 students. "I had to work with a budget. I had to work with the fact that we didn't have any money," she said.

Limbrick took issue with the school board's recent decision to hire an interim superintendent — who will receive a salary of $250,000, plus benefits — while a state-appointed administrator, earning the same salary, remains in place.

She said the school system needs the involvement of more churches and organizations, especially in the district's after-school programs. "I believe our job is to put life back into our schools," she said.

Reach Reporter Katy Murphy at 510-208-6424 or kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com. Read her Oakland schools blog and post comments at www.ibabuzz.com/education.