OAKLAND -- Until now, Thearse Pecot's decades-long involvement in Oakland's public education system has focused mainly on the schools her children and grandchildren have attended. But the latest round of school closures -- which included Santa Fe, her grandchildren's school -- prompted her to challenge Jody London for the District 1 seat on the Oakland school board.

"We've got to stop tearing down our communities by closing neighborhood schools," Pecot said.

Pecot sued the district in April to block the closures, alleging that it was discriminating against poor and minority families. While the case has yet to make it to court, she said it demands the reopening of Santa Fe Elementary. Pecot said that if she succeeds in unseating London, she will fight to prevent additional school closures. None are being considered at the moment, though if statewide tax measures fail and education funding "trigger cuts" proceed, schools throughout California will face some painful choices.


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The other priorities Pecot listed -- from improving safety on school campuses to lowering the dropout and truancy rates -- were broad and ambitious, though she offered few specifics of how her approaches would compare to the district's current policies and initiatives. She said she would advocate giving children more enriching activities to keep them interested in school. She said she'd work to stabilize the special education department, which has experienced turmoil this year, and encourage parent involvement in district decisions.

London, whose children attend Claremont Middle School, characterizes the closures as tough choices that the board was forced to make to keep the district fiscally sound. It remains to be seen how much the district actually saved by closing five elementary schools, especially now that one of them, Lazear, has remained open as an independently run charter. But London said that she stands by the decision.

"The days in California where you could operate a school with 200 kids are over," she said.

London also disputes the notion held by her opponent and others that the district discriminated against minority students by closing four predominately African-American schools and one primarily Latino school. Given the district's demographics -- less than 11 percent of the students attending OUSD schools last year were identified as white -- "It's mathematically impossible to close a school in Oakland and not affect children of color," she said.

London said she has been telling voters about what the district has managed to build despite unstable and shrinking state education funding: a budget without a multimillion-dollar structural deficit; a college prep curriculum; more nutritious school lunches; and school-based health clinics. The district still offers art and music, she said, despite budget cuts.

"It's a great story," she said.

While the district's other employee unions endorsed London, Pecot has won the support of the Oakland teachers union's leadership, which is not supporting any incumbents. In 2010, London and her board colleagues unanimously imposed a contract on the district's teachers. Although it included no furlough days or pay cuts, it allowed the district to dismantle its adult education program. The district still offers GED courses and some family literacy classes at schools, but the funding that once supported high school diploma, career technical education, English language classes and courses for seniors went to backfill its early education and K-12 budgets.

Pecot said she would reopen negotiations with the teachers union, if elected. When told that the district had just offered a new set of proposals to the union, she said she hadn't been aware of that development. "That's beautiful to know," she said. "It's a beginning."

London said her experiences as a parent and board member, her environmental policy background, and the direction in which the district is moving under Superintendent's Tony Smith's leadership make her the most qualified candidate.

"I'm someone who understands the public policy world and can make rational decisions," London said. She added, "When people ask my why on Earth I want to run again, I tell them, 'I don't think I'm done with the work I came here to do.'"

Pecot said she has been volunteering in schools for so many years that she knows what children -- African-American boys, in particular -- need to be successful.

"I feel these people in the city of Oakland, these children, they need help," she said. "Somebody has to step up."

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

OUSD DISTRICT 1 BOARD CANDIDATES

Name: Jody London
Age: 49
Occupation: Parent and businesswoman; runs an energy and environmental consulting business
Political experience: Elected to the Oakland school board in 2008; elected and re-elected board president by her colleagues
Personal: Her two children attend their neighborhood middle school, Claremont Middle School. In 2006, she served as co-chair of the campaign for the Measure B school facilities bond initiative, and served on the bond oversight committee before her election to the school board.
Education: Bachelor's in English, UC Berkeley; master's in public administration, Columbia University
Website: www.votejody.com

Name: Thearse Pecot
Age: 47
Occupation: Financial representative and advocate for disabled youth, adults and seniors
Political experience: No previous political experience
Personal: As a parent, grandparent and guardian, she has been involved in Oakland schools for 25 years in various leadership and fundraising roles. An activist for parents, teacher and student rights.
Education: Oakland public schools; also studied at Alameda City College, Bryman's College in Hayward, Phlebotomy Plus of Walnut Creek
Website: None