Race for Alameda County School Board Lacks Qualified Candidates
*May 6th Update*
In the last few weeks Geraldine Sonobe seems to be all over the place, meeting with officials and learning about the issues concerning education in the county. Last weekend alone, she was at the public meeting with San Leandro school officials Saturday morning, and at the Bike SL event on Sunday. Aisha Knowles, however, seems to be MIA.
For this reason, in addition to Sonobe’s greater experience and commitment to the issue of minority education, I will be voting for her.
Original Blog Post
Aisha Knowles is a well-liked woman. She is very good at her job as public information officer for the Alameda County Fire Department. She is poised and works well with people. She sits on many boards and has the support of both unions and the Democratic political establishment. She doesn’t have kids or a background in education, but that’s not required to be a Trustee on the Alameda County Board of Education.
Her opponent, Geraldine Sonobe, looks even better on paper. She was an English development teacher at one of the toughest schools in Oakland and now works developing new programs for a non-profit which prepares disadvantaged children for college. She is the mother of twins who attend public schools in San Leandro.
Despite their different backgrounds, Knowles and Sonobe have one thing in common: neither seems to have a clue as to what the Alameda County Board of Education does. And that’s pretty depressing, given that they are the only two candidates for District 4 (which includes San Leandro).
I had never been particularly enthusiastic about Aisha Knowles, despite how nice she is. In 2010, upon the death of the then sitting trustee for District 4, Knowles tried to be appointed to the Board. Despite her public speaking experience, even then she could not articulate a particularly good reason for seeking that office. Unfortunately, this has not changed. According to her ballot statement, her goals are to “improve communication between the County Board of Education and our local community; work to better prepare our schools in fire safety and emergency preparedness; assist schools with the challenges of state budget cuts, and ensure that we are training, recruiting, and retaining quality teachers.” Those are worthy goals, no doubt, and if she was running for the San Lorenzo School Board they would certainly be worth pursuing. The problem is that they are not pertinent to the position she’s running for.
The Alameda County Board of Education is responsible for overseeing the work of the Alameda Council Office of Education (ACOE). This work includes approving the budgets of local school districts, offering staff development programs, approving county-wide charter schools and hearing appeals from students expelled or denied transfers. The ACOE is also in charge of the education of students incarcerated in county facilities, students who have been expelled from public schools and students who are pregnant or have young babies. They provide oversight for foster children, who are frequently moved from school district to school district. What the ACOE does not do is run public schools, recruit and retain teachers or interact with the local community. That’s the job of local school districts.
Geraldine Sonobe also seems unaware of what the County Board does. Her ballot statement is all about making smart decisions when dealing with budget cuts. Again, this is something that affects school districts, who run the schools and have to make those cuts. But it’s not something the ACOE has to deal with – indeed, they are doing quite well financially.
Both Knowles and Sonobe came before the Alameda County Democratic Central Committee, to which I belong, to ask for our endorsement. After listening to their presentation, I had the opportunity to ask one question: how do they think the County is under-serving expelled and incarcerated students and what they would do about it. Neither could answer the question. Indeed, they both admitted that they didn’t know what the ACOE did for these students. That is not acceptable.
My first instinct is to be most critical of Knowles. She has been planning to run for this office for two years. She’s had plenty of time to find out what the ACOE does and how she can actually affect it. Sonobe, however, can also not escape criticism. While she jumped into the race at the last minute – and I’m glad, as I believe every race should be contested -, she had enough time to at least take a look at the ACOE website and familiarize itself with its programs.
Unfortunately, Knowles and Sonobe are not the exception as far as candidates go. I have encountered multiple candidates who have little understanding of the office they seek. In 2006, for example, neither Diana Souza nor Julian Polvorosa could speak intelligibly about transit-oriented development, which the City was then pursuing with gusto.
But I think it’s time we say “enough,” that we challenge those candidates that have not done their due diligence and do not understand the offices they are running for. If they are too lazy to put the time and effort to find out about them – what exactly can we expect of their performance once they are elected?
At the Democratic party endorsement meeting I called for the party to not endorse either candidate. I knew, of course, that it was a useless call. Knowles would have been endorsed, no matter how qualified her opponent was (because the Democratic party likes to support insiders). I, of course, made many enemies that night, and I’m sure I’ll be making more with this blog entry. But I feel that if I don’t speak up, nobody will. We’re so used to “business as usual,” to demand so little of our elected officials, that we ultimately make a mockery of democracy. I believe, however, that democracy can be restored one voice at the time.
At this point I’m not inclined to vote for either candidate – but I’ll remain hopeful until election day that one of them will shape up and take the office they’re running for seriously. If they don’t, I’ll probably go ahead and do a write-in for Mickey Mouse, I hear he might be a pretty popular candidate this year.
I will be writing about other local elections, those that affect San Leandro in particular, in the upcoming weeks. I welcome your comments here or in Facebook.