This June, Oakland voters will help to elect Alameda County’s next superintendent of schools. Over the next four years, that person will lead the Alameda County Office of Education—an institution that’s little understood by many Oaklanders, yet plays an important role in our city’s education landscape.
Two candidates are running: Incumbent LK Monroe is seeking a third consecutive term and has campaigned on a message of stable leadership through the pandemic and a continuation of her office’s work to strengthen work-based learning and social and emotional support for students. Her challenger is Alysse Castro, executive director of county schools in San Francisco, who wants to see the Alameda County Office of Education greatly expand its support and training offered to school districts.
To learn more about the county office of education and how it impacts Oakland schools, read The Oaklandside’s guide to ACOE.
Both candidates have experience running alternative schools for vulnerable students
Monroe decided to run for Alameda County superintendent in 2014 after being asked by then-Superintendent Sheila Jordan, who was retiring. Monroe initially wasn’t on board, but told The Oaklandside that she came around to the idea after meeting with superintendents from other counties.
2014 wasn’t Monroe’s first time working for the county office of education. She joined the office in 2011 as director of student programs, a role that gave her direct oversight of county-run schools: community schools for students expelled from district schools, court schools for those involved with the juvenile justice system, and alternative schools for students who need additional support or flexible school schedules to earn their diplomas.
One of Monroe’s first priorities as director was getting each of Alameda County’s community and court schools accredited, a process that requires schools to meet standards related to curriculum, teaching, student outcomes, and school culture. The county was granted accreditation for its schools two years later, in 2013. Before accreditation, students attending Alameda County schools weren’t able to transfer their class credits to other schools or to colleges.
“There are a number of opportunities that are off the table for our students if they attend an unaccredited school,” Monroe said. “If you think it’s okay for kids to attend an unaccredited school, you have great limitations in your thinking about what is possible for their future.”
Prior to joining the county, Monroe worked as a teacher and principal in Oakland schools, including at Crocker Highlands Elementary, Ascend K-8, and International Community School.
Castro, her challenger, served in the same position that Monroe had several years earlier, as Alameda County’s director of student programs in 2014. She also spent time working in alternative education in San Leandro and the city of Alameda, before joining San Francisco Unified School District to lead its alternative schools.
“I learned that if you really center the needs of a group of young people who have not been well-served by the traditional school system, you can create a school that absolutely does meet their needs,” she said, “and in fact, brings out their brilliance and joy.”
Castro said she is fundamentally an abolitionist, and would rather not see any students behind bars, but is committed to working within the system to improve it. She said her experience working in alternative educational settings has given her good insight into how the county school system can best serve vulnerable students, and she believes Alameda County could be doing much more to support students and school districts.
When she saw that Monroe was running unopposed in 2018, Castro decided she would look into running during the next cycle. She completed the Emerge California program, which trains Democratic women to run for office.
“Over the last couple of years of pandemic school closures and juvenile justice reform, what I’ve seen has been enough to keep me up at night,” Castro said. And so here we are.”
How can the ACOE best serve its districts?
Both candidates want the county education office to offer more support to school districts as they recover from the effects of the pandemic, which has caused lowered enrollment, teacher and staff shortages, and learning gaps.
Monroe noted that during the pandemic, the county education office started a social and emotional learning division to help teach students how to regulate their emotions, build self-awareness and foster healthy relationships at a time when many were dealing with added stressors due to isolation and distance learning.
The new division offers teaching resources for school districts, access to peer networks for educators, professional development for teachers, administrators, and staff, and a grant to help districts develop schools that better serve their communities.
If elected to a third term, Monroe said she’ll continue to develop the social and emotional learning division, and strengthen the county schools by aligning their courses with AG requirements, which are the minimum classes high school students must take to be considered for admission at California’s public four-year colleges.
With these projects and others in the works, Monroe emphasized what she sees as the importance of having consistent leadership at ACOE.
“I really felt that this wasn’t the time to walk away from this position,” she said.
Castro said one of her priorities if elected will be to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, which describes how school punishments like suspensions and expulsions can put students on a path into the criminal justice system. Punitive school discipline policies have been proven to be disproportionate affect Black students, especially Black boys. Castro and other opponents of those policies advocate for alternatives such as investing in school social workers, mental health services, and counseling for students beginning in elementary school, before they get to an age where juvenile hall becomes a possible outcome.
Castro also wants to see the county office do more to recruit and develop teachers who are from the East Bay. She also thinks the county could do more to support students with disabilities. Often, when school districts can’t offer the services that a disabled student needs, they will refer families to a private school that can, then pay for it. Castro would like to see the Alameda County Office of Education provide those services themselves, instead.
“I think of the county as a safety net,” she said. “It’s a safety net that’s there to support individual kids who are really struggling—the justice-involved youth, the foster youth, the homeless youth, as well as schools and districts that are really struggling, and to keep them from falling through the cracks .”
How will the candidates help OUSD?
The county office is responsible for working with OUSD and other districts to complete their accountability plans—three-year roadmaps that lay out how the district will meet students’ needs and achieve academic success.
Since the passage of Assembly Bill 1840 in 2017, the Alameda County Office of Education has also taken on a bigger role in helping Oakland Unified School District become financially stable. Monroe’s office provides assistance to OUSD leaders as they make financial decisions, and helps the district monitor spending. The OUSD school board voted earlier this year to close seven schools over the next two years, something Monroe said was a decision district leaders made on their own.
“My role as county superintendent is to ensure the district makes the decisions they need to have a balanced budget,” she said. “If you are deciding that school closures are that decision, then that’s the decision and I’m going to hold you to it.”
The decision to close schools made OUSD eligible to receive an additional $10 million in one-time funding from the state through AB 1840, which rewards districts like OUSD with extra funding if they take certain steps to balance their budget, including closing schools and leasing or selling district property. Last week, Monroe wrote to state leaders that OUSD had fulfilled the obligations under AB 1840 and requested that the district be allocated the $10 million.
While Monroe said she supports the decisions that OUSD leaders choose to make to reduce spending, she acknowledged the difficult path school closures create for families. Her mother, a career educator, worked as a coach at Parker, at Oakland K-8 school slated to close this year.
“It’s critically important to be very clear about what the value add is going to be for those families who are experiencing this,” Monroe said. “I am pushing to ensure that what Oakland has promised to those families gets fulfilled.”
Castro said she believes Oakland as a whole has too many schools for the number of students in the city. Oakland has about 120 public schools, including charter schools. Her goal is for all charter schools, within eight years, to be successfully serving students that are demographically representative of their neighborhoods. Those that aren’t, she suggested, should be incorporated back into a school district.
“I think we need fewer total schools. We need to not have two different school systems—a charter system and a district system—in competition with each other, fighting over the same underfunded pool of resources,” she said.
Changes to the state funding system
One thing the candidates agree on is the need for California to move away from attendance-based funding for schools. Over the last two years, the state has allowed school districts to use attendance rates from the 2018-2019 school year to calculate funding, in response to attendance declines during distance learning. But that will no longer be an option for districts moving forward, as the state looks to incentivize in-person learning.
That means districts like OUSD are at risk of receiving less state funding than in previous years since absentee rates have continued to be higher than normal even with most schools reopened for in-person learning. The state legislature is considering proposals that would incorporate enrollment-based funding in addition to the existing funding formula that is based on attendance, and Gov. Gavin Newsom has also proposed a modification to the funding formula.
Castro said the change is a long time coming.
“The hardest kids to serve are truant kids, because they’re not right in front of you. You have to hire additional staff to be reaching out and trying to provide support for those families,” she said. “Cutting a district’s resources because they’re serving families that are struggling to come to school is just not logical.”
Both candidates also pointed to California’s chronic underfunding of public schools. California regularly falls in the bottom half of states in per-pupil funding, and most recently ranked 37th, spending about $14,000 per student, which is about $1,000 lower than the US average.
During the monthly meetings of Alameda County’s 18 district superintendents, Monroe said the topic that comes up the most is school funding, and how they can lobby the state for more. Monroe said that she has lobbied in Sacramento for more ongoing school funding, alongside district leaders, parents, and unions.
“I’m the daughter of a teacher who taught in the 60s and 70s when California was known for its public education system,” Monroe said. “And I remember the conversation at the dinner table when Prop. 13 was passed and what that could mean for education. And we have absolutely seen it mean all those things for educational funding.”
Prior to Proposition 13, school districts had more autonomy in how they spent funds, and most of the money for districts came from local property taxes. The law capped property taxes, which severely cut into school funding, and now school districts’ main source of income is from the state.
Endorsements and election information
Castro has gained endorsements from a number of teachers’ unions, including the Oakland Education Association, Berkeley Federation of Teachers, and the California Teachers Association, and current and former public officials, like former ACOE superintendent Sheila Jordan and current OUSD board members VanCedric Williams and Mike Hutchinson.
Monroe’s endorsements include State Superintendent Tony Thurmond, East Bay Congressman Eric Swalwell, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, and several Alameda County supervisors and board of education trustees.
Election Day is June 7, but early voting and voting-by-mail begin May 9. May 23 is the deadline to register to vote in the June election.