On October 1, 2020 candidates for the Berkeley School Board participated in a virtual forum organized by the YMCA program Youth and Government (Y&G), and Berkeley High School (BHS) club BHS Stop Harassing (BHSSH). The forum featured all six declared school board candidates: Ana Vasudeo, Laura Babitt, Michael Chang, Jose Luis Bedolla, Esfandiar Imani, and Norma J.F. Harrison.
None of the candidates are incumbents and all are running to fill two newly vacant school board seats in the upcoming November election. The two open school board seats currently belong to Judy Appel and Beatriz-Leyva Cutler, who have both decided not to seek re-election in 2020 for personal reasons.
The event, moderated by multiple BHS student leaders within Y&G and BHSSH, was designed to inform Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) students about the candidates and policy decisions that could affect them. After each candidate introduced themselves briefly, the forum transitioned into a Q&A period, with some questions prepared by moderators and others selected from public attendees.
One issue raised throughout the forum was educational equity, with many attendees asking the candidates for specific policy proposals to address disparities within BUSD.
“We need to put our resources into supporting kids at an early age; all the research shows that this period is absolutely critical for educational success throughout their lives and careers,” Bedolla said. “Previous board members intend to keep chugging away with the same policies, without addressing the fact that lopsided access to education begins earlier than kindergarten,” he explained.
Bedolla added that his status as a “political outsider” would allow him to resist the institutional inaction of the school board.
Chang weighed in on the issue of equity as well, proposing that BUSD should strengthen its outreach to students of color and economically-disadvantaged backgrounds.
“Right now, a white student is 1.6 times more likely to take an AP class than a Black student,” Chang said. “It’s clear that the structural inequalities in BUSD run deep,” he continued.
Vasudeo touted endorsements from the Berkeley Federation of Teachers and the Alameda County Democratic Party as evidence that she could work to resolve inequities, adding that large test score disparities within BUSD showed the amount of work that remains to be done.
Imani explained that he would focus on helping specific demographics within the BUSD student body.
“We especially continue to fail three groups; African-American students, Latinx students, and disabled students,” Imani said. “As part of the school board, I’d work to improve parent-teacher communication so that students’ situations at home are better understood,” he added.
Lucas Kathol-Voilleque, a senior in Berkeley International High School (BIHS), said that he appreciated the opportunity to ask the candidates about his own concerns and hear from them directly.
“Overall though, I didn’t like the format that much because I felt it limited interaction between the candidates themselves,” Kathol-Voilleque said.
Vote 16, a local political organization that co-sponsored the forum, asked candidates if they would work to lower the voting age in local elections and on BUSD-related issues. Vasudeo, Babitt, and Chang all endorsed the idea of allowing 16 year-olds to vote in such elections.
Towards the end of the forum, student representatives from BHSSH led a section of questions that addressed sexual harm and Title IX.
Ella Ashley, a senior in BIHS and leader of BHSSH, was the first to question the candidates on the issue of sexual harm within BUSD. Ashley pointed out that students had made concrete demands for schools to change their handling of sexual harassment last year, and asked how candidates planned to follow through on these demands.
“When I think about this issue, I know that we’ve failed you,” Vasudeo said. “This type of culture has become normalized in our schools, and it’s seen as acceptable. Party culture has a role in that,” she added.
Babitt and Bedolla both shared that their daughters had experienced cyberharassment while attending BUSD schools. The candidates explained that, in both of their cases, the school’s administration had taken virtually no action to resolve their daughters’ situations.
“On a certain level, we don’t want to acknowledge this uncomfortable truth,” Babitt said, “but recognizing that our district is plagued by this problem would be the first step towards eradicating it.”