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Candidates Campaign for Open Seats on Berkeley School Board

Photograph by Jonas Nykamp

There are six candidates running for three seats on the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) School Board in November: Ty Alper, Norma J.F. Harrison, Dru Howard, Abdur Sikder, Julie Sinai, and Ka’Dijah Brown.

The Board is made up of five elected members and two student members: one from Berkeley High School (BHS), and another from Berkeley Technology Academy (BTA). The Board has the power to make decisions regarding budgets, policies, and curriculum. They are also responsible for selecting and overseeing a superintendent, and negotiating with BUSD’s four unions.

At the community forum on the night of Tuesday, September 25, the majority of the time was dedicated to questions from the audience and the League of Women Voters. The forum was held at the Berkeley City College Auditorium and organized by the League of Women Voters Berkeley Albany Oakland Chapter. Candidate Howard could not attend the forum.

The questions addressed a variety of topics including budget cuts, achievement gaps, and gun violence. “Violence in the schools is absolutely not acceptable,” said Skider regarding gun violence. Sikder is an entrepreneur who attended schools in Bangladesh, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, and America. He said that in order to effect change, “you need people from different backgrounds with different perspectives.”

Alper, who is a UC Berkeley Law professor specializing in the defense of clients facing the death penalty, spoke about how the School Board revised the expulsion policy and enacted restorative justice programs that “keep kids in school, where all kids should be, no matter what they’ve done, as long as there’s a way, … to address the harm.” Alper also explained that because of the nature of his occupation, he observes and is familiar with the effects of the school-to-prison pipeline that result in the high numbers of young people of color in prisons.

Brown, a fifth grade teacher and BHS alumna, said, “There has to be cultural sensitivity training for all our stakeholders, teacher, parents, and students alike.” Brown wants a position on the Berkeley School Board because, “who better to inform and make decisions about our [Berkeley] schools other than someone who’s been through [them]?”

On the topic of treatment discrepancies based on race, Sinai said, “We need to look at cultural humility and cultural competency training of our entire teaching classified staff, and we need to have dialogue and cultural humility training within our community.”

Additionally, the candidates were asked how they would cut the budget if they were elected, a question that stems from the controversial BUSD budget cuts that were approved last year. Sinai, a chief strategy officer for LifeLong Healthcare, has three decades of experience serving her community in many different forms, including launching the Berkeley LEARNS program, serving as chief of staff at the Berkeley Mayor’s office, and serving as a school board director from 2013 to 2014.

“Wherever the reductions are, they’re going to hurt,” said Sinai regarding BUSD budgetary issues. “We need to look at how to bring in new resources into the community and into our schools.” Alper echoed these ideas and added, “In a period of budget constraints, we need to make sure we are spending our precious resources on services and programs that are proven to work.”

Ty Alper has been a member of the School Board for the past four years. “I am proud of our work to promote equity and excellence in the public schools,” Alper said.

Harrison has run for School Board many times, and, as a self-proclaimed deep communist, believes that school systems need to be revised, stating, “testing is a bad tool,” and “[school] is a repressive environment.” Harrison explained that she is running to express her opinions and beliefs regarding schools. “I have chosen to say what school actually is about — shuffling us through like cattle for use as the tools of our own persecution,” said Harrison.

In addition to the League of Women Voters Berkeley Albany Oakland Chapter forum, candidates also gathered for a Parent Teacher Association Forum on October 3.

Alper, Sinai, and Brown are running as a slate, with endorsements from each other and as well as many different organizations such as the Berkeley Federation of Teachers and State Senator Nancy Skinner.