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Julie Sinai after the unanimous school board decision to appoint her to the vacant seat. Photo: Lance Knobel

Julie Sinai, former chief of staff to Mayor Tom Bates and now director of local government and community relations at UC Berkeley, was unanimously appointed to a vacant school board seat on Wednesday night. Sinai emerged from a slate of nine candidates in a quick, non-contentious vote by the four sitting members of the Berkeley Unified School District board.

“I’ve been a parent, I’ve been past staff, I’ve been a partner,” Sinai said in her three-minute presentation at the special board meeting. Before her position with Mayor Bates, Sinai had been director of school-linked programs for BUSD. “I’m ready to help get the work done with the board.”

The vacancy was created when board president Leah Wilson resigned in March because of her appointment as Court Executive Officer for the Alameda County Superior Court. Sinai will serve the remainder of Wilson’s term, which expires in November, 2014. 

Board members before the vote emphasized the importance of the appointee being able to “hit the ground running”, with only 18 months left in the term. All mentioned the importance of experience to help a likely new superintendent. (Board president Karen Hemphill said at the close of the meeting that the board had unanimously agreed on Monday to enter contract negotiations with Hayward school superintendent Donald Evans.) Several board members also mentioned the importance of laying the groundwork for a new BUSD parcel tax, likely to be on the ballot in 2016.

“It took me those 18 months to understand all the different parts of the school district,” said board director Beatriz Leyva-Cutler. “We’re going to have a new superintendent. They need a board that works together, that is knowledgable.”

“There’s something to be said for someone who will add to the cohesion of the board,” said board president Karen Hemphill. “One thing that is different is this issue of being able to hit the ground. It takes minimum six months to a year.”

The one different voice on the board was director Josh Daniels, who stressed the importance of having someone on the board with experience as a public school educator. Daniels also mentioned the potential consequences of an appointed board member.

“Incumbency is incredibly powerful in Berkeley,” he said. “Once we appoint someone, you could serve forever, without undergoing the scrutiny we underwent.”

Dan Lindheim (left) and supporters listen to Wednesday night's vote. Photo: Lance Knobel
Dan Lindheim (left) and supporters listen to Wednesday night’s vote. Photo: Lance Knobel
Dan Lindheim (left) and supporters listen to Wednesday night’s vote. Photo: Lance Knobel

Leyva-Cutler nominated Sinai, and was seconded by director Judy Appel. Daniels nominated Meleah Hall, a teacher in West Contra Costa schools, but his motion failed to receive a second. Daniels then nominated Berkeley High math teacher Peter Bloomsburgh, but that also failed to receive a second. No other candidates were nominated.

The failure of  Dan Lindheim to receive a nomination was surprising after board members emphasized the importance of experience and familiarity with the school district. In addition to his work as Oakland’s top administrator, Lindheim had chaired the BSEP Planning & Oversight Committee for nine years and co-chaired two school parcel tax campaigns.

Once the unanimous vote for Sinai was concluded, board members provided fulsome tributes.

“She has been a stalwart supporter of education in this city for many years,” said Hemphill. “She’s a large part of the reason that Tom Bates is considered the education mayor.”

“I’m excited about the possibility of serving with Julie,” Appel said. “I look at how much we need to know up here and I feel this is not a time for training. We need to move forward.”

Before the vote was taken, board members heard public comment from supporters of the candidates for the vacancy and then presentations from each of the candidates.

Three of the candidates, Sinai, former Oakland City Manager Dan Lindheim, and Berkeley Law professor Ty Alper, had the bulk of supporters who spoke at the meeting. In their individual presentations, candidates generally expressed their support for the priorities of the school district and the current board, particularly the 2020 Vision. There were, however, some criticisms of Berkeley High.

“Berkeley schools lack flexibility, particularly Berkeley High,” said Spencer Klein, senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “This is particularly true of kids who are stuck in a small school that they don’t fit in.”

Klein also felt science education in Berkeley needed improvement.

“I would work to improve science education particularly at the lower levels,” he said. “Gardening and cooking are wonderful things, but they can be learned at home and they should not replace science.”

“While Berkeley schools have served my children well, Berkeley High is not serving all its students well,” said Satish Rao, a professor of computer science at UC Berkeley. Rao drew laughter when he said he trumped Bloomsburgh’s single MIT degree with multiple degrees from MIT.

The most iconoclastic presentation was from Mark Zoldis, an independent financial adviser. Zoldis said the success of Berkeley schools meant there was an increasing number of highly demanding parents, who wanted ever-greater resources and performance.

“It’s sort of like Moneyball in a way,” he said, referring to the book (and subsequent movie) by Berkeley author Michael Lewis. “The Oakland A’s were able to make a pennant run with a very low budget. In a way BUSD has to work in this way.”

Hayward chief is finalist for BUSD superintendent spot [04.19.13]
Berkeley School Board seeks replacement director [03.29.13]
Berkeley School Board President Leah Wilson resigns [03.18.13]

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...