five Berkeley School Board candidates
Berkeley School Board candidates (from left to right in ballot order): Laura Babitt, Jose Luis Bedolla, Esfandiar Imani, Mike Chang and Ana Vasudeo. Photos: Courtesy Credit: Courtesy Photos

When Beatriz Leyva-Cutler first took office at the Berkeley School Board in 2008, a thick packet with the next week’s meeting agenda would arrive at her door on Friday evenings. Board members didn’t have official email addresses yet, and the documents weren’t routinely posted online.

Twelve years later, in the midst of a pandemic, BUSD has been jolted into fully virtual communication as it engages in difficult conversations about what education looks like for its more than 9,000 students without classrooms, clubs or face-to-face interaction.

The board will take on this work without Leyva-Cutler and Judy Appel next year, as its two most experienced incumbents retire from district leadership. It’s a rare opportunity for brand-new candidates to tackle student safety, equity and a host of new challenges in a hybrid learning era.

Many of the five candidates announced their run relatively late in the election cycle after COVID-19 upended schools and Appel freed up an additional seat by announcing in late June she would not be running for re-election.

Ana Vasudeo, a school planner with ‎the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), was the first to declare her candidacy in February and is the only candidate who has been endorsed by the entire current school board. She and Laura Babitt, a financial auditor, have also been endorsed by the Berkeley Federation of Teachers and eight out of nine city council members.

Federal education law attorney Michael Chang secured endorsements from the outgoing incumbents. Norma Harrison, a repeat candidate, risk management consultant Esfandiar Imani and nonprofit CEO Jose Luis Bedolla, who announced their candidacy later than the others, are not endorsed by the board, but all six candidates have children who either attended BUSD or are currently in its schools.

Safely reopening campuses, reforming policies around sexual harassment and revisiting equity in a dramatically changed landscape are the top issues for the candidates, and each brings varying levels of experience and technical backgrounds to addressing these problems.

Equitable learning is at risk for Black and brown students during COVID-19

A Berkeley Schools Fund volunteer hands over a Chromebook to Neelam and her mother Shazir at the EdHub in April. Photo: Pete Rosos

Vasudeo, vice president of equity and inclusion on the Berkeley PTA Council, told Berkeleyside she already felt a “sense of urgency” to replace Leyva-Cutler — the only Latinx member of the board — when she began running early this year. According to the most recent Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) report, 21% of students in the district are Latinx, the second-largest group after white students. 

The sudden, tumultuous transition into distance learning in the spring cemented Vasudeo’s concerns regarding Black and brown students, and their ability to access resources remotely, she said. Vasudeo has a son with an Individualized Education Program plan, and she specifically wants to improve BUSD’s track record supporting students with disabilities.

This could involve quarterly town halls (similar to those BUSD did in early spring and summer), a robust equity office and approaching families of children with disabilities with a goal of engagement, instead of fears of potential litigation, Vasudeo said. She praised Leyva-Cutler’s work advancing students of color, as well as Appel’s advocacy around LGBTQ+ issues and gender inclusivity.

“We need to think about equity in a very comprehensive way, and that includes children who are not neurotypical,” Vasudeo said.

Babitt has led Parents of Children of African Descent and served on the Berkeley Schools Excellence Program to address equity issues over the last 10 years, and wants to refocus on a “bottom-up approach” to several existing programs, like family engagement specialists and English language learner support. She told Berkeleyside that some of these have not succeeded, in part, because there wasn’t buy-in from community members and proper-training for teachers. This problem is exacerbated during the pandemic, she said.

Like Vasudeo, she’s advocating for stronger community engagement and involvement of families in major BUSD decisions, as well as rigorous funding and follow-through on new equity programs and existing ones, like the restorative justice program she advocated for in 2014.

The current program, like many others throughout the country, tries to engage students or student groups who may be at the center of conflict and create solutions and pathways other than suspension and expulsion. Vasudeo, Babitt and Chang each called out the program for not accomplishing its original goals due to inadequate resources.

Chang specifically highlighted his background in education, civil rights and federal compliance law implementing policies to prevent discrimination at school districts throughout the state. He said some people misunderstand restorative justice as a “vanity project for Black and brown students” that obstructs safety.

When it’s prioritized by the district and staffed properly, he said it furthers compliance with the law, ensures students have positive, healthy and safe school environments and prevents “blow-ups” around student safety — like the sexual assault protests of February, which tied into intersectional issues of race-based harassment.

In addition to issues facing Black and brown students, Chang said BUSD needs a board member who can represent the 8% of its students who are Asian-American (and 20% of the city’s residents) and the city’s history of progressive Asian American politics.

Even when students are remote, student safety is critical

Berkeley High students listen quietly in Civic Center Park as classmates tell intensely personal stories about their experiences with sexual assault and harassment during protests against “rape culture” in February. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Sexual harassment on campuses was a major issue for years before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, with Berkeley High students staging a massive walkout just weeks before the state shut down to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Students said rape culture was dominating their education, with abuses from fellow classmates as well as teachers. The protest was preceded by a lawsuit by a Berkeley High student and an earlier state finding that BUSD mishandled a sexual assault case at Cragmont Elementary School.

Current school board Vice President Ty Alper, who will be president next year, said some of the district’s planning around student safety was interrupted by school closures, but the new board will have to do everything in its capacity to tackle multiple issues at once — while also recognizing that this capacity is limited as a district.

“The reason why this is such a challenging time is that we can’t just put everything on the back-burner,” Alper said. “If we wait until COVID is eradicated before we turn to any of these things, then it’s going to be too late.”

Vasudeo heard from Berkeley High student protesters first-hand when they came to the PTA to air out their grievances. She said she wants to re-prioritize plans for K-12 consent education initially discussed by the body in April. This could include a partnership with Shalom Bayit, a domestic violence prevention organization.

She pointed out that even during remote learning, survivors of sexual abuse may be entering virtual classrooms with their abusers, or may feel unsafe in their educational environment. Babitt, Vasudeo and Chang again pointed to a re-invigorated, staffed and funded restorative justice program as a way to pre-empt these problems before they cause harm.

“These things don’t happen overnight,” said Imani, pointing out layers of inadequacies in the district that have led to reports of sexual harassment. He cited advocacy organization Break the Cycle, saying 80% of school counselors don’t feel comfortable handling sexual assault incidents and described his background in risk management as suited for taking on this challenge systematically.

Along with the other candidates, he said restorative justice has to be implemented well for it to be effective, and that schools need to prioritize privacy, confidentially and training for all stakeholders.

School reopenings have been a major source of frustration for parents

Berkeley High School student Martha Martin doing her math homework at home on Aug. 20, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

Bedolla was fed up and disheartened after schools quickly pivoted to distance learning in the spring. He has two children — the younger of which was dealt with a “double whammy” after the resignation of Longfellow Middle School’s principal right before the pandemic — and it was painful to watch their mental and emotional stress adjusting to the new system (in addition to unpleasant surprises, like a “Zoombomber” coming into one of his children’s classes).

“I hate to see my daughter cry,” Bedolla said. “It’s something that, for me, is unacceptable … because of how [BUSD] has fumbled at every turn.”

Bedolla decided on the day of the election deadline to file his candidacy, with a focus on digitally innovative learning methods like Khan Academy, better product testing and planning and partnerships with local companies like Twitter to access strong Wi-Fi, laptops and technology.

Every candidate in the running for the Berkeley school board has advocated for a science-based, safe return to schools that prioritizes both children and their teachers. But they’ve also criticized the district for poor communication, and a sudden shift from hybrid learning to full-distance learning. Bedolla and several others said, for example, that the district’s dashboard for elementary reopening readiness should have been created in spring, not the fall.

The school board last week approved a plan for small groups of elementary school students having difficulty with distance learning to return to campuses on Oct. 26. It will return to vote on additional reopening plans this week.

Outgoing member Leyva-Cutler, who has endorsed Babitt, Chang and Vasudeo, was the sole vote against the plan. She thought the program could isolate students who haven’t been performing well in distance learning by bringing them back onto campuses, as well as exacerbate racial equity issues.

Both she and Appel said they want the new board to immerse themselves in what equity means as a school district, and bring this lens to every front, especially when it comes to bringing students back onto campuses.

Vasudeo has been responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in her position as a school transportation planner with SFMTA and San Francisco Unified since the start of school shutdowns, and said outreach will be a critical component in making sure families are supported going forward.

She’s been having conversations with Berkeley elected officials in her campaign and said the strongest collaboration will come from inter-agency planning between groups like BUSD, the city, AC Transit and others.

Babitt is disappointed BUSD didn’t take the chance to be a leader in alternative forms of learning decades ago and said community members were asking for outdoor options well before the pandemic. Deep collaboration between the district, teachers and families can begin to ease this problem, she said, as well as a hard look at budget and finances for the upcoming year — one of the skills Babitt has that she has highlighted.

Chang reiterated his experience in government compliance and said he will ensure BUSD moves forward with its reopening in a way that won’t exacerbate existing issues around equity and safety.

Imani admitted that he may have filed too late to receive organizational endorsements and support, but said it’s the community work that matters — like his ongoing volunteering at the EdHub and delivering meals to families. Individual actions will make a huge difference as Berkeley schools navigate the shutdown and families emerge on the other side of things, he said.

“No matter what, I’m gonna be involved in the Berkeley school system one way or another because I love the City of Berkeley, and I love this community,” he said.

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Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...