A person hangs up Berkeley Parents Union sign promoting Ka’Dijah Brown and Reichi Lee’s campaigns for school board on Oct. 4 on Sacramento Street. Credit: Citizen reporter

This summer, a new parent group entered the usual melange of local political organizations and election committees. Calling itself the Berkeley Parents Union, it was unassuming enough, its website promising to enact one mission: “to amplify the parent voice” by making an endorsement in the school board election and raising funds on behalf of candidates. 

But quickly, detractors appeared. The group’s site doesn’t include the names of parents who founded it or whether the group has a certain political stance. Lacking information, rumors have swirled. Is it an astroturf group? If it has ulterior motives, what are they?

In an unusual step, school board director Ty Alper took a public stance against the group, expressing concern that its approach could “perpetuate division and distrust.” In a blog post, he argued that behind its anonymity and neutrality could be something darker. “BPU threatens to create a wedge between Berkeley teachers and families, resurrecting divisions that surfaced during the worst of the pandemic,” Alper wrote. A parody Twitter account came next, picking apart the group for its anonymity and for claiming to represent parents writ large. 

Then the group’s high-profile supporters spoke out. School board Vice President Laura Babitt threw her weight behind BPU at the Sept. 21 school board meeting in a speech that invoked Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to be elected to Congress, who worked against the “white male party … establishment and its money and endorsements.” And Ann Callegari, the former supervisor of BUSD’s Office of Family Engagement and Equity, joined in, defending the anonymity of the group’s leaders. “We know firsthand that parents have felt retaliation, or retaliated against, for advocating for their children,” Callegari said. “The question should be, Why didn’t parents feel comfortable identifying themselves?”

In the big picture, the group remains on the periphery, another player in the web of election groups making an endorsement in a race that most Berkeley voters have yet to turn their attention to. But even though the group’s financial clout is tiny, it has become perhaps the most controversial part of a particularly contentious race for three at-large seats on the school board

It has become a kind of release valve for a long-simmering debate over questions such as, What’s the best strategy for transformative change in Berkeley schools?, and, How aligned are the interests of the teachers union with those of parents? But the questions being asked the loudest: What is the BPU and what does it stand for? 

BPU members say the group’s only agenda is to give parents a strong voice in the district

Berkeley Parents Union signs promoting Ka’Dijah Brown and Reichi Lee. Credit: Lindsay Nofelt

Berkeley Parents Union formed this summer while the school board race was gaining steam. Its goal was to make an endorsement and “inform Berkeley voters whom Berkeley public school parents support,” according to its website. 

Operating separately from PTAs and other district committees, BPU now has an eight-person working group and more than 100 parent members. It has the support of Babitt, who is not a member but played a key role early on in connecting parents and advising the group.

The group held its endorsement process over the last month or so. Callegari interviewed four candidates for school board — Mike Chang and Jennifer Shanoski declined — and the group published recordings of the interviews online. After its membership voted on the candidates they interviewed, incumbent Ka’Dijah Brown and independent candidate Reichi Lee won BPU’s endorsement and the group has just begun putting up yard signs on behalf of Lee and Brown. 

To date, BPU has raised $2,000, according to its website. The group is a political committee, which means it is required by law to report any donors who contributed $50 or more, but BPU didn’t list any names in its initial filing with the city, nor did the group initially report how it’s spent its funds — just that it made an independent expenditure of $1,048. Nofelt said the omissions were by mistake. (On Thursday, just before this story was published, BPU submitted an amendment to the city listing six donors, who had each contributed $250. The donors include Callegari, Debbie Taylor (the group’s treasurer), the husband of another group leader and three others.)

Two parents from BPU’s eight-member working group were willing to go on the record about their new organization: Lindsay Nofelt, a parent of two elementary schoolers who has a background in graphic design and made the group’s website, and Scott Hoffmeister, a father of two kids who has served on the Emerson Elementary PTA and as treasurer of the PTA Council. 

Things haven’t really changed. We keep on hitting a brick wall.”

Lindsay Nofelt, a leader of Berkeley Parents Union

Nofelt said BPU was born this summer out of many conversations she had over the years in other parents’ backyards about “how we can finally improve the education for our students and the students to come.” 

Nofelt has served on multiple PTA groups, co-chairs the Parent Advisory Committee, and was appointed by the school board to advise a regional special education plan. Over the course of her volunteer work, she began to grow tired of not seeing improvement on the same issues.

“Everyone in Berkeley agrees on so much,” Nofelt said. “We agree that there is an equity gap. We agree that after school could be better. We agree that no student should face sexual harm in high school.” And yet, “things haven’t really changed. We keep on hitting a brick wall.”

Over time, she said, a “loose, ad hoc group” of parents began to coalesce around the idea of affecting real change. The parents had different priorities, from anti-racism to preventing sexual harm, but they shared, according to Nofelt, an equity mindset and a kind of disillusionment with the way things were. 

It was people who “are super active on district committees and service to the district, but kind of mildly frustrated that we don’t necessarily see change.” 

Babitt, during an hour-long conversation with Berkeleyside, described her own transition from parent advocate (she led Parents of Children of African Descent) to board director that left her frustrated with the pace of change in the district, especially when it comes to gaps in academic outcomes.

“People told me, ‘You’re going to get excellent words on paper. And then once it gets to implementation, nothing’s going to happen,” Babitt said. “I’ve lived through all of that.” 

Hoffmeister said he and other parents started tuning in more to the school board during the debate around school reopening, which led him to think that “teachers are quite well-represented and I’m not sure that the parents, you know, have been as well-represented.” He said he is a big fan of Berkeley schools and of his children’s teachers, and described witnessing the breakdown between teachers and parents at the time as “heartbreaking.”

A movement to give power to parents has been gaining momentum. The Berkeley Parents Union website states that “organizations such as the BPU are expanding rapidly throughout school districts across America.” That line on the website links to an EducationNext article describing several groups that are “a new voice in the fight to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for low-income students.” 

This week, one such coalition of parents in Oakland is asking the school board for a seat at the table during the district’s negotiations with its teachers union in an effort to address long-standing poor educational outcomes for students. The group brings together Oakland Reach, a parent advocacy organization focused on Black and Latino children, and CA Parent Power, which was formed by parents frustrated by the lack of transparency around school reopening.

Critics, citing concerns about anonymity, say BPU doesn’t speak for all parents

The Berkeley Parents Union has drawn criticism for its name — which purports to represent Berkeley parents generally — for its anonymity, and for the vagueness of its goals, which some have interpreted as a lack of transparency about its motives.

“They want to give the voters their recommendation for who to vote for, but what are their priorities? What are their concerns? Who are these people that are behind the Berkeley Parents Union?” asked Beatriz Levya-Cutler, who helped start Latinos Unidos de Berkeley in 1997 and later, United in Action, which brought together city councilmembers, union leaders and parents to help shape the city’s 2020 Vision. She was also elected to three terms as school board director.

The concerns went all the way down to the yard signs, which a few parents sent Berkeleyside photos of, calling them misleading. “Berkeley Parents Proudly Endorse” Ka’Dijah Brown and Reichi Lee, the signs read. “They’re claiming to speak for all of us, which honestly, in a city like Berkeley, no one should try to do,” said Nicole Chabot, a parent of two who advises BUSD on the budget of the BSEP tax measure. 

What are their priorities? What are their concerns? Who are these people that are behind the Berkeley Parents Union?”

Beatriz Leyva-Cutler, co-founder of Latinos Unidos de Berkeley

Nofelt said the group doesn’t “pretend to speak for all parents, but all parents are invited to join us,” she said. “It can be all Berkeley parents — that’s the vision. We hope that as the years go by, [we] reflect the views of everyone.”

Hoffmeister said the group didn’t include a stance, not because they were trying to hide one, but because the group didn’t necessarily agree on one.

Several group members and supporters defended the need for anonymity for fear of backlash against their children. Callegari told Berkeleyside that a decade or so ago, parents had Child Protective Services show up at their doors shortly after pushing back against the school district, and there were more recent examples of issues with students not receiving special education services. 

Other parents said they had never heard of anyone being retaliated against and, while it sounded horrible, it also seemed unlikely. “If that’s an issue, then it should be addressed, but it could be addressed legally, not through the creation of a group,” Chabot said. “This just feels a bit disingenuous.” 

Some parents prodded: If the group had as neutral of motives as they presented on their website, what was the purpose of hiding?

“I would say they’re purposely obfuscating who they are and what they want,” said Ludovic Blain, the parent of a seventh grader. “They say they’re doing it on behalf of Berkeley parents, but us Berkeley parents are left only guessing at what they want and who they are.”

Supporters and critics make accusations and counter-accusations

The Berkeley Parents Union has been criticized as anti-union by some, who worry that it formed in opposition to the teachers union and their current endorsement of candidates for school board.

In his post, Alper argued that the group potentially threatened a “long history of partnership between [Berkeley’s] teachers union, BFT, and parents.” 

He also wrote he was “not convinced” by the group’s attempts to distance itself from the National Parents Union, a “pro-privatization, pro-charter” national organization. Shanoski and Chang also raised concerns about an affiliation with the national group, which receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation.

Nofelt sent an email to Berkeley’s Fair Campaign Practices Commission calling Shanoski and Chang’s comments “lies” and a violation of the city’s code of fair campaign practices. (The commission did not respond to Nofelt’s email and has yet to respond to Berkeleyside’s request for comment.)

Alper points out that the EducationNext article linked to on BPU’s website includes the National Parents Union in a list of new organizations making change. 

Nofelt said the group has no affiliation with the National Parents Union — any similarity in the name is a coincidence; it was simply the catchiest name its members came up with. The BPU’s website says the group accepts donations of up to $250 and is not funded by outside organizations. 

Both Nofelt and Hoffmeister said BPU supports labor unions and does not intend to be oppositional. “I believe that our democracy has room for many voices,” said Nofelt, adding that she personally voted in support of Measures E, G, and H, which will bring in $400 million taxpayer dollars to the school district, and that she has gifted thousands of dollars directly to teachers. 

“People are missing the point,” Nofelt said. BPU aims to make change through the elected school board, not by taking down the teachers union. If anyone is sowing division, she said, it’s the critics.

Alper’s blog post elicited a heated defense from several of the group’s supporters, who blasted him for maintaining a “status quo” that has failed students for decades, a status quo they saw as being upheld by the Berkeley Federation of Teachers. (Nofelt said she appreciates those supporters, but their views don’t represent the Berkeley Parents Union as a whole.)

Tatiana Guerrerio Ramos, a BUSD parent and special education advocate who’s running for school board, wrote back that Alper fell “in line after kissing the ring of BFT” and accused him of “pitting the BFT against parents who are simply fighting to have their kids’ needs met.”

Hoffmeister said the backlash from Alper made him wonder whether BPU “threatens an existing power structure.” How exactly this power structure works is still mysterious to him, but it involves, in Hoffmeister’s view, some power vested with the teachers union and, perhaps, backroom conversations that drain the dais of meaningful public debate.

In watching the school board meetings, “so rarely was there any kind of disagreement between the superintendent and the board members. It just seemed so much was rubber-stamped,” he said, a view echoed by others in the BPU. “It left me wondering, Are the real discussions happening out of public view?”

Several BPU members and supporters said they stood with the teachers union on most issues, like pay raises and benefits for teachers, but there were a few they — individually but not as a group — disagreed with, such as literacy instruction. (Last year, BUSD settled a class-action lawsuit that claimed the district failed to use the best methods for teaching reading.) 

Babitt, who earned an endorsement from BFT when running for school board in 2020, later pushed for schools to reopen more quickly. She also recalled a time in June when BFT President Matt Meyer criticized the district for relying too heavily on consultants over staff, using as an example the $520,000 payment to RTFisher Educational Enterprises, Inc, a consulting firm, to create and begin implementing parts of the African American Success Framework. Babitt disagreed with Meyer, arguing that “we need to do something different,” like use a consultant specializing in improving outcomes for Black students, “to get different results.”

“What is anti-union? Does that mean I can’t have a diversion of thought?” Babitt asked, pushing back against the idea that criticizing parts of the teachers union stance means that she — or a group like the Berkeley Parents Union — is against organized labor.

Hoffmeister said he personally doesn’t have a laundry list of issues that he wants to see changed that he felt the teachers’ union opposed, but the idea that parents didn’t have a strong voice in the district had seeded itself in his mind. He hopes the group can grow beyond election endorsements to advocate for other issues — if they were to come up in the future.

Group says there was no preconceived endorsement plan

The school board race was already underway when BPU formed, and key endorsements had already been given out, chief among them the Berkeley Federation of Teachers. The teachers union, in step with outgoing school board directors Alper and Sinai, had endorsed Brown, Shanoski and Mike Chang, leaving Guerreiro Ramos and Lee, who was campaigning full-time, out of the melee. 

Perhaps the parents union would not have caused such alarm were it not for Lee, who, having raised $34,700 for her campaign and earning endorsements from multiple city leaders, stands a good chance at winning a seat on the board.

Some accused BPU of running a “sham” operation, going through the motions of an endorsement process that had a predetermined goal of endorsing Lee. 

Nofelt countered that its endorsement process was transparent: The group assessed the candidates it interviewed on the qualities of effective school board directors, like collaboration, tenacity and drive, which it had developed using a report from the Center of Public Education.

As of July 31, three of the group’s few public supporters — Nofelt, Babitt and Callegari — had all donated money to Lee’s campaign, according to the city’s campaign finance portal. They said their support for Lee did not sway BPU’s endorsement process.

When asked whether the group had a preconceived plan to endorse certain candidates — for example, Lee — Hoffmeister said no. 

“That did not come up. There was practically no discussion of any specific candidates until after the interviews were done,” he said. There were a few people who supported Lee’s campaign, he said, but they didn’t think that should bar them from participating. “We didn’t come at it with an agenda,” he said.

Lee told Berkeleyside that being independent would allow her to bring a different perspective to the school board and have a better balance of power. In a text message, Lee wrote that she was “honored to be endorsed by the families whose children we are all here to serve and honored to be part of their inaugural endorsement class,” adding that “we should be encouraging” participation from parents. She also said the group “adds balance to the other endorsements.” 

For now, it remains to be seen what will become of the Berkeley Parents Union and what role, if any, it will play in shaping this year’s school board race.

The deadline to register to vote online or by mail in Alameda County is Oct. 24, and the election is Tuesday, Nov. 8. We put together a guide to the essentials of how to register and vote, what’s on the ballot, voters’ rights and more.

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Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...