Ka’Dijah Brown, Mike Chang and Jennifer Shanosk won a seat on the Berkeley Unified school board. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/ CatchLight

Ka’Dijah Brown, Mike Chang and Jennifer Shanoski have earned seats on the Berkeley school board after all the ballots were counted Monday night.

Reichi Lee, who raised the most money of any school board candidate in recent history, finished fourth, missing a seat by 1,096 votes.

All three candidates endorsed by the Berkeley Federation of Teachers were chosen by voters on Election Day, continuing BFT’s long-standing winning streak at the polls. In the last six elections, only candidates endorsed by BFT won seats on the board.

Brown, the only incumbent in the race, earned the most votes — 29,855 — of any candidate. Chang finished second at 22,775, with Shanoski close behind in third with 22,673 votes.

Brown, endorsed by every Berkeley City Council member and school board director, said the results reflect widespread approval for her tenure. “In our city, we don’t always agree on everything, but everybody agrees that I should be reelected,” Brown said. 

Chang, a civil rights attorney at the U.S. Department Office of Education, said the close race reflected how “knowledgeable voters are about their local elections.”

Shanoski, a chemistry professor and president of Peralta Federation of Teachers, said the sweep by candidates endorsed by the teachers union is a “testament to the work the teachers have done and that Berkeley really supports the teachers and supports public education.”

While candidates centered issues like student mental health and disparities in academic outcomes on the campaign trail, the race did not appear to ultimately be won or lost over them. Instead, the dividing line seemed to be over who won major endorsements, especially from the teachers union.

This year, political action committees for the Berkeley and California teachers’ unions spent an unprecedented $55,000 on mailers on behalf of their three endorsed candidates. Teachers also supported Brown, Chang and Shanoski’s campaigns on the ground, canvassing every Sunday in the lead-up to the election.

BFT President Matt Meyer said BFT spent more money on mailers this election to “even the playing field” and give visibility to the candidates they backed in an unusually competitive race. Lee stood a chance at winning a seat, having earned endorsements from Brown, the current school board president; Laura Babbitt, the board’s vice president; and five City Council members.

Lee: ‘We can and must do much better in Berkeley’

More than anything else, Lee said that missing out on the teachers union’s endorsement — and the support, money and built-in credibility that comes with it — put her campaign at a disadvantage. 

“In a school board race, it’s pretty unheard of to be up against two independent expenditures,” Lee said. “When you don’t have that institutional support, having an army of teachers and staff making phone calls and door knocking on your behalf, it’s really challenging.” 

Having narrowly missed a seat, Lee said she is not treating the results as a loss. “We lifted the critical issues that I think desperately need to be lifted in our district,” she said. “It’s not OK for 40% of our high school graduates to not be able to apply for college. … I think everybody agrees that we can and must do better in Berkeley.”

A divisive race

The school board election proved divisive, with tension over what role the teachers union should play in the district spilling out onto the campaign trail. 

“I think that there was a lot of anti-BFT rhetoric and anti-teachers union rhetoric,” Shanoski said, adding that people “blame the union for a lot of what I think is the administration’s responsibility.”

Lee said she was falsely made out to oppose the teachers union. Having missed out on BFT’s endorsement in the spring, Lee pivoted, positioning herself as a candidate who would bring an independent perspective to the board. When a narrative began to take root that she opposed teachers and teachers’ unions, Lee interpreted it as a strategy designed to oppose her.

In October, a few weeks before Election Day, she issued a statement denouncing a text message that described the other candidates who hadn’t earned BFT’s endorsement as “literally dangerous for our schools.”

Reflecting on the race now, Lee said she thinks there remains “a lot of hurt, a lot of disagreements from the open schools era” that continues to spill into the public discourse. “There was a lot of damage between the community and we really need to figure out how to come back together and move forward,” she said.

Come 2024, Lee said she plans to either run again or support another candidate in their campaign.

The results are not legally finalized until an audit has been completed.

The two new board directors, Chang and Shanoski, will be sworn in on Dec.14. 

Chang said he would prioritize following up on how funding for mental health was being spent and promised to fulfill a campaign promise of pushing for student wellness centers. Shanoski said wanted to assess the school district’s myriad programs designed to improve student achievement.

Avatar photo

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,...