Page One

County school board race heats up

By David Scharfenberg Daily Planet staff
Friday January 04, 2002

It’s the other race. And it’s a doozy. 

In recent months, the city has focused much of its political energy on the three-way contest to replace State Assemblymember Dion Aroner, D-Berkeley, leaving office because of term limits.  

But on March 5, Berkeleyans will join voters from Albany, Emeryville, Piedmont and portions of Oakland to elect a member to the Alameda County Board of Education, representing Trustee Area 1. The election will end a contentious race between incumbent Jerome Wiggins, vice president of the board, and challenger Jacki Fox Ruby. 

Seats in Trustee Area 4, in the Hayward-Union City region, and Trustee Area 7, in the Dublin-Pleasanton section of Alameda County, are also on the ballot. 

Among other tasks, the sevenmember board approves the county school budget, serves as an appeals board for students expelled by individual districts in the county, and oversees county-run education programs at the juvenile hall in San Leandro, and in four community day schools that serve youth expelled by local districts, or who are referred by the courts.  

Much of the campaign has focused on the factionalism plaguing the current board, and the tense relationship between Wiggins and County Superintendent Sheila Jordan, who will run for re-election unopposed in March. 

These divisions exploded into public view last summer when the board majority, including Wiggins, clashed with Jordan and the board minority over the county’s annual $30 million education budget. 

Jordan sought to increase staff salaries, arguing that a raise was necessary to attract and retain talent. She also suggested expanding support services for the individual school districts, such as Berkeley Unified, under the county office’s jurisdiction.  

Wiggins and the board majority argued that Jordan’s initiatives would come at the expense of direct services for the at-risk students in the community day schools and other county-run programs.  

Eventually, with mediation from the California County Superintendents Association and the California Association of School Boards, the two sides reached a compromise. But the wounds remain, and the budget fight has bled into the current Board of Education campaign. 

Wiggins, who also works as transportation program specialist in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s regional office in San Francisco, said the superintendent, who has endorsed Ruby, is making a play to dominate the board in the wake of the budget fight.  

“Sheila Jordan believes that the County Board of Education is her board to control,” Wiggins said. “Mrs. Ruby will simply be a pawn for Sheila Jordan.” 

Jordan said she does not want to control the board. “What I’m looking for is honest discourse and dialogue,” the superintendent said, “and that has not happened with Jerome.” 

“Anyone who knows Jacki Fox Ruby,” she continued, “knows she’s not a rubber stamp for anybody.” 

Ruby, who worked as a teacher in the Berkeley public schools from 1968 to 1996, served as president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers from 1991 to 1998, and is now an official with the statewide union, said she will be an independent voice on the board. 

But, Ruby said she will also work to develop cooperative relationships with board members and the superintendent. “I went to a number of board meetings in June and July and what I saw there appalled me,” she said. “I didn’t see a process where people were discussing issues. I saw vilification and ego-tripping.” 

“Collaborative relationships are what works,” Ruby added. 

The candidates have also rehashed the debate over whether to prioritize the county or district schools. Ruby and Wiggins take pains to suggest that it is not an either-or proposition, but they offer decidedly different perspectives on the matter. 

“The issue is maintaining services to the kids who are most at-risk,” said Wiggins, referring to the young people in county-run programs, many of whom have been expelled by local school districts. “They are students who are no longer being served by their districts.” 

Ruby, on the other hand, said that community day schools receive higher per pupil spending from the state than district schools, and suggested that it may be time for an evaluation of how community day schools spend their resources. 

She also voiced support for expanding support to the district schools, in the form of teacher training, fiscal oversight and violence prevention programs. 

All five members of Berkeley’s Board of Education have endorsed Ruby. Shirley Issel, the board’s president, said the challenger’s experience as both a teacher in the classroom, and a union leader who has lobbied state officials in Sacramento, makes her a strong candidate.  

Issel also suggested that Ruby would work well with Superintendent Jordan and provide support for district schools. 

“It’s very important to get competent school board members who can work with (Jordan) and share her vision,” Issel said. 

A majority of the City Council, including Mayor Shirley Dean and councilmembers Linda Maio, Dona Spring, Polly Armstrong, and Miriam Hawley, has officially endorsed Ruby. But Councilmember Kriss Worthington is backing Wiggins, citing his support for county schools. 

“He seems to fight hard for funding for low-achieving kids,” said Worthington. “We have to pay attention to every single child.” 

But Ruby suggests that Wiggins has not been as active in helping low-achieving students as he would suggest, noting that Alameda County did not put special education services in place at its schools until the 2000-2001 school year, when the U.S. Office for Civil Rights demanded action. 

“Where was the board before that?,” she asked. 

Wiggins said the county office moved quickly when the issue arose, but suggested that Superintendent Jordan was to blame for not providing special education services before then. 

Wiggins, in turn, has argued that Ruby, who worked as a union leader in Berkeley for years, must share responsibility, with other local leaders, for the “achievement gap” separating white and black students in Berkeley. 

Ruby said she has worked on the “achievement gap” issue for years, recalling a series of workshops that she helped set up in the 1980s that focused on the matter. She also argued that Wiggins has done little as a member of the county board to address the problem. 

Wiggins countered that district leaders should have handled the issue themselves, and touted a proposal he made this week to convene local leaders, under the auspices of the county board, to discuss the “achievement gap.”