African-American Studies chair calls for “healing” in school community
Robert McKnight, candidate for the Board of Education, wants to heal.
“We need to create a process of healing between the community and the board because there’s been a lot of pain that has been inflicted,” said McKnight, who is currently a discipline dean and chair of the African-American Studies Department at Berkeley High School as well as a pastor at the Rock of Truth Baptist Church in Oakland.
McKnight declared last week that he will run for the board, making him now one of six candidates who will compete for three slots in November. Incumbents Shirley Issel and Terry Doran, activists Derick Miller and Nancy Riddle, and BHS senior Sean Dugar all say they will run. Nutrition activist Joy Moore is also weighing a candidacy.
McKnight said the board, which faces a $5.4 million deficit next year, has resorted to “crisis communication,” rather than “real listening and exchange” with the community.
“He has a legitimate point that the amount of dialogue and discussion hasn’t been ideal,” said Doran.
But Doran pointed out that the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team, a state body that has been advising the district on financial matters since the fall, did not provide the board with the first deficit figures until January.
Doran said a shortened timeline forced the board, which has already passed over $3.8 million in cuts, to move quickly with less public input than it would like. He said the normal budget process, with heavier community participation, will return next year.
Issel said the compressed timeline limited public input. But, she argued that the district took seriously the testimony it did receive.
“Much of what was said was taken in and responded to by staff, with revisions to the final recommendations,” she said.
But McKnight said the communication problem runs deeper than the budget process. He said minority communities, in particular, feel they do not have access to the board.
“There’s been a disconnect with the board since I’ve been in Berkeley,” said McKnight supporter Rev. Marvis Peoples of Liberty Hill Baptist Church in West Berkeley.
But Peoples emphasized that the disconnect has been in place for all communities, not just minorities, and that board members must reach out to everyone. He said McKnight has the ability to speak to all of Berkeley.
McKnight himself said it is important to move beyond the rhetoric of the “achievement gap” separating white and Asian-American students from African-Americans and Latinos. As a board member, he said, he would focus on raising achievement for all students.
Vikki Davis, a member of Parents of Children of African Descent, a leading advocacy group, said PCAD has not yet taken a position on any candidates, but is scheduling meetings with McKnight and Moore and may put forth a candidate of its own.
PCAD has been a leading voice in the movement to transform BHS into a series of compact, themed schools, arguing that the shift would help address the achievement gap. The high school currently has three small schools in place, but PCAD is pushing for wall-to-wall small schools.
McKnight said small schools may play a role in raising achievement for all students, but he said Berkeley should retain the traditional high school model with a few compact schools within.
“I think there will always be a need for the traditional model,” he said. “You always need something to come back to.”
“That’s a huge factor,” said Davis, suggesting that McKnight’s position on small schools will play a significant role in PCAD’s decision about whether to endorse him.
McKnight has also raised concerns about the board’s decision, in February, to move from a seven- to a six-period day at the high school next year. District officials acknowledge the shift will cut into the double-period science program and lead to reductions in electives, but the extent of those reductions is unclear.
“We have a richness here that did not come about overnight,” said McKnight, discussing his concerns with the shift.
As a board member, McKnight said, he would survey the community next year on the six-period day and push for changes if necessary.
McKnight’s concern about the six-period day is one of several issues that put him in line with Miller. Both candidates say they have had discussions about forming an alliance and campaigning together as election day approaches.
“We’ve been talking for a number of months and we’re pretty much of the same mind on the issues facing the district,” Miller said.
If McKnight were elected, he would have to resign as a district employee. He said that reality is a concern, but will not deter him from running.