OAKLAND — Jorge Lerma, a candidate with relatively little financial support, is ahead of Sasha Ritzie-Hernandez in the race for a crucial seat on the board of trustees of the politically divided and cash-strapped Oakland Unified School District .
In early returns Tuesday evening, Lerma had nearly 63% support to Ritzie-Hernandez’s 37%, with 2,240 eligible ballots counted, including a portion of the 55 votes cast at polling places.
These are the final election night results, although ballots that arrive in the mail over the next week will still be counted. It’s unclear how many more are yet to come and whether they can help Ritzie-Hernandez close a current 500-vote deficit.
“The big money doesn’t always win,” Lerma, an Oaklnad senior, said in an interview Tuesday night. “I know some of these parents who have been voting since they were kids.”
The special election will fill the only vacancy on the Oakland school board, where the six existing members often find themselves divided over the interests of the district’s strong teachers union.
If he emerges victorious, Lerma, who based his candidacy on diversifying the school board, will represent the largely Latino District 5, which spans parts of East Oakland south of I-580, including Fremont High and the Fruitvale neighborhood.
The seat has remained vacant for nearly a year after school board President Mike Hutchinson, who last held it, was elected in District 4 — his current home region.
The candidates to replace him have never held office before. Decades ago, Lerma served as superintendent of Oakland schools, while Ritzie-Hernandez advocated for education and volunteered for a previous school board campaign.
Ritzie-Hernandez, a former undocumented immigrant from Acapulco, enjoyed strong financial support in the run-up to the election thanks to her alliance with the teachers union. Labor groups, through political action committees, independently spent nearly $50,000 to support his campaign.
Lerma had no such outside support, and his campaign also raised only $6,000 in direct donations, compared to Ritzie-Hernandez’s $15,000.
Lerma, the father of Oakland school graduates, received just 11% of the vote in his previous bid for District 5 in 2020, finishing last in a three-candidate race.
This special election caps a tumultuous few years in Oakland schools, which have seen an unprecedented change in leadership. No current school board member has served before 2021.
That year, Oakland Unified saw numerous protests and even hunger strikes over the school board’s widely unpopular decision to close several campuses due to low enrollment and major financial shortfalls.
Earlier this year, the union struck for eight school days to insist that social justice-focused policies — such as reparations for black students — be included in the next labor contract, not simply adopted as district policies.
The strike, which lasted eight days, exposed an open conflict between three union-allied board members — Jennifer Brouhard, Valarie Bachelor and VanCedric Williams — and three others — Hutchinson, Sam Davis and Clifford Thompson — who align themselves more closely with the district’s central party. offices in financial decisions.
The elections themselves add to the drama around Oakland school politics.
Last year in District 4 elections, the wrong candidate was declared the winner after the Alameda County Registrar of Voters botched his handling of ranked-choice voting tables in the three-candidate race. Hutchinson, the correct winner, was eventually appointed to the bench by a judge.
And earlier this year, it looked like the special election between Lerma and Ritzie-Hernandez might be in jeopardy after the Oakland city clerk set the wrong boundaries for the District 5 race. The case was resolved afterwards.