OAKLAND -- Alice Spearman, the incumbent for the District 7 seat on the Oakland school board, has dropped a pre-election legal challenge against her opponent, James Harris. But not necessarily for good. If Harris wins, Spearman is likely to pursue the matter again, her attorney says Harris lives in Oakland, but children in Harris' neighborhood are zoned into public schools in San Leandro and in Oakland. Residents there vote for Oakland City Council District 7 and for San Leandro school board.
That, Spearman had contended, should make him ineligible to run for a seat on the Oakland school board. "If you can't vote for yourself, it's like, please," Spearman said last month. "How are you going to run in a race when you can't vote for yourself?"
Spearman filed a legal challenge, but a hearing scheduled for Wednesday has been dropped from the calendar, court records show. Harris's attorney, Rod Divelbiss, said he contacted Spearman's attorney last week and demand he drop the challenge or face contempt sanctions. Spearman's attorney, Marc Guillory, said the candidate decided to wait until after the election to take the matter to court.
Harris, a former teacher who started his own media business, chalks the issue up to a distraction from the issues facing Oakland schools, and more divisiveness -- one of the reasons he says he's running in the first place.
"Why isn't she saying, 'Here's what we did, and here's what we're going to do?'" he said of Spearman's campaign.
Harris describes himself as someone who is capable of bringing people together and embracing the middle ground. He thinks district schools should do a better job of promoting what they do well, as many charter schools have done. His son and daughter go to Head-Royce, a private school in Oakland.
Harris said he supports the general principles Superintendent Tony Smith is promoting in his strategic plan; its central tenet is to create "community schools" that support the needs of students and their families. But he said, he'd encourage a better flow of information and ideas between the district office, community leaders and parents and teachers who live the reality of the public education system.
"It's that exchange of ideas that I think is lacking," he said.
Spearman also expressed support for the district's community schools approach, though she stressed that the notion of supporting children's social and physical well-being and turning schools into neighborhood hubs is not a new idea. If elected, she said, she will continue to push the district to place more experienced employees at schools and to hire more people who can work directly with students and families, particularly those who have experienced trauma.
When the school board considered the closure of five elementary schools last fall, Spearman was one of two board members to vote against the proposal. She acknowledged that some schools needed to close, but that she couldn't support the closure of Marshall Elementary, her neighborhood school.
Spearman is known to speak her mind; at public meetings, her remarks sometimes take the form of searing retorts and veiled accusations. In 2007, she was escorted from a tense school meeting by security after chest-bumping a man in the audience who had insulted her.
Last month, in a hearing about alleged charter violations by the American Indian Model Schools, Spearman came to the organization's defense. Despite the fact that state auditors in June found evidence that the schools' founder, Ben Chavis, engaged in financial fraud, conflicts of interest and mismanagement of public funds, Spearman suggested that the district's proceedings were an act of retaliation against Chavis, whom she has described as a friend. Then she went a step further.
"People have already been paid off to do what they want to do," she said, without further explanation, prompting an angry rebuke from her colleague, Gary Yee, who said her comments were inappropriate.
Spearman says she wouldn't characterize her remarks to her fellow board members or to the superintendent as insults. She said she plays an important role on the board, by holding the administration accountable. "I bring the voice of my constituents, and I will ask the hard questions," she said.
Harris said Oaklanders need to go beyond the usual rhetoric -- "This is bad, this is a crying shame" -- and direct their concern in a more focused way, for instance by making sure students have access to a modern, digital curriculum and opportunities for union jobs or college after high school.
"That's literally the foundation of a new Oakland," Harris said. "If we can build better schools, companies will come. If we can build better schools, storefronts will open on MacArthur."
Occupation: Creative Director, Morgan Media Group
Elected history: None
Personal: A small-business owner and former high school English teacher running for school board. Born and raised in East Oakland, he lives in Oakland with his wife and two children.
Education: Bachelor's in communications from Santa Clara University.
Alice A. Spearman
Occupation: Consultant, Oakland Unified school board member
Elected history: Elected to OUSD board in 2004, re-elected in 2008
Personal: Born and raised in the East Bay, she attended Oakland schools, as have her children and grandchildren. She is a widowed mother of two adult daughters and a grandmother of two Castlemont students and a preschool-age grandson.
Education: Attended San Jose State