Jorge Lerma with early lead

OAKLAND — Jorge Lerma, a candidate with relatively little financial backing, is in front of Sasha Ritzie-Hernandez in the race for a crucial swing seat on the politically divided, cash-strapped Oakland Unified School District board.

In very early returns Tuesday night, Lerma had nearly 63% support to Ritzie-Hernandez’s 37%, with 2,215 mail-in ballots counted and more to come, including votes cast at polling places.

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 robust faculty union.

If he emerges victorious, Lerma, a former school principal who based his candidacy on diversifying the school board, will represent the city’s largely Latino District 5, which spans parts of East Oakland south of I-580, including Fremont High and the Fruitvale neighborhood.

The seat has been unfilled for nearly a year after school board President Mike Hutchinson, who last held it, was elected in District 4 — his current area of residence.

The candidates to replace him have not previously held office. Lerma decades ago served as a principal in the Oakland schools, while Ritzie-Hernandez has been an education advocate and volunteered for a past school board campaign.

Ritzie-Hernandez, a formerly undocumented immigrant from Acapulco, enjoyed strong financial backing 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 her campaign.

Lerma had no such outside support, and his campaign also raised just $6,000 in direct donations compared to Ritzie-Hernandez’s $15,000.

A father of Oakland school graduates, Lerma, 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 couple years at the Oakland schools that saw unprecedented turnover in leadership. No current member of the school board 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 core financial deficits.

Earlier this year, the union went on strike for eight school days over its insistence that social justice-oriented policies — such as reparations for Black students — be embedded in the next labor contract, and not merely adopted as district policies.

The strike, which lasted eight days, laid bare 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 more closely with the district’s central offices in financial decisions.

Adding to the drama around Oakland school politics are the elections themselves.

Last year’s District 4 election saw the wrong candidate declared as the winner after the Alameda County Registrar of Voters botched its handling of ranked-choice voting tabulations in the three-candidate race. Hutchinson, the correct winner, was eventually appointed to the seat by a judge.

And earlier this year, it seemed the special election between Lerma and Ritzie-Hernandez might be jeopardized after the Oakland city clerk set the wrong boundaries for the District 5 race. The matter was later resolved.

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