School board elections in Berkeley are typically low-key compared with other local races that garner more controversy and more money.

Not so this year. 

After failing to win the Berkeley Federation of Teachers’ endorsement, Reichi Lee has gone it alone, raising $55,000 as of Oct. 22 — the most raised by a school board candidate since at least 2008.

As a result, groups associated with teachers unions are pouring cash into the race, far outspending their usual contributions to Berkeley school board elections, which usually range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Three of the five seats on the board are up for election this fall, and political action committees for the Berkeley and California teachers unions have spent $55,000 this year on mailers on behalf of their three endorsed candidates: Ka’Dijah Brown, the only incumbent running, Mike Chang and Jennifer Shanoski. 

Also in the melee is Tatiana Guerrerio Ramos, whose $6,449 in contributions rivals Brown’s, though she hasn’t earned the same major endorsements as other candidates. (Norma Harrison, a repeat candidate, has not raised any money.)

Add it all up and it’s the costliest school board election in recent history.

Lee has run a competitive campaign, promising voters to help public education “live up to its promise of excellence and opportunity for every child.” She earned the endorsement of Brown, the current school board president; Laura Babitt, the board’s vice president; and five city council members. 

Lee’s platform is not so different from the other candidates, who all have, broadly speaking, a progressive stance on education, agreeing that disparities in academic achievement are among the district’s biggest challenges. Shanoski promises to uplift the best of BUSD and address its challenges through her experiences as a union organizer and scientist; Chang says he will draw on his work at the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to bring accountability to BUSD; Brown promises to finish the equity work she started in her first term. All have earned key endorsements from local and state officials.

BFT President Matt Meyer said teachers voted to endorse Chang, Brown and Shanoski after reading their responses to a detailed questionnaire because they “thought that these were the three people that were best suited to govern our district.” The questionnaire asked about candidates’ stances on teaching and learning, as well as a few questions to gauge their support for the teachers union.

He guessed that the candidates’ teaching experience in the classroom — Brown is a fifth grade teacher, Shanoski a chemistry professor at Merritt College and Peralta teachers union president and Chang works as a law professor — likely had an impact on the teachers’ vote, but he didn’t know all the reasons teachers voted the way they did. (Lee pointed out she has also worked as a professor at a law school and directed its academic achievement program.)

“Coming out of the pandemic, I think teacher morale is at an all-time low, the needs of our students are at an all-time high,” Meyer said. “We really think that the people that we’ve endorsed are the people that are going to be best able to tackle these issues.” 

Though Lee and Guerreiro Ramos both sought BFT’s endorsement, they have embraced their position as independent candidates in the race. Lee said being independent allows her to bring a different perspective to the school board and would create a better balance of power on the board, one where all perspectives are represented.

“I am running with an independent perspective because I don’t want to go into a job, already, with some of that fear — already beholden to my own self interest,” Lee told Berkeleyside in September. 

Guerreiro Ramos has taken a stronger stance, criticizing retiring school board director Ty Alper for “kissing the ring of BFT” after he expressed concern that the Berkeley Parents Union, a new group stirring controversy in this year’s race, “threatens to create a wedge between Berkeley teachers and families.” Guerreiro Ramos accused Alper of “pitting the BFT against parents who are simply fighting to have their kids’ needs met.” 

The Berkeley Parents Union, which endorsed Lee and Brown, has raised $6,183 so far. It’s hard to say how much the group spent on each candidate because it filed as a general interest group and didn’t specify how much it spent on behalf of individual candidates on the campaign finance forms it filed with the city.

Meyer said he didn’t personally think that any of the candidates were “necessarily explicitly anti-teachers union” and thought all the candidates had the best interests of students at heart. 

Public financing available for the first time to school board candidates but only 2 opt in

The most expensive school board race in recent history is also the first where candidates could opt into public financing, a city program designed to reduce the influence of money in local politics and give candidates with fewer resources a fair shake. The program limits individual contributions to $60 and matches contributions from Berkeley residents six to one, but it has a cap of $20,000 on city matching funds for school board candidates.

Meyer said that the teachers union’s spending aims to “equal the playing field” and give teachers’ endorsed candidates more visibility, especially since Shanoski and Chang are using public financing. Lee, Brown and Guerreiro Ramos are not using public financing. Lee said she believes taxpayer dollars should be reserved for candidates who can’t compete without it.

Despite Lee’s record-breaking fundraising, she complained that the independent expenditures have been hard to rival. “They can make you disappear,” she said, adding that candidates endorsed by the teachers union get access to built-in infrastructure and networks that makes it easier and less expensive to run. Teachers have been door-knocking and making phone calls on behalf of Chang, Brown and Shanoski.

Lee doesn’t want raising $50,000-plus in cash to become the new standard for what it takes to run a successful school board race. “Do we want our school board races to become where regular people who simply care about our public schools can’t run, because they’re just not able to get their name out?” Lee asked. 

Campaigning full time, Lee’s funds have come from 300 contributors giving an average of $139. Just over half (54%) of her money has come from Berkeley residents. She’s loaned her campaign $5,000.

Shanoski has $36,739 to spend on her campaign, more than what it typically takes to win a school board election, with $15,739 coming from 240 people contributing $60 or less, and $20,000 coming from the city’s matching funds. Nearly half of her contributions have come from Berkeley residents. 

Chang, who is also doing public financing, has half that amount to spend at $16,881 — $12,000 of which has come from the city’s matching funds. 

Brown, who is not using public financing, trails at $6,370. She is the only incumbent running. 

Three-quarters of the contributions to Chang’s and Brown’s campaigns have come from Berkeley residents.

Together, the two teachers union groups have spent $18,643 on mailers on behalf of each endorsed candidate.

The mailers are the first independent expenditure BFT has made since at least 2008. Other than the teachers unions, no interest groups have made an independent expenditure this year in any Berkeley election. 

While it’s the most money raised for a school board race in recent history, it’s still just half the amount raised in all the city council races this year. 

The deadline to register to vote online or by mail in Alameda County is Oct. 24, and the election is Tuesday, Nov. 8. We put together a guide to the essentials of how to register and vote, what’s on the ballot, voters’ rights and more.

Here are some other helpful election resources:

See complete 2022 election coverage on Berkeleyside.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...