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  • Chandlor Henderson

“Who’s Zoomin’ Who?”... Racial Reflections of the Oakley School Board Outrage

Updated: Apr 1, 2021

By Dr. Lamont Ali Francies, PPSC

On February 19, 2021, The Oakley Union Elementary School District (OUESD) announced all its board members' resignations two days after the ‘private’ comments were made public by a local resident. These comments were made on a Zoom call before the start of a school board meeting.

School board officials were not aware that their call was being broadcast live. Oakley school board officials casually engaged in commentary about their perspective of district parents.

Some Oakley school district parents were characterized as angry drug-using irritants who wanted their kids back in school to engage in transient behaviors.

The school board president, Lisa Brizendine, complained that school officials have been the target of frustrated parents who desire district schools to be reopened for in-person learning.

Trustee Brizendine lamented, "It's really unfortunate that they want to pick on us because they want their babysitters back." These comments were made without regard for how school board policies affect local households.

OUESD comprises single-parent households and homes that require two incomes to afford the high cost of living in California. These households may have fewer childcare options and need in-person options to enhance student learning.

OUESD officials failed to realize that while babysitters guard kids, educators guide students. Babysitters watch bodies, and educators cultivate minds.

Unfortunately, many educators behave like babysitters in the presence of black bodies they cannot connect with culturally.

According to the California Department of Education, in the 2019-20 school year, 9.5% of students in the OUESD are African African American, with approximately 494 pupils (K-8).

The fallout from this video made national headlines. The question is, "What should African Americans families take away from this?"

On the video board, member Kim Beede responded to social media criticism from district parents asked her fellow members, "Are we alone?" This was an actor’s inquiry to her fellow cast-mates on set, wanting to know, is it okay to break character?

Many parents want to know who school officials are when no one is listening. What conversations are being had about my children in private spaces?

Many local African American parents have expressed concern regarding this video for various reasons. One common problem is if board officials speak like this about a district that is over 30% White; (which is around 7% higher than the state average), what do they really feel about Black families?

If officials speak this way so casually about parents, what do think really think about our kids?

We are aware of the carefully constructed performance we receive on Back to School Nights, but what is genuinely said when the face masks come off?

The renowned poet Maya Angelou once famously stated, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.”

Unfortunately, many Black educators were not surprised by the behavior of these board members. This leaked video revealed a dismissive culture that is persuasive in many school settings. African American whistleblowers of this culture are often isolated, ignored, and ostracized.

However, school cultures are not defined by mission statements, which so many districts use as default shields when evading public accountability. Your culture is cultivated by what you allow. That inappropriate board conversation was had on the job, not only because it was tolerated but also often celebrated and rewarded.

In this case, most criticisms came from within the community, but there was an eerie silence from many public school educators. Many educators realized the implications of this incident.

The community is no longer going to be satisfied with empty slogans. They will now seek real integrity within these institutions.

Before educators could castigate these board members, all of them had to examine themselves inwardly, lest recording of their own conversations was released. As a result, we should not focus too much on a few bad apples that we ignore the tree that produced them.

Trustee Beede can also be found on the released video responding to parental criticism by saying, "B---- if you're going to call me out, I'm going to f--- you up!".

This portion of the video stood out to many African American viewers because it appeared to imitate media that generated angry black female stereotypes.

We know that these caricatures have done widespread institutional damage to Black females and have caused many African American students to serve lengthy school suspensions.

Can you imagine what kind of dehumanizing racial attacks this trustee would have received if she was Black? Her behavior would not have been just critiqued individually but would have been condemned as a manifestation of a cultural deficiency.

This double standard is too often applied, leaving Black officials with few roads to public redemption.

When realizing that their cover had been blown, Board President Brizendine expressed shock. She then realized that she could no longer control the narrative, and someone had seen them without their compassion cosmetics.

After this, there was no turning back. The cover was blown. OUSED then focused on external preservation of their brand without conducting an internal examination of their culture. Instead of concentrating on damage control, OUSED should focus on quality control. These actions would ensure educational equity for its lowest-performing students.

According to the California State Dashboard in 2018-19, 214 out of the 249 classroom teachers employed for the Oakley Union School District were White (86%); however, only three were African American (1.2%). Five out of the nine district schools within OUSED did not have one African American teacher on staff.

Also, not one of the elected OUSED school board members was Black. There was one board member of color; however, he was appointed after a White member's unfortunate passing.

What does this communicate about the culture of OUSED to African American educators, parents, and students? That obviously, it is a culture not cultivated in much racial diversity. It is a culture with many racial blind spots that cannot address the district’s persistent academic achievement gap. It is also a culture that has co-opted voices of diversity to comply with statewide mandates.

It is a district where 71% of African American students are not meeting state ELA standards, and 82% are not meeting the criteria for mathematics (2018-19).

My issue with this incident is a few board members initially attempted to water down the veracity of their statements by backtracking their comments. However, these officials should not act like pit bulls in private and then transform into puppies for the public.

If you can speak candidly privately, then do so publicly. However, standing behind personal statements would expose a culture that had been invisible to most public members. As a result, to preserve the culture, the board members became the apparent casualties.

As a parent of five African American students currently attending OUSED schools, I was disappointed by the video but not surprised. These casual conversations impact public policies that are often revealed in school cultures that are dismissive of diverse voices.

Sadly, these district narratives are not an aberration of many educational settings across the county but an embodiment of them. If the nation was shocked by raw footage lasting eight minutes, just imagine the anger that would have resulted from released district recordings from the last eight years?

So what is next for the 400+ African American families of OUSED? Many of us are waiting to see if the new school board will reflect the community's racial composition. We are also waiting to see if the necessary systemic change will occur and, if so, what will be the outcome for Black OUSED students.

Only time will tell, but we should not merely react to a few minutes of video while ignoring years of racial disparities. At this moment, resignations are significant but educational reforms are better.

Our collective response to the district’s lack of racial equity must but clear and comprehensive, and our commentary will probably take longer than the allotted three minutes.

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