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Absence of African-American Trustees on Vallejo School Board Worries some Black Community Members

A segment of the African-American community in Vallejo, a Solano County city nestled in the northern half of the San Francisco Bay Area, is worried.

(VALLEJO,CA)--There won’t be a Black or brown face amongst the five trustees when the Vallejo City Unified School District Board of Education meets for the first time in 2017.

Rev. Dante Quick of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, a predominately Black church in the city, said the coming year would be the first-time in four decades no African-Americans or Hispanics have been members of the educational body.

The absence of a Black or Hispanic trustee on the educational body is a result of November’s election: although three of nine candidates vying for three board slots were black, none were elected.

“That concerns us greatly,” he said. “Now when we need an African-American presence on board, we don’t have one, so this is uncharted waters.”

When the school trustees meet in January, their membership will include two Filipinos and three whites.

Quick said a Black presence is needed on the VCUSD board because incoming members are focused on enforcing discipline on the majority Black and Hispanic student body. They are also going against VCUSD Superintendent Ramona Bishop, an African-American, over continuing the educational strides the district has made in the last five years under her helm.

Pastor Danny Jefferson of Rehoboth World Outreach Center, another Black church in Vallejo, said he is saddened there are no Blacks on the board of school system that features 70 percent of the children taking free or reduced lunches. The religious leader said that speaks to a lack of knowledge in policy making and experience in particular communities.

“You can teach teachers cultural competency, but who is going to teach the school board cultural competency?” Jefferson asked, wondering if the board will have VCUSD’s minority students’ best interests in mind.

Retired Vallejo teacher Bob Lawson, and educator Marianne Kearney-Brown won the two full-term board seats, and incumbent Ruscal Cayangyang defeated outgoing board trustee Hazel Wilson, an African-American, for the two-year term position. Last February, Wilson was appointed as a trustee to finish a term of a trustee that resigned from the board. Outgoing trustee Ward “Ace” Stewart, also Black, did not seek re-election.

Kearney-Brown did not return a phone call from a California Black Media reporter as of press time; but Lawson, the 70-year-old, lifelong Vallejo resident, said he has a great record working with Black students.

“There is nothing I am going to do on the board that will take away what African-American students have,” said the Vallejo teacher of 20 years. “I am always worried about African-American student achievement.”

Supporters of Bishop such as Jefferson, Quick, and Deborah Dixon, a Vallejo activist, said the anti-superintendent Bishop rhetoric Lawson and Kearney-Brown used on the campaign trail worries them, though.

Jefferson said some words used by school board candidates reminded him of the controversial speeches Donald Trump used during his campaign for the U.S. Presidency.

“We had school board members that said they were going to build a wall, a beautiful wall, and now they are running our school district,” he said. “We had some Trumpism on the local level. Marianne Kearny-Brown compared Vallejo schools to Compton. So, now we all Niggas With Attitudes?”

Jefferson said hateful messages on Facebook were directed at Hazel Wilson, and another post “portrayed our students as animals not worthy of a quality education.” Dixon said with a Facebook post, Kearney-Brown alluded to wanting to fight her.

“We have real concerns here,” Jefferson said.

Lawson said a lot of negativity was directed at Kearney-Brown during the school race, which was un-called for, noting the reason she might not call a reporter back was fear of “a hatchet job” being done on her.

Bishop’s supporters said Bishop, one of 26 Black superintendents in the Golden State’s 11,000 school systems, has accomplished a lot since becoming VCUSD’s head educator in 2011. The pastors and Dixon mentioned several reasons why Bishop should be the 15,000-student school system’s superintendent, including: a rising graduation rate (73.8 percent in 2015, a 20 percent increase over six years) and test scores, teachers getting pay hikes, and the implementation of a progressive discipline alternative that reduced school suspensions—keeping black kids in the classroom.

“When you want to reverse those trends, that means we go back to a pipeline to prison,” said Jefferson.

Quick, a Vallejo schools’ parent, praised the increasing graduation rate, which includes increased numbers of Black students.

“That is the kind of progress we want to sustain on this board,” he said.

Lawson said he doesn’t want to see a reverse in that trend; on the other hand, a lot of work needs to be done in the school system. He said the school district has a bad rep, pointing out that teacher morale and school discipline needs to be improved, and district finances need to be monitored.

Lawson spoke of issues such as Vallejo High School’s accreditation and school safety, citing a Solano County Grand Jury report released in June that highlighted two of Vallejo’s high schools having numerous safety concerns, facilities issues, and bullying.

“I’m not saying we have to fire the superintendent, but someone has to be responsible at the end. When the team is losing, you can’t fire the players,” said Lawson, who added that board members “haven’t made a commitment to do anything about the superintendent although we hope she’ll make some changes.”

Lawson’s words somewhat echo the words penned by his son, teacher David Lawson, in an open letter published in a Vallejo newspaper in July. The educator said Bishop had several miscues including instituting “wall-to-wall” academies at the high schools, teachers being discouraged from writing referrals, students not being removed from the roll to decrease dropout rate numbers, and the accreditation problem at Vallejo High.

Lawson said he understands some of Vallejo’s Black citizens might be worried that no African-Americans are on the school board, but noted some Blacks voted for him and he can’t be sorry non-Black candidates won the election.

“Hazel Wilson was beaten by a guy that had beat her before, and in the other race you had seven people,” Lawson said. “It’s an election, not an entitlement. It wasn’t like people were running so there wouldn’t be any African-Americans on the board.”

Quick said the board needs to work with Bishop and not look for ways to oust her.

“One or two candidates ran on an anti-Dr. Bishop message,” he said. “One or two brought her up as a problem. The ones that did that don't have children in the district. None of these people were running for office before, but now that she has brought the district up. They want to take it over again.”

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