Elected officials don’t usually weigh-in on controversial subject matter under the purview of another group of officials within the same city. It’s uncommon and almost verboten in local politics. Yet, Alameda’s unconventional Mayor Trish Herrera Spencer did so last week during a highly-charged Alameda school board on the indefinite closing an elementary school.
The controversy at Lum Elementary is a somewhat uniquely Alameda dispute. Last month, engineers concluded the soil at the school, located near the South Shore shopping center, was in danger of liquefaction in the event of an earthquake measured 6.8 or greater on the Richter Scale.
Expert opinions deemed the school structure unsafe for school children. However, this did not sway some parents from pleading to keep the school open while angrily charging the school board with a lack of transparency. Many also questioned the conclusion of two studies to indefinitely close the school. This led a group of parents to seek their own second opinion.
Spencer’s comments Tuesday night did not specifically touch upon the underlining question of whether the elementary school was safe or whether the expert opinions received by the school board were legitimate. She, instead, charged the school board with not following its own procedures for closing a school.
In the past year this type of cross-governmental intrusion led some members of the Hayward school board to tells its City Council “to stay in your own lane.” This came after some Hayward councilmembers made critical comments about the board and later openly mounted a campaign to unseat them. The council’s gambit was largely unsuccessful leaving them vulnerable to political attacks. One came this week when the Hayward school board backed a resolution that tweaks the council for sidestepping a decision on becoming a sanctuary city.
A similar dynamic does not appear likely in Alameda, but Spencer nonetheless clearly attempted to strongly signal to angry parents, many who may have felt powerless to the board’s decision, that they had the mayor’s ear. It’s gesture common to Spencer, who often views her role as mayor as less about legislative achievement and more as a vessel for customer service for her constituents.
A few parents threatened the school board at the ballot box. “You have 5,000 angry voters here,” said one speaker. A week earlier Spencer signaled her support for Lum in a video posted on the school’s Twitter page showed Spencer dancing with school children on the playground.
Over the years, appealing to the disaffected Alameda voters has been a specialty of Spencer, who was elected in 2014 in perhaps the biggest upset in Alameda County politics that year. However, which disaffected groups or issue grabs her attention has been unpredictable.
Spencer also deftly parlayed angst among some Alamedans toward new housing developments and traffic congestion in 2018. Issues still viewed as red meat issues for her base of moderate (by East Bay standards) voters.
While Spencer sided with the Lum parents, despite the optics that her stance could be construed by opponents as putting the lives of Alameda school children at risk in the event of large earthquake, she conversely, for instance, has never supported the cause of renters over the past two years.
All three issues could loom large when Spencer seeks re-election next year, most likely, against Alameda Councilmember Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, and others. Ashcraft has been pro-growth and backed the Just Cause amendment to the city’s rent stabilization ordinance approved earlier this month.