Newly sworn-in Alameda school board member Mia Bonta was elected board president last week, but not before a highly contentious proposal approved the same night to change the board’s bylaws for choosing its officers from a succession process used since 2015 to an election of the board. The move denied the elevation of  board member Ardella Dailey, who is black. Under the previous system, Dailey was slated to become the next board president.

The choice of Bonta, the top vote-getter in last November’s school board election, was met with cries of racism by some members of the audience and characterized by others as underhanded. Mia Bonta, who is Puerto Rican, is the spouse of Assemblymember Rob Bonta.

Under board bylaws enacted in the 2015, the selection of board president, vice president, and clerk was based on a system of succession, which allowed each member a turn to lead the board. The impetus for the change three years ago to a succession system was former school board member and now former Alameda Mayor Trish Herrera Spencer’s inability to be elected board president by her peers despite serving on the school board for eight years.

We need leadership that is not going to backstab people.-Alameda school board member Ardella Dailey

Board President Gray Harris’s placement of the revision item on the Dec. 13 agenda was met with great opposition. Some questioned the timing of the proposal just before Dailey’s turn at the helm.

“We have been fighting for civil rights for many, many years–not just for ourselves–but for all, including our children,” said Alameda native Vicky Smith. “It is Ardella’s turn to be school board president. No one should try to take that away from her. We should not have to fight a lifetime of inequality just because we are black.”

Doug Biggs, executive director of the Alameda Point Collaborative opposed the proposal, but urged, if approved, it become effective in 2020 in order to allow the two remaining members to serve as board president. The proposal, he added, sends a hypocritical message to the community.

“You need to step back and analyze what you are doing. By the very act of making this change–and I know all of you have dedicated your board service and your lives to overcoming inequity–but the very act of making this change you are demonstrating to the community how power can manipulate the rules to both instill and strengthen oppression and inequity. You doing the very model that you have been fighting for decades to overcome,” said Biggs.

The revision was put forth without personal animus or racism, said Harris. Instead, Harris questioned Dailey’s commitment as a school board member, adding Dailey, who is a former Alameda superintendent of schools, is notoriously difficult to reach by phone and email. Dailey is a founder of an Alameda charter school, which Harris that night noted she long opposes.

“I really think it is unfortunate that this has become an issue about race because I haven’t seen anybody on this board do anything that can construed as racist,” said Harris. “I believe there should be a democratic process and these five people should choose who they want to be their spokesperson.”

But in a tense face-off, Dailey was blunt in her response, turning toward Harris and saying, “I hate to see us pitted against each other. That does not sit well with me,” Dailey said. “I hear what you say, member Gray. You’re questioning my leadership–my ability to lead. I’m surprised by that. Deeply offended, as well.”

With Harris nodding, Dailey continued. “What’s so backstabbing about this is you did not have any conversation–you didn’t approach me at any point–and say any of this.” Dailly told each board member that she held them in high regard for their dedication to Alameda students, but added, “We need leadership that is not going to backstab people.”

But Harris did not back down, reiterating her critique, and adding, she believes Dailey often does not read board materials before meetings. “I want a board president that is going to follow through on things,” said Harris. “I’m sorry that you’re taking it as I don’t respect you as a person when that really isn’t the case.”

Just prior to the election of Bonta as board president, Dailey exclaimed, “set up!” Dailey and board member Jennifer Williams voted to oppose the Bonta nomination.

Three board members then declined nominations to become vice president. In an offer of goodwill, Bonta nominated Dailey, who briefly weighed the offer before declining twice. School board member Gary Lym also declined, as did Williams. Reluctantly, Harris accepted the nomination to become vice president and Lym was chosen clerk. Dailey and Williams voted no in all three instances.