School board picks Harris for seat

School board picks Harris for seat

Cassie Paton

Alameda schools Superintendent Sean McPhetridge swears in Gray Harris to the Board of Education. Photo by Cassie Paton.

A tie-breaking vote brought an end to an extended school board meeting Wednesday evening where Gray Harris was selected for and sworn in to the Alameda Board of Education to fill the empty seat of Nielsen Tam, who died of leukemia on May 24.

Board members were at a deadlock between Harris, a former Alameda grade school teacher and head of the Alameda Education Association, and Anne McKereghan, a Realtor who has served on the boards of the Alameda Education Foundation, Alameda Association of Realtors and the Alameda Boys & Girls Club.

Also running for the seat were former board member Mike McMahon, chemistry teacher Dorota Sawicka, and occupational therapist Hazel L. Lau, all longtime Alameda residents.

The selection took place during a regular school board meeting at Island High School, where well over a dozen attendees, including Mayor Trish Spencer, spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting in support of Harris’ appointment. An Alameda resident for 16 years, Harris played a major role in contract negotiations with former Superintendent Kirsten Vital through her work with the Alameda Education Association. She left that position in 2013 to work with the California Teachers Association.

Each candidate had 20 minutes to give personal statements and take questions from the board. When asked by president Barbara Kahn how her involvement with the union might affect her decision-making on the board, Harris stressed that her role is “more of a resource position” rather than an advocacy one and that her decisions would be made based upon “what’s best for the students and teachers” and the district as a whole.

A major topic of the evening was the looming expiration date of the Measure A parcel tax, which makes up between 12 and 13 percent of the school district’s budget. Harris cited her volunteer work on three previous parcel taxes, saying that the best way to ensure its renewal is to start the campaign early at the grassroots level.

Kahn and board trustee Solana Henneberry voted in favor of Harris’ appointment, while trustees Gary Lym and Philip Hu were in favor of McKereghan. The discussion extended nearly an hour past the meeting’s set end time of 10:30, after which public comment reopened and the audience of nearly 50 grew restless.

Hu, who was appointed to the board in February to fill the remainder of Spencer's term, was ultimately the one to concede on his vote for the sake of avoiding a costly special election.

“I’m on this board because somebody made a magnanimous gesture,” Hu said, referring to the deadlock decision before his own appointment when fellow candidate Jane Grimaldi withdrew from the race to break the tie. He said the board’s obstinance was “not the example (we) should be setting” and that he would make the decision for them, changing his vote in favor of Harris.

After being sworn in, Harris told The Alamedan that she is “looking forward to working together” with her fellow board members and is “very excited.” Her term runs through 2016.