Julie Sinai appointed to Berkeley school board post

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Julie Sinai after the unanimous school board decision to appoint her to the vacant seat. Photo: Lance Knobel

Julie Sinai, former chief of staff to Mayor Tom Bates and now director of local government and community relations at UC Berkeley, was unanimously appointed to a vacant school board seat on Wednesday night. Sinai emerged from a slate of nine candidates in a quick, non-contentious vote by the four sitting members of the Berkeley Unified School District board.

“I’ve been a parent, I’ve been past staff, I’ve been a partner,” Sinai said in her three-minute presentation at the special board meeting. Before her position with Mayor Bates, Sinai had been director of school-linked programs for BUSD. “I’m ready to help get the work done with the board.”

The vacancy was created when board president Leah Wilson resigned in March because of her appointment as Court Executive Officer for the Alameda County Superior Court. Sinai will serve the remainder of Wilson’s term, which expires in November, 2014. 

Board members before the vote emphasized the importance of the appointee being able to “hit the ground running”, with only 18 months left in the term. All mentioned the importance of experience to help a likely new superintendent. (Board president Karen Hemphill said at the close of the meeting that the board had unanimously agreed on Monday to enter contract negotiations with Hayward school superintendent Donald Evans.) Several board members also mentioned the importance of laying the groundwork for a new BUSD parcel tax, likely to be on the ballot in 2016.

“It took me those 18 months to understand all the different parts of the school district,” said board director Beatriz Leyva-Cutler. “We’re going to have a new superintendent. They need a board that works together, that is knowledgable.”

“There’s something to be said for someone who will add to the cohesion of the board,” said board president Karen Hemphill. “One thing that is different is this issue of being able to hit the ground. It takes minimum six months to a year.”

The one different voice on the board was director Josh Daniels, who stressed the importance of having someone on the board with experience as a public school educator. Daniels also mentioned the potential consequences of an appointed board member.

“Incumbency is incredibly powerful in Berkeley,” he said. “Once we appoint someone, you could serve forever, without undergoing the scrutiny we underwent.”

Dan Lindheim (left) and supporters listen to Wednesday night's vote. Photo: Lance Knobel

Dan Lindheim (left) and supporters listen to Wednesday night’s vote. Photo: Lance Knobel

Leyva-Cutler nominated Sinai, and was seconded by director Judy Appel. Daniels nominated Meleah Hall, a teacher in West Contra Costa schools, but his motion failed to receive a second. Daniels then nominated Berkeley High math teacher Peter Bloomsburgh, but that also failed to receive a second. No other candidates were nominated.

The failure of  Dan Lindheim to receive a nomination was surprising after board members emphasized the importance of experience and familiarity with the school district. In addition to his work as Oakland’s top administrator, Lindheim had chaired the BSEP Planning & Oversight Committee for nine years and co-chaired two school parcel tax campaigns.

Once the unanimous vote for Sinai was concluded, board members provided fulsome tributes.

“She has been a stalwart supporter of education in this city for many years,” said Hemphill. “She’s a large part of the reason that Tom Bates is considered the education mayor.”

“I’m excited about the possibility of serving with Julie,” Appel said. “I look at how much we need to know up here and I feel this is not a time for training. We need to move forward.”

Before the vote was taken, board members heard public comment from supporters of the candidates for the vacancy and then presentations from each of the candidates.

Three of the candidates, Sinai, former Oakland City Manager Dan Lindheim, and Berkeley Law professor Ty Alper, had the bulk of supporters who spoke at the meeting. In their individual presentations, candidates generally expressed their support for the priorities of the school district and the current board, particularly the 2020 Vision. There were, however, some criticisms of Berkeley High.

“Berkeley schools lack flexibility, particularly Berkeley High,” said Spencer Klein, senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “This is particularly true of kids who are stuck in a small school that they don’t fit in.”

Klein also felt science education in Berkeley needed improvement.

“I would work to improve science education particularly at the lower levels,” he said. “Gardening and cooking are wonderful things, but they can be learned at home and they should not replace science.”

“While Berkeley schools have served my children well, Berkeley High is not serving all its students well,” said Satish Rao, a professor of computer science at UC Berkeley. Rao drew laughter when he said he trumped Bloomsburgh’s single MIT degree with multiple degrees from MIT.

The most iconoclastic presentation was from Mark Zoldis, an independent financial adviser. Zoldis said the success of Berkeley schools meant there was an increasing number of highly demanding parents, who wanted ever-greater resources and performance.

“It’s sort of like Moneyball in a way,” he said, referring to the book (and subsequent movie) by Berkeley author Michael Lewis. “The Oakland A’s were able to make a pennant run with a very low budget. In a way BUSD has to work in this way.”

Hayward chief is finalist for BUSD superintendent spot [04.19.13]
Berkeley School Board seeks replacement director [03.29.13]
Berkeley School Board President Leah Wilson resigns [03.18.13]

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  • BUSD Parent

    Good report. I agree that given the emphasis multiple Board members placed on a candidate being ready to “hit the ground running,” to help with facilitating the reworking of BSEP and administrative oversight of new superintendent and labor negotiations, it was surprising that Lindheim did not receive a nomination. His remarkably extensive BUSD and public administrative experience could have been a real asset to this relatively young Board (as one Board member described the body). But Julie Sinai is capable, well-liked and well-connected and while not as experienced with inner workings of BUSD or public management, she’s probably the politically safer choice.

  • guest

    Ms. Sinai is going to have her hands full. Up till now, many considered BUSD’s enrolling kids from other districts as harmless reparations for inequity in the System. In reality, we took the kids to inflate the demand for more teachers and filled in the difference with BSEP funds.

    But since the state grants were the same, wether the kid was in Berkeley, Richmond, San Pablo or Oakland schools, it was almost possible to make the argument that BUSD wasn’t really hurting the other Districts.

    Gov. Brown’s plan to distribute Prop. 30 funds would change all that, dramatically (see links below). Brown’s plan would make those fraudulently enrolled kids MUCH more valuable to their own districts than BUSD. 35% more valuable per student plus extra concentration school and district grants! That’s hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars to improve the poorer districts schools.

    If you’re a superintendent or school board member in Oakland, Richmond etc. you’ll definitely want those kids back. Those district administrators aren’t fools. They know most of these fraudulently registered kids were previously enrolled in the districts where they live. Especially the kids at BHS. So a simple cross check of enrollment roster’s between those districts and BUSD’s, reveals a long list of kids in BUSD who are worth big dollars to their real, much poorer, district.

    When the Berkeley Teachers Union/BUSD fight to hang on to these kids, just to fill their member’s classrooms, they will no longer have the advantage of fighting “White Privilege”. They’ll be fighting angry faces of color who want their kids, money and futures back.

  • bgal4

    “But Julie Sinai is capable, well-liked and well-connected and while not as experienced with inner workings of BUSD or public management, she’s probably the politically safer choice.”

    Actually, Sinai has close to 15 years of experience with “the inner workings of BUSD or public management” directing the endless search for a functioning city/school partnership in student support systems. There lies the rub, the lack of results. Understanding why Sinai is a safe choice is rooted in specific choices made by this board such the focus on the notion of racial predictability. see

    This board continues to cling to flawed concepts and vague practices in an attempt to engineer equal outcomes for all racial groups while Oakland Unified is developing targeted student interventions based on actionable indicators such as K-3 chronic absence rates. Which indicator is more reliable in accessing student outcomes?

  • da bear

    Don’t know anything about Ms Sinai and I wish her and the board well. Having said that let me now express my sadness at seeing yet another political operative appointed to an important position. Having lived in Berkeley since 1971 I’ve learned that this dance virtually always ends in the appointee using the position to further their political ambitions and not much else. Which in turn leads to the kind of silliness that’s made my town the butt of many jokes, many of them to the point.

    Since I’ve lived here so long you could reasonably surmise that I’ve come to tolerate this sort of chicanery and you’d be right. But it still makes me sad.

  • BUSD Parent

    The overabundance of students is not just about jobs. BHS needs all those kids to run all the fancy programs there. If some of that overabundance of enrollment returns to neighboring districts what program does BHS give up — the straightforward AC program that probably a majority of families understand and can work with, the highly expensive but wildly popular IB program, or the small schools which may well do the best job of serving nontraditional learners and students of color? Yikes, hands full is right.

  • guest

    When you don’t pour BSEP funds on other district’s kids, there will be plenty to enrich our own. The other districts will set BUSD right about WHO should be doing the serving of THEIR “nontraditional learners and students of color” now fraudulently enrolled in Berkeley.

  • guest

    Sad, yes. But well said.

  • bgal4

    what fancy programs? the imposed 6 period day already reduced electives and lab science.

  • impressed

    You are right on, guest. Very interesting analysis by somone who obviously knows her/his stuff.

  • Tired

    The Hancock/Bates/UCB machine always wins in the end.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Very interesting perspective, thanks!

  • Valerie Herr

    Hello – you are SO right. Why was it not sensible to appoint the runner-up from the recent election – we all know owhy

  • None of the candidates for the vacancy ran in the recent election.

  • guest

    Who would of thought it would be the district administrators from Oakland. Richmond, San Pablo etc., who shut down Slemp’s/BFT’s poorer district bleeding, BART based, version of the Underground Railroad?

    They’ll fight to determine their own children’s future.

  • guest

    Make that “Undermining Railroad”!

  • Susan

    I was curious about that – why didn’t she run?