Mariel Garza

Sacramento school board’s new trustees have a lot in common

Deputy editorial page editor

Mariel Garza

On the surface, the two newest trustees for the Sacramento City Unified School District represent the two sides of what is becoming a wide political divide.

Ellen Cochrane, a longtime teacher, was recruited by the Sacramento City Teachers Association to knock off incumbent Jeff Cuneo in Area 2, with whom the union has been at odds over the issue of using student test data to evaluate teachers.

Jessie Ryan, a parent from Oak Park, ran for an open seat in Area 7 against four others including Linda Tuttle, a former SCTA president. Though Ryan declined direct campaign donations from the California Charter School Association, the organization spent $30,000 in independent expenditures on her behalf.

If this race was supposed to be a showdown between teachers unions and educational reformers, however, voters didn’t seem to care. In these two races, they picked candidates with surprisingly similar values and agendas.

In interviews last week, the two talked about their backgrounds, the campaign, their goals – and each other.

“She’s a feminist,” Cochrane exclaimed when asked about what she knew about Ryan. In other words, a kindred spirit despite their differences of opinion on some of the larger more philosophical educational issues. “I know I can work with her.”

Ryan agrees, though she is sorry to see Cuneo leave the board, as they care about similar things such as the whole-child policy. Cuneo also acted as a sober counsel when Ryan was trying to figure out if she was up to taking on a third job on top of being a mom of a 4-year-old and 2-year-old and executive vice president of the Campaign for College Opportunity.

Ryan also sees a potential ally in Cochrane. “Ellen brings a different perspective and qualifications as a teacher,” Ryan said, “and I’ve talked to a few people who have said … she’s one of the best teachers’ they’ve ever known. That’s high praise.”

It wouldn’t be a stretch for the two to become collaborators on the board. They have more in common than their campaigns suggest.

Both were shaped by their experience in Sacramento schools.

Cochrane was born in the district she now represents – at Mercy General Hospital – and raised in a family of teachers. Her father was a principal at Bret Harte School from the 1950s through 1970s. Mom was a teacher for Sacramento schools, and her sister is a teacher in Sac City schools. Cochrane teaches at James Rutter Middle School, which is in the Elk Grove Unified School District but still part of south Sacramento.

Ryan was also raised in Sacramento, but because her mother was low income, they moved around a lot. Ryan attended seven schools until finally settling down for four years at El Camino High School.

Ever the optimist, Ryan suspects her experience moving through many different schools and having to remake a new set of friends each time helped shape her into the resilient, gregarious person she is now.

Both chose careers dedicated to helping poor and minority communities achieve academic success.

Cochrane teaches English learners at Rutter, which is in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Sacramento. All of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, Cochrane said, which is how school districts measure the level of poverty in a school. She’s passionate about supporting programs for English learners and improving their graduation and college application rates.

Even before joining the Campaign for College Opportunity, which works to expand access and make sure students are graduating, 10 years ago, Ryan did a year of national service through AmeriCorps Vista. Part of her assignment was organizing migrant farmworkers in Lodi to become technologically proficient. That was the beginning of a career devoted to community empowerment and advocating for disenfranchised communities.

Both women began their path to elected office by organizing in their own neighborhoods.

For Cochrane, it was participating in the East Sacramento Preservation neighborhood association. She was a vocal critic of the McKinley Village development and immediately before running for the school board, she ran unsuccessfully for Sacramento City Council in the June primary. As result, she is so well known in Area 2 that when knocking on doors for the school board race, people would open then door say, yes, she had their vote.

For Ryan, it was helping organize her neighbors to fight a City Council redistricting proposal in 2011. Though her Oak Park community lost that debate, the experience energized and left her with this lesson. “We might have lost this fight, but here’s the power of our voice.”

And, finally, both are women – strong, smart women who bring considerable experience and knowledge to the board. Their victories will flip the gender balance on the board.

“Women lead differently and collaborate in ways that have been well documented,” Ryan said. “They can often put aside politics and bond over their children and their families and shared interests.”

So much for the wide political divide.