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Talking with… A school leader who leans green

This story was published in j. the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California.

Name: Jody London

Age: 53

Hometown: Oakland

Position: President, Oakland School Board

J.: You were just re-elected to the Oakland School Board. When you were first elected in 2009, Oakland schools were in bad shape, but the district seems to have turned around. What is your assessment now?

Jody London: In California, public education is not adequately funded. For most districts, over 80 percent of their budget comes from the state. I’m thankful that voters passed Proposition 55 to maintain our budgets, but we are still in the bottom quartile of per-pupil spending, several thousand below what most other states spend on average. [Gov. Brown] has made great changes in the way funds are allocated, yet the base amount is inadequate. We have to decide between counseling, nursing, libraries, enrichment and after-school sports.

Betsy DeVos, a proponent of defunding pubic schools, was nominated for secretary of education. Can a change in philosophy at the department impact your school district?

It’s unclear what the impact will be. The federal government for years has not fully funded special education programs. Students with special needs, like all students, deserve the programs they need to be successful. So we don’t know how a Trump administration will view those programs. In Oakland, probably 87 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-cost lunches. We serve over 35,000 meals a day. The funds we have already are inadequate, and we do a great job with not a lot of money.

Oakland recently passed a parcel tax to give district teachers a raise. How critical is that piece in rebuilding Oakland schools? The profession is undervalued. Being an educator no longer has the stature it once had. Across the board, teachers are making less relative to other professions with the same level of education. That’s a reflection of our societal values. If we really value education, we’re going to pay them more. It’s an issue rooted in my Jewish values. Clearly Jewish tradition values education. There’s a long history of scholars, debate, exploration, questioning.

You also have a long career in the realm of environmental sustainability. How did you get interested in that field?

In high school I was involved with B’nai B’rith Girls. We had opportunities to go to overnight camps in nature. After college I worked as consultant for the EPA hazardous waste program. I would go to Superfund sites and talk to people about the government’s investigation and cleanup. I later got a masters degree in public administration and did an internship at the Congressional Budget Office looking at climate change and carbon tax. I took a job in San Francisco with the Public Utilities Commission and learned a lot about energy policy. In 2005, a business opportunity fell in my lap, working with local governments and nonprofits on energy issues.

Have you brought this environmental ethos to the schools?

We adopted a green building policy. We have more schools that meet the standards than any other district in California. We have one campus, La Escuelita (Elementary), that’s a net-zero energy building, almost neutral in how much energy it uses because it’s designed so efficiently.

You also work for Contra Costa County. What is your role?

I am the county’s sustainability coordinator. Contra Costa has a climate action plan. My job is to help different departments reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I am honored to be the first person to hold this role.

You grew up in Tempe, Ariz., and moved to San Jose as a teen. What is your Jewish story?

There were not many Jews in Tempe in the ’60s and ’70s. I was always the only Jewish kid in school. I remember a teacher saying, ‘Can you ask your mom to send in that candelabra thing’ for Hanukkah? I always felt like the outsider, feeling different because I was Jewish. For me, BBYO was really formative. I went to leadership training that made me a huge fan of programs that empower young people.

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