Zima Creason says she felt compelled to run for the San Juan Unified school district’s board when her son fell prey to racism in elementary school. 

“The messages were terrible, calling [my son] the N-word and telling him to kill himself. No kid should have to go through that,” Creason said. 

Today, she’s president of the board, and one of few Black women to serve in the role. “You need people with the lived experience to be able to say policy and practice needs to work different for our community,” she said.

She took her seat on the dais optimistic about holding a leadership position. But, shortly after winning the seat, Creason was confronted with a potential recall, and became the target of racism.

“I knew the job wouldn’t be easy, but it got really personal and really nasty,” she said.

For decades, school boards nationally and locally have suffered from inadequate racial and ethnic representation. As part of our series on Sacramento County’s school boards, a CapRadio and The Sacramento Observer analysis confirms that school boards in the region have an overrepresentation of white board members respective to their student populations. 

And in communities where representation across race and ethnicity is increasing, trustees of color say that serving on a school board is a taxing job, riddled with identity politics and financial hardships, which may discourage them from pursuing re-election.

Students walked out in protest of the inaction of the district for the victimization of their [former] Vice Principal Dr. Elysse Versher, who had the “n-word” spray painted at her assigned parking spot.
Event: West Campus High School Students walk Out Rally in 2022.

“Our system wasn’t built for people that look like us,” Creason said. “People that come with more privilege can show up at work for beans, and then there’s folks like myself that can’t.”

Advocates say the retention of diverse trustees is imperative in prioritizing inclusive agendas, especially in Sacramento County, which has seen overdisciplining of Black and Indigenous students, stark achievement gaps for students of color and racially motivated hate crimes on campuses.  

‘It’s a lot to juggle’

The school board trustee position is demanding and can shape the course of student outcomes in a district. There are no term limits and financing a campaign for election can come with a hefty price tag.

Equitable education is a foundation for upward mobility, according to Paula Villescaz, and it was also one of her motivations for entering the race for a San Juan Unified school board seat.

Paula Villescaz, a San Juan Unified graduate, was elected to serve on the Juan Unified school board in 2016. Along with her role as trustee, Paula is the director of legislative advocacy for the County Welfare Directors Association of California.

But launching her candidacy didn’t come easy. “To run a campaign on resources that you’re pulling together, either individually or from your network, that’s a privilege. Not everybody can do that,” Villescaz said.

Growing up, Villescaz attended Mira Loma High School and worked at Round Table Pizza to help financially support her single mother and their family. She was also one of the first in her family to attend college. 

As a policy advocate, she knew she wanted to be a proponent for equity in her hometown’s education system, where as a teenager she wanted more academic opportunity. 

Paula Villescaz, San Juan Unified trustee seen with her 3-month-old daughter, cares deeply about the district and community she was raised in and hopes to ensure safe learning spaces.

Campaigning was no easy feat. Villescaz lost her first election in 2014, but won her bid in 2016 and was re-elected in 2020. She described her school board work as “another job.”

“There was a time last year where I was campaigning, working and being on a school board, and it’s a lot to juggle with not a lot of tangible financial return,” she said. “It’s a barrier to who decides to run, and who ends up being in charge and the decisions that are being made.”    

‘It was very difficult, actually’

School board trustee is an elected office, but the position is unpaid. On average, Sacramento County’s board members make a pre-tax stipend of between $700 to $800 a month. Some members report working upward of 80 hours a month on board issues.

Parents, teachers, and local organizations attended the Sacramento City Unified school board meeting in December of last year. Seen walking through the crowd of seated people is school board president Chinua Rhodes.

In Sacramento City Unified, the board held four meetings during the month of February alone, which amounted to 20 hours, not taking into account the preparation required to attend the meetings and other responsibilities of the job. 

Chinua Rhodes, president of Sacramento City Unified school board and one the few Black men to hold the position, said that, after winning the school board seat, he decided to take a year off of his full-time job to become a competent trustee.

“When you win [the election], that’s what actually feels the most heavy,” Rhodes said of the commitment he feels to his district. “I want people in the south area to say that I did right by our community. That’s what I would love my legacy to be.”

Being a school board member was a full-time job with a steep learning curve, he says, and he could not work another job concurrently. 

“It was very difficult, actually,” Rhodes said. 

Chinua Rhodes offering the new board members a “first statement.” SCUSD School Board Meeting and Swearing Ceremony

His family of four relied on his wife’s income and was living paycheck-to-paycheck. “We have little ones, and it was just an extreme sacrifice so that I could try my best to service the community that I grew up in,” he said.

Rhodes is just one of many school board trustees of color to describe the tenacity it takes to hold the position and be a voice for your community. Rhodes also agrees there are barriers for people of color who pursue these types of leadership positions.

“When we were growing up, [society] told us that we should vote and how to vote,” he said. “But nobody ever explained that we could be people that are making decisions.”

‘Do I even want to do this any more?’

Zima Creason, a parent, advocate and only sitting board member of San Juan Unified School District with a child attending in their district school. Zima is standing in front of Wellspring Women’s Center prior to an award ceremony hosted by FemDem where she was recognized as a Racial Equity Champion.

Zima Creason said that one of her motivations to run was the lack of representation in local government.

“I recognized very early that people that were in leadership roles just didn’t look like me or didn’t talk like me,” she said. 

Very soon into her tenure as a trustee, she says she realized why.

“When people would talk about [being] anti-Critical Race Theory, they’re looking straight at the Black chick,” Creason said of people who spoke at board meetings. “And we could have those debates, but it wasn’t just disagreement. It was hateful.”

Running a second term for the school board was not an obvious choice, she said, and the emotions took a toll on her mental health.

“‘Do I even want to do this anymore?’” she asked herself at one point. 

Eventually, she came to the conclusion that she would run for reelection. “I’m not going to cut and run on my community when they need me most,” she said.

On the Natomas Unified school board, however, Black trustee Micah Grant says he’s leaving after two terms.

Grant says he worked tirelessly to implement career technical programs in Natomas Unified, such as bringing cosmetology courses to high school campuses. But despite his best efforts, he says his family was subjected to hate speech. In one instance, he recalls a message that compared his family to chimpanzees.

“I felt guilty,” Grant said about leaving after his second term. But the minute once he was re-elected, he told himself, “I’m not running again because it is a difficult job.”

Grant says he is proud of his work on the school board but needs to take time off to focus on his family and his health.

Micah Grant is the Natomas Unified school board Vice President. He was elected in 2016 and is on his second term which ends in December 2024.

Tyrone Howard, a UCLA professor who focuses on educational equity, described this strain as the “person of color tax.”

“It shouldn’t be solely the responsibility of the person of color to always raise the concerns around inclusion, around equity, around justice,” he said. “But frequently, that’s what happens.”

Creason echoes Howard’s sentiments. 

“There’s a lot of great people that would be great at this work that just don’t have the resources to afford to do this,” Creason said. 

‘I identity with that’

Despite these challenges, school board members of color are still affecting change.

Jasjit Singh greeted the public attendees and school organizations during his official board member swearing for Sacramento City Unified School District.

Punjabi-American Sacramento City Unified trustee Jasjit Singh stands over six feet tall and wears a pagg. And, he confessed, he changes his mannerisms to make others around him comfortable. 

“Having been the target for how I look, and having to deal with some physical altercations myself, I understand what it feels like to be in a situation where we have to dig deeper on why someone chose to defend themselves,” he said. “I identify with that.”

As a trustee, Singh is looking at school suspensions and expulsions, especially those linked to violence. Other priority issues include support services for English language learners, a group that Singh was part of when he entered the public school system in California.

His incumbent counterpart, Rhodes, comes from a background of community organizing, and wants the people he represents to shape his agenda.

“We’re going to launch a community board [with] voices from each of the school sites, and they are going to be helping with the initiatives that we have [on school board],” he said.

In San Juan Unified, Villescaz says she invested her time in a multiyear effort to decrease food insecurity for her community. Going back to the basic needs of a student was something that she felt was necessary. 

“I’m really proud of reducing school lunch shaming,” Villescaz said. “We previously had a policy that, if a student was delinquent in their lunch account, they went home with a stamp on their hands. It’s about removing the barriers and the stigma.”

In the same district, Creason’s work is shaped by her lived experiences. 

“I would love to see anti-racist, anti-bias training for, not just teachers, but all staff including students and families and our school board,” she said. 

Work by trustees of color may go unnoticed, and they say it sometimes feels like an impossible task. But collectively, their efforts are pushing for inclusionary educational practices throughout Sacramento County. 

Srishti Prabha is a Report For America corps member and Education Reporter in collaboration with The Sacramento Observer and CapRadio. Their focus is on K-12 education in Black communities.

Support for this Sacramento OBSERVER article was provided to Word In Black (WIB) by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. WIB is a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media that includes print and digital partners.