Newest Natomas School Board Member Reflects on First Year in Office, Looks Toward the Future

Image of Ericka harden holding campaign signs on Election Day.

Ericka Harden on Election Day 2020. / Photo

THE NATOMAS BUZZ | @natomasbuzz

For years, Ericka Harden says teachers and others asked her to run for a seat on the Natomas Unified School District school board.

“I always told my son I would not do it while he was still in school because I just didn’t want him to have that problem,” explained Harden, 50.

But in 2020, she felt the timing was right and decided to run against nine other candidates vying for three spots on the school board. Harden succeeded and unseated an incumbent by 392 votes. On Dec. 16, 2020 she was sworn in as Natomas’s newest school board member.

Harden originally hails from Rohnert Park in Sonoma County and moved to Sacramento over 20 years ago. She became a widow at 29 when her husband was murdered and raised her son, daughter and a niece as a single parent.

During the pandemic, Harden started an adult program for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and she also works as a speech language pathology assistant.

The Natomas Buzz caught up with Harden to get an update on her first year as a Natomas Unified school board member and what her goals are for the future.

Why did you decide to run for the Natomas school board?

I saw that there was change that was needed, especially in the special education portion of it all. There’s so much change going on in the world and I was hoping for an opportunity to make a difference.

Do you remember when you knew you had clinched that third seat and what your thoughts were at that time?

For me I don’t think that there was ever a time that I thought I wasn’t going to get it. Once it became public knowledge, it never hit me like “oh my gosh, I did it” because I truly did believe, from the very beginning, that I was going to win a seat. I think Natomas was really ready for the change.

The Natomas school board is currently very diverse. Has race been important or had any role during your time on the board thus far?

I think race is very important. Our school board looks like our students. I think that we are finally at a point where people can look, and our students can see themselves all the way around. Natomas has needed this for a very long time. I have yet to be able to accomplish and to be the school board member that I know I can be. I look forward to the coming year and being a school board member that people deserve.

What was the high point of your first year in office?

I don’t know if there has been a high point. Unfortunately, it’s been probably the most unique school year ever to come into the school boards. Covid has definitely changed education as a whole, so I don’t feel as though I have been able to see the highs that I expected to see in the beginning. As far as I am aware, we have not lost any students (to COVID-19) and that’s good because I do know other districts that have.

What was the low point of your first year in office?

There was a time, and a period, when there were false accusations about me. And I was removed as the clerk of Natomas Unified’s (board). I would say that was definitely not just the lowest part of my school board tenure thus far — I have never felt so low in my life.

In May 2021, less than six months after being in office, you made headlines and not in a good way. Can you summarize what that was about?

They centered around an investigation alleging I had received money from the (Natomas Unified) school district for speech services. All that I could take away from it is that it was meant to humiliate me and hopefully force me to want to relinquish my seat. I truly believe everybody knew from the beginning that I was innocent. It was just an opportunity to make me look bad and push me out.

What was the final outcome of that investigation?

I received a beautiful letter from the Department of Consumer Affairs stating that (the investigation) was closed and everything was unfounded. It was nice, it was long overdue. It would have been even nicer had there been those huge headlines to mention the fact that “hey, she’s actually innocent.” It would’ve even been great to get an apology.

The school district recently underwent an extensive process to create by-trustee areas to elect future board members. What impact do you feel this change will have on the district overall?

I know that it is not the outcome south Natomas was looking for, per se. I am extremely excited because I will be their representative and I think the numbers show that I have a true connection in the south, although I have been a north (Natomas) resident forever. I am a Nighthawk mama til the end of time. I’m looking forward to it and hopefully building that bridge and seeing things change in an area that definitely deserves and needs it.

What do you see as the district’s single biggest challenge in the next few years?

I think, right now, the way everything is, the learning loss is going to be our biggest issue and trying to find a way to educate within this pandemic.

What are your hopes for your next three years in office?

One of the biggest things that I would like to see happen sooner than later, will be IEP training. I would like to see that for our board. I don’t believe that we as a board understand special education, even with an educator on our board.

And I would like to see more training available to our parents to ensure they know their rights and they know what is available. It is so easy for us to receive this handout but not necessarily know what your rights are. You need to be able to learn them in a comfortable setting, not when you’re in an IEP where most parents are already feeling very overwhelmed. This isn’t just a problem in Natomas, this is a nationwide issue but all I can do is worry about my backyard and ensuring that something that is very close to me, I can help in any way.

Then taking a look at our (special education) department because although all of our teachers are going through so much right now, there is such a difference for our special education staff and I need to ensure they are getting the resources and feeling the love. There’s a lot of talk about (mental health) but that’s another area of concern for me. There’s so many things that go out on paper, but what are we truly doing to ensure that our people are OK? Everybody needs to know it’s OK to not be OK. And if you don’t feel as though you are getting that from our school district, I don’t care if you are a custodian to admin, know that you can reach out to me. I know how I feel, feeling pushed back into a classroom, too soon with Covid, but feeling as though you have to do it. I don’t want anybody to feel that way. It’s not good for your mental health, it’s not good for students and it’s just not good for staff.

“If we don’t find a way to work with everybody and listen, we are just doing a disservice to all.”

I still feel strongly that there is a huge difference between how our north and south schools are treated. I’m looking forward to continuing to be a representative to all, but getting to spend a little more time in the south schools and making sure that everything is equal. Even though our (south) schools are getting shiny new paint and new buildings, there is still such a difference in the way our high schools are, our elementary schools. I want every school to be the same and I want everybody to feel good about the education that they are getting because we have phenomenal staff and we phenomenal teachers, but the burnout is real. If we don’t find a way to work with everybody and listen, we are just doing a disservice to all.

At the Dec. 14 school board meeting, Ericka Harden read aloud the letter she received from the California Department of Consumer Affairs saying that there was “insufficient evidence to establish” she violated the law.

Speak Your Mind