The Rise And Fall Of The Land Scheme That Almost Cost The Oakland Unified School District
And Oakland, California Residents More Than 8 Acres Of Downtown Property





May 16, 2006

The California Superintendent for Public Instruction is close to a decision concerning the disposal of 9.47 acres of midtown properties owned by the Oakland Unified School District.

The properties include the Paul Robeson Administration Building, La Escuelita Elementary, Dewey High School, MetWest High School, and the Yuk Yau Child Development Center.

The OUSD administration midtown property is in the middle of some of the hottest pieces of publicly owned real estate in Oakland. It sits next to Lake Merritt Channel, the waterway that connects Lake Merritt with the estuary, which Oakland voters granted money to open up as public land in the 2002 Measure DD bond vote.

An announcement could be made by the OUSD administrator to trustees as early as this week.

Sale or long-term lease of the properties could set off a political firestorm in Oakland, if true. Rumors of the sale of the Robeson Building have circulated throughout Oakland since the 2003 takeover of the Oakland schools by the State of California. That takeover involved a $100 million line of credit to OUSD to balance its budget.

The property disposal concerns properties and adjoining streets between 10th and 12th streets and the Lake Merritt Channel and 4th Avenue, and could involve either the sale or long-term lease of the property.

An official in the office of State Superintendent for Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, who was familiar with the Oakland properties negotiations and who asked not to be identified, confirmed that officials “are down almost to the end” of a process that began with the issuance of a Request For Qualifications And Development Proposals by OUSD in February of 2005.

“There is currently an exchange of documents going back and forth” between state officials and a developer, said the source in the state superintendent’s office, adding that “once it is finalized, there will be an announcement.”

The official would not say if the land would be sold or leased, but said that information would be provided to the public once the negotiations are completed. The official also said that while the state superintendent’s office has been involved in the RFQ/RFP process over the OUSD properties, “Randy [Ward]’s been taking the lead on this.”

OUSD Public Information Officer Alex Katz did not answer telephone calls relating to this story.

Because the Oakland district is being run by the state, control over the potential sale or lease of the properties rests in the hands of the state superintendent.

The Peralta Community College District briefly considered opening up the nearby Peralta administration building and several Laney College properties to private development but later shelved the idea. The City of Oakland recently closed the publicly-owned Kaiser Convention Center on 12th Street across from Lake Merritt, which sits within walking distance of both the Peralta and the OUSD properties, and there is widespread speculation that private developers are interested in that property as well.

Meanwhile, the City of Oakland is currently considering the proposed massive Oak to Ninth housing and retail development project on city-owned land not far from the OUSD properties.

OUSD Board member Gary Yee said by telephone that he was opposed to the distribution of the midtown property while the district was still being run by the state.

“The sale or lease of the property may be a good idea or it may be a bad idea, but it’s an idea which should be decided upon by Oakland citizens,” Yee said.

While Yee has been one of the strongest supporters on the board for a return to local control, he said that “I don’t want return to local control to be an excuse for selling off district property. I’d rather have a state financial trustee for another 20 years and make a good decision on this property.”

Trustee Dan Siegel, who is not running for re-election this year, said that trustees considered several proposals to sell the administrative and midtown properties last year “but none of them made sense. None would generate enough money to cover the costs.”

Trustee Alice Spearman called the proposed sale “a bad idea. I wouldn’t sell all of the property. Maybe I’d sell one parcel, but not Dewey or the administration building. It’s too valuable a property. They’re not going to get their money’s worth.”

Spearman added that “even though we have declining enrollment, the district is going to grow again, and we are going to need more school facilities.”

Asked by telephone if the proposed sale or lease of the midtown properties would be a good idea, OUSD School Board President David Kakashiba said, “The problem is, we don’t know what the proposal is yet. But there will be a fight if provisions for the schools are not included.”

Kakashiba said that with the booming development in the Oak to Ninth, Chinatown, and East Lake areas, “the school district has a professional responsibility to factor in long-range planning for new facility development.”

He said that the midtown OUSD properties are the ideal central location for expansion of new school facilities, even if the administrative facilities are moved elsewhere.

“There has been some talk about moving La Escuelita and the other schools to other properties,” Kakashiba said. “The problem is, where are you going to find more property in that area?”

While some of the school facilities on the midtown properties draw students from around the city, the 700 student La Escuelita is primarily designed as a neighborhood school for the Eastlake area.

Kakashiba was officially notified about the impending announcement late last week, writing board members last Thursday that “Dr. Ward has informed me that he will provide detailed information to the Board of Education early next week regarding disposition of the Second Avenue properties, including the terms and conditions of an executed letter of intent with the selected developer.”

When notification of the proposed announcement was posted on an Oakland parents Yahoo group last week, speculation surfaced over whether any proceeds would go towards paying off the state loan and returning Oakland’s schools to local control.

Rachel Richman, Chief of Staff of California Assemblymember Wilma Chan (D-Oakland), wrote that “The question has been raised [on the list] about whether the OUSD can sell surplus property to pay down the debt. Generally speaking, you can only use the sale or lease . . . of excess school district property for facility use. [But] last year SB 512 was enacted that allows OUSD until June 2007 . . . to pay off its emergency loan—basically it was an extension from when the State bailed out OUSD.”

SB 512 was the Omnibus Education Bill written by the Senate Education Committee. The original OUSD bailout law was written in 2003 by State Senator Don Perata (D-Oakland).

The same official in the state superintendent’s office said that during Perata’s testimony in 2003 in support of that bailout bill “he mentioned about the sale of district property. I got the impression he was presenting that possibility so that the proceeds of the sale could pay down the loan.”

The seven-member Board of Trustees continues to meet regularly and function in an advisory capacity to Ward, but apparently has not been brought in on details about the proposed disposal of the property even though the process is almost at its conclusion.

Trustee Siegel said that while Ward has also promised that he would consult with trustees before a decision was made on a sale or other distribution of school property, “I wouldn’t take that to the bank.”

Trustee Noel Gallo said that in a telephone conversation that “I haven’t seen the bids” from the developers who answered the Request For Proposals. “They won’t share that with us.”

In an email to the Yahoo OUSD parents list this week, trustee Kerry Hamill wrote that “I know it's been said before, but thus far, the board has NOT been included in any conversations about the future of the administrative headquarters. . . . The district secretary told me that the administration may want to discuss the land's status with the board in closed session, but nothing has been scheduled at this point. Seems like a status report on activities which have transpired over the last 15 months on the site ought to be done in public very soon.”

The next trustee meeting was originally scheduled for May 24 but has been rescheduled for May 31 at the request of Ward.

OUSD administrative officials have already been moving forward this spring with plans to move school administrative offices and personnel from the Robeson Building to the site of an OUSD school previously closed, and the administration has also made preliminary inquiries to City of Oakland officials to move trustee meetings to Oakland City Hall.

J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Originally published in the Berkeley Daily Planet

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