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





January 30, 2004

My Mexican friends tell the story of two brothers who lived in a fishing village on the Monterey coast in the days when Alta California was still part of Mexico. From the time they were babies, the two brothers were all but inseparable; where one would be, so would be the other. One summer morning when they were in their late teens, however, they came into dispute. One of them wanted to go to the market at San Miguel, while the other wished to travel to the town of Gregorio, where a young woman lived. For the first time, neither would give way to the will of the other, so finally, one of the brothers hit upon the plan. "Let us put on blindfolds and set out from home together," he said. "We shall let Fate decide where we go." And so they did. Blinded, arm in arm, they walked along the road, and after many turns and bumps and bruises and stumblings into the brush, they heard the sounds of a town in front of them. Pulling off their blindfolds, they found themselves on the outskirts of San Miguel. When one of the brothers showed his disappointment, the other brother insisted he should not. "After all," he said, "it was only Fate that brought us to the town where I wanted to go." "Either that," replied the other, "or one of us peeked along the way."
The moral of this story, my Mexican friends explain, is that when a group reaches a destination to which one member of the group always wanted to go, luck or divine intervention can generally be ruled out as the cause.
Many months ago, when the Oakland schools were still in the hands of Oakland citizens, and long before the present fiscal crisis, we began hearing suggestions about selling the Paul Robeson Administration Building on 2nd Avenue. These suggestions were not coming from the Superintendent's office, you understand, nor, if I remember, from members of the School Board. Instead it was friendly observers who were saying that the administration was too big and too inefficient for the needs of the district, and should be done away with. The suggestions of selling the School Administration Building never seemed to make much sense to me, from the point of saving money for the district, any more than it makes much sense for somebody selling their mortgage-free house and then paying rent somewhere for the rest of their lives. Still, we kept hearing that this is what we ought to do.
And if you believe the rumors–and Oakland is full of rumors, this morning–the sale of the Robeson Administration Building is what the Oakland school takeover was all about. In this scenario, real estate developers–under the cover of willing local politicians–would dearly like the 2nd Avenue property for upscale housing. Looking at the dreary neighborhood in which the Robeson Building sits, that wouldn't seem to make any sense. Unless, that is, you take into account that Oakland is busily making plans to reconfigure the 12th Street-14th Street junction around Lake Merritt, and daylight the creek from the lake to the estuary. Very soon, therefore, the Robeson Building will be waterfront property, sitting on one of the most stunningly beautiful sites in the entire city.
And so, this rumor goes, developers went to the local politicians, and the local politicians went to Superintendent Dennis Chaconas, trying to get him to agree to the sale. Chaconas would not agree, and it was never thought that such a crazy idea could ever get past an elected Oakland School Board, the Oakland public being as excitable as it is. And so they had to go, Chaconas and the elected School Board, in one great sweep. And under this scenario, the Oakland school takeover was no necessary result of some accidental overbudgeting due to antiquated computer technology, but was orchestrated from start to finish. You could make a pretty good case for this, I suppose, starting with County School Superintendent Sheila Jordan sending over her financial adviser (Pete Yasitis) to run the Oakland school finances, continuing with Yasitis developing the teacher pay hike plan that led to Oakland's overbudgeting, and ending with Jordan being one of the major players in stopping a Chaconas/School Board plan that would have held off the state "loan" and preventing the state takeover. I suppose we could ask Yasitis some interesting questions about this, but he has long since left the building.
Anyhow, now comes a Sunday article by Alex Katz of the Tribune (and Tribune reporters have been doing some valuable work recently on the Oakland school issue), in which an extended quotation is in order. Talking about what to do with the five Oakland schools set for closure by state-appointed Oakland School Administrator Randolph Ward, Katz writes: "Another option would be to move the district's central offices to one of the sites, making it possible to lease or sell the district's valuable administration buildings... "Right now the whole administration building is up for discussion," Ward said.–[A]n agenda for a Wednesday closed session meeting includes negotiations between the 'district and prospective developers and/or owners' of the district's headquarters and adjacent buildings.–According to the agenda, the subject of closed session negotiations will be the 'Price and/or Terms of Payment for Both the Purchase or Lease or Development of some or all of said property.'  State Sen. Don Perata ? has encouraged the sale of the property, which [Perata] said would make spectacular housing, to help pay down the district's $65 million loan from the state."
Mr. Ward told Katz that any possible decision on the sale of the Robeson Building had nothing to do with the plans to close the five schools. But looking to Mr. Ward for answers here is like asking a car how it ended up on your lawn. A conversation with the driver would seem more in order. As for the sale of the Robeson Building being behind the Oakland school takeover? Sounds fanstastic. But like my Mexican friends say, when you end up at a location where someone in the crowd said they wanted to go, accident is not usually the cause.

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

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