Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet




July 9, 2009

It seems somewhat odd, doesn’t it, that our good friends at the Oakland Tribune waited until the State of California officially turned (back) over the keys to the Oakland Unified School District Administration Building to write one of the better articles summing up the damaging effects of the state takeover (“Oakland School District: Is It Better Off After The State Takeover?” July 6, 2009). Oakland could have used the help of the city’s major media local newspaper during a time when many residents (and some of the city’s political leaders) were fighting to regain local control. Still, better late than never. I suppose.

It has been so long ago, you have to be reminded that the sole reason the state took over OUSD in the first place in 2003 was, supposedly, to put the district’s finances in order. You only have to quote from Katy Murphy’s Tribune article to see how…um…unsatisfactorily that particular endeavor turned out for the locals.

“Although financial problems triggered the Oakland school district's takeover,” Ms. Murphy writes, “the state administration appeared to be more focused on redesigning schools and overhauling central office services than on stabilizing the district's finances. None of the three state-appointed administrators had strong financial backgrounds, and the district has had three chief financial officers since 2007. … In 2008, Oakland Unified balanced its budget for the first time since before the state takeover. The budget is balanced again this year, but because of deep state funding cuts—including several announced in late May—the district's surplus cash reserves are all but depleted. The district also plans to spend the rest of the $100 million state loan in the coming year, leaving the schools with no cushion and a debt that could take decades to repay.”

Ms. Murphy continues that at the time of the state takeover, estimates of Oakland Unified’s debt “ranged wildly” between $35 million and close to $100 million (my information at the time was that the actual debt was closer to the lower figure), and the Tribune story adds that coming out of state receivership, the district is $89 million in debt, with an additional $18 million deficit forecasted for the 2010-11 school year. Even if you take the highest figure—$100 million—as the OUSD shortfall that triggered the 2003 takeover (and, as I said, I believe the actual shortfall figure was lower), the combined $89 million/$18 million debt-deficit figure means that Oakland Unified is in worst financial shape—by $7 million—after the state takeover than before.

Astonishing, it would seem, for a state takeover whose rationale for coming into being was solely to put Oakland Unified’s finances back in order.

Of course, it’s not as if (some) people didn’t see the problem while it was going on, and tried to do something to correct it. One of those was Sandré Swanson, who is now in his second term as California Assemblymember from Oakland.

As Mr. Swanson tells the story, he heard numerous citizen complaints about the state’s handling of Oakland Unified’s affairs while Mr. Swanson was campaigning door-to-door throughout Oakland during the 2006 Democratic primary. At that time, the state had been running the Oakland schools for three years, and were making something of a mess of it. Mr. Swanson promised folks that if elected, he would do something about the problem.

Mr. Swanson is the rare political office-seeker who exceeds expectations. He did more than “something.” He introduced a return-Oakland-Unified-to-local-control bill on the day of his swearing-in as a member of the Assembly, a day when most new Assemblymembers are enjoying the welcoming parties and trying to find out where their offices are located. Mr. Swanson did not stop there, but instead dogged State School Superintendent Jack O’Connell every time Mr. O’Connell dragged his feet on giving pieces of the school district power back to Oakland residents.

And earlier this year, after Mr. O’Connell simply ignored FCMAT’s recommendation that Oakland regain local control of its finances—as Mr. O’Connell had simply ignored all of the previous FCMAT recommendations concerning returning Oakland’s local control—the Assembly passed Mr. Swanson’s AB791 “to complete the transition to local control.” The 44-26 Assembly vote for Mr. Swanson’s bill supporting Oakland local school control had to be an embarrassment to Mr. O’Connell, and certainly one of the major reasons why the State Superintendent eventually gave up and gave back to Oakland our schools.

In fact, without Mr. Swanson’s dogged persistence on the Oakland school issue over the last three years, it is probable that local control would still be years away. Mr. O’Connell gave every indication that unless he was forced to do so under pressure, he would hold onto the Oakland schools indefinitely.

So what is the point of this column? Not to praise Mr. Swanson for his actions on the Oakland school issue—although, yes, I’m praising Mr. Swanson, because praise is due—but to contrast Mr. Swanson’s actions in this matter to those of another state officeholder from Oakland, former State Senator Don Perata.

Unlike Mr. Swanson, Mr. Perata actually did have some responsibility for the Oakland school takeover. In fact, some people have argued—myself included—that Mr. Perata was the driving force behind the 2003 state seizure of the Oakland public schools.

Mr. Perata—as everyone knows—was the author of SB39, the 2003 legislation that stripped the Oakland School Board of its governing powers and ended the tenure of Oakland School Superintendent Dennis Chaconas. What most observers forget—or never knew—is that SB39 was actually the second Oakland school takeover bill introduced by Mr. Perata. The State Senator introduced the first school takeover bill—SB564—in 1999 as part of a coordinated effort by Mr. Perata and then-Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown to get the Oakland School Board to fire then-OUSD superintendent Carole Quan. SB564 would have allowed Mr. Brown to appoint a trustee to run the schools, rather than the state. The pressure play worked, Ms. Quan was forced to resign, and the school board appointed Assistant Oakland City Administrator George Musgrove to take her place. Mr. Brown was able to run the Oakland schools through Mr. Musgrove for a brief period, until the school board hired Mr. Chaconas as the permanent superintendent.

Whether or not there was sufficient justification for a threatened Jerry Brown takeover of the Oakland schools in 1999 or the eventual state takeover in 2003 is a long subject for another time.

The point is that in the respective years immediately preceding the introduction of his two takeover bills—SB564 in 1999 and SB39 in 2003—Mr. Perata displayed and intense public interest in how the Oakland schools were being operated by the Oakland School Board and their selected superintendent. And in a San Francisco Chronicle article published immediately after Ms. Quan’s announced resignation (“Oakland Schools Chief Resigns Amidst Pressure” April 14, 1999), the Chronicle reported that “[d]espite Quan's announcement, Perata said he will proceed with his bill, but he added the district can avoid a takeover ‘altogether if it simply admits there is a crisis, takes responsibility and proves it can implement radical reform.’”

Mr. Perata’s intense public interest in the running of the Oakland Unified Schools appeared to last only so long as the district schools were seized by the state in 2003. At that point, all mention of any Perata concerns about reforms and fiscal responsibility for the Oakland schools disappeared from the local press.

One should remember that Mr. Perata was elected president pro tempore of the California State Senate in December of 2004—one of the three most powerful positions in California state government—and continued in that position for the next four years. He certainly could have used that position to monitor the state takeover of OUSD and make sure it was run right, but there is no evidence that Mr. Perata did.

It was during those four years that massive evidence of the state mismanagement of the Oakland Unified School District was exploding all over, both in statements of members of the Oakland school board members or representatives of local parents groups or the Oakland Education Association, in certain sections of the local press, and—significantly—in reports from the Fiscal Crisis Management Assistance Team, the education professionals called in by the state takeover legislation to monitor the situation in the Oakland schools.

In its 2006 report on Oakland Unified, for only one of many examples, FCMAT wrote that The reforms undertaken by the district [under state control] have not always been compatible with the goal of fiscal recovery and the return to local governance.” FCMAT then added ominous detail of the direction the state takeover was taking Oakland Unified’s financial situation: “The size of the district’s long-term debt has increased and the district has not remedied its previous pattern of deficit spending,” the report continued. Expenditures surpassed revenues in the 2004-05 and 2005-06 budget years. Although the district was still closing its books at the time of FCMAT’s visit, district reports showed deficit spending of $2.9 million and an undesignated unrestricted fund balance of -$8.3 million. The draw down of the remainder of the state loan, while perhaps necessary, will tend to inflate the district’s revenues for the 2006-07 budget year with one-time funds that will not support ongoing operational expenditures.”

These were red flags that something was seriously wrong with the state’s management of OUSD’s affairs, and such warnings continued throughout the many FCMAT reports. But if Mr. Perata was listening, there is no public evidence that he did anything to intervene.

At one point, the State Superintendent had failed so long to create a fiscal recovery plan for Oakland Unified—a necessary step spelled out in the takeover legislation for return to local control—that demonstrators had to get themselves arrested in the office of OUSD State Administrator Randolph Ward in order to get Mr. O’Connell to write the recovery plan.

In the spring of 2006, Sandré Swanson was hearing these concerns as he walked door-to-door in Oakland, campaigning for the Assembly, and even more so after he was elected. When the original state money ran out for FCMAT to continue its evaluation of Oakland Unified, another necessary step for making sure the district was on track towards fiscal solvency and local control, it was Assemblymember Swanson who stepped in and had more money put in for the evaluations in the state budget.

Meanwhile Mr. Perata—the author of the state takeover legislation and the man who had howled so loudly about the situation in the Oakland schools—sat silently on his hands and appeared to do nothing to help the OUSD situation.

But we have seen this type of disappearing act from Mr. Perata many times over the years, making headlines and noise when it is to his political (or economic) advantage, and then ducking out when the important work needs to be done for the public good.

It is one of the reasons I wonder why so many people seem to think Mr. Perata, as mayor, would be good for Oakland. But perhaps they'll let me know.

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