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




March 11, 2005

"The cities of the south shall be shut up, and none shall open them: Judah shall be carried away captive all of it, it shall be wholly carried away captive. Lift up your eyes, and behold them that come from the north: where is the flock that was given thee, thy beautiful flock?" Jeremiah 13:19-20 (King James Version)

It seems almost fantastic, doesn't it, looking at it from the perspective of today's situation, but five years ago the Oakland public schools were in the middle of a renaissance, a golden period in which confidence in our schools was growing, and hope was high. After years of patient work by many people, Oakland had finally pulled itself out of the doldrums and public school scandals of the '80s.

A popular new mayor was in place who promised to put Oakland on the map. A popular new school superintendent had been hired–a prodigal son returned–with an involved and activist school board willing to carry out ambitious plans for accountability and reform. Almost 85 percent of Oakland voters passed Measure A in 2000, the $300 million school bond ballot measure that approved the city's first real school expansion since the building of Skyline High School in the '60s. Later that year, when the district granted teachers nearly a 25 percent pay raise, bringing them up-at long last-to the Bay Area average, Oakland had reached a high water mark, and had every reason to look forward to a promising future.

Today the Oakland school district is in tatters, controlled by the State of California, disdainful of Oakland citizens, schools being sold off to the first bidders, rapidly being dismantled before our very eyes. No one can remember a lower point in the city's school history, even following the 1973 assassination of School Superintendent Marcus Foster. How could that have come to be? What is it Oaklanders did so wrong, to be so cruelly struck by such a fate?

With no public hearings or grand jury investigations (yet) called to provide us with an answer to such questions, and with no body of public officials from the East Bay up to Sacramento willing to come forward to level with us, we are forced to try to come up with theories on our own, sifting through facts which may-at first-seem entirely unrelated.

Let us sift.

We find that in November of 2002, Oakland voters overwhelmingly passed another bond measure, this one by an 80-20 margin, the $198 million Measure DD, the so-called "water improvement bond." Included in the bond measure's projects are two which are relevant to our present inquiries: 1) redesign of 12th Street to create pedestrian and bicycle access from Lake Merritt to Kaiser Convention Center and Channel Park, and 2) the catchall "other Lake Merritt Channel and shoreline improvements."

The Lake Merritt Channel, for those who are wondering, is the creek that connects the western portion of Lake Merritt to the estuary, running under the 12th Street/14th Street "highway" across from the Henry J, Kaiser Convention Center, opening up in parkways adjacent to Laney College and the Peralta College District administrative offices on East Eighth Street.

In its October/November 2002 California Sustainer News Online newsletter prior to the bond vote, the California Clean Water Action & Clean Water Fund of San Francisco described how the Lake Merritt Channel portion of Measure DD was supposed to be:

"In addition to the improvements that will be made to [Lake Merritt] and its infrastructure there will be moneys earmarked for acquisition of tidal wetlands and areas along the estuary. These areas will become part of a waterfront park system that Oakland can be proud of. … [A] new park, Meadow Park, would be located on the east side of the mouth of Lake Merritt Channel. … Central to the plan would be the replacement of the 12th street culvert and the removal of the Tenth Street culvert. … Roadways on Lake Merritt's south shore will be replaced by a system of roads and walkways that will provide for safe pedestrian access to the park as well as allowing for pedestrian and bicycle access to Channel Park and the Kaiser convention center."

If you stood on the East 8th Street bridge over the channel in late 2002 and looked east towards the hills, you would have seen a long run of public-owned land all the way to the lake itself, from Peralta and Laney at its western end, past the back of the Second Street Oakland Unified School District headquarters on the right, and then the Kaiser Convention Center on the left, and it would have been easy to imagine a gorgeous public park running all along that path, funded entirely by Oaklanders for the use of all Oaklanders, the first opening of a major Oakland waterway in living memory.

Hard to hold onto that vision now, in the light of recent events.

Thanks to a tentative agreement between outgoing Peralta Colleges trustees and Oakland developer Alan Dones' Strategic Urban Development Alliance, instead of public parkland along on the Peralta and Laney portions at the channel's western end, we may see private condominiums and other commercial development that blocks out the public's access to the waterway.

And this week, after state-appointed OUSD Administrator Randolph Ward had said for two years that he had no plans to sell the district's 2nd Street Administration Building, an ominous paragraph began a story in the Oakland Tribune: "The Oakland school district is looking for a developer to remake its administration buildings and campuses near Lake Merritt in order to bring in more money for schools and generally improve the neighborhood. In what may be one of the first steps in a huge redevelopment of the Eastlake area, Oakland school State Administrator Randolph Ward formally requested development proposals last week for almost 10 acres of valuable district land between Tenth and 12th streets. Developing the property, including the historic but dilapidated Paul Robeson administration building, has 'been talked about for so long and no one's ever done anything,' Ward said. 'I really don't know what folks will come up with, but I'm certainly excited about the prospects.'"

Because of the Oakland school takeover, approval for such an OUSD Lake Merritt Channel development project no longer has to go through the now-powerless Oakland School Board, or through Oakland citizens, to whom the property belongs. Stating what ought to be obvious, the Tribune article reminded us that "any proposals ultimately would have to be approved in Sacramento by the state superintendent's office."

And to demonstrate how rapidly these events are moving, two days after Ward's announcement, the Tribune ran another story beginning: "Faced with a multimillion-dollar shortfall, [Oakland] is considering closing the [90 year old] Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center."

Standing on the East Eighth Street bridge over the Lake Merritt Channel in 2005 and looking east towards the hills, instead of seeing an opening of public parklands all the way to the lake, you now see the distinct possibility of publicly-financed development standing to make somebody–or somebodies–millions and millions and millions of dollars, and those somebodies ain't going to be the majority of Oaklanders.

This all could have been fate, or unlucky accident, or God's punishment of Oakland for some past transgressions. It could be merely vultures swooping in smelling blood in the water, taking an advantage of a weakened and weakening Oakland democracy. But from Measure DD to the Oakland school takeover to the Paul Robeson Building and Laney/Peralta private development proposals, and now the announcement of the possible Convention Center closure, you have to wonder in a tiny corner of the back of your mind…was this all part of a more secular plan, all the way from the beginning, to make a windfall profit at the bottom of Lake Merritt? If that were actually true, who, then, would be responsible for destroying Oakland's hard work and dreams, for fleecing this poor city, and for taking its flock?

An interesting question. Don't you think?