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




April 29, 2005

Poor, bleeding Oakland. In addition to losing its rights to run its own schools-two years and counting, now-it is now being blamed in the media for school district actions over which it has absolutely no control.

In an otherwise excellent piece this week, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll accuses the Oakland Unified School Board of concocting a scheme in which OUSD teachers were required to meet with a "professional benefits counselor" to provide documentation on the dependents listed in their OUSD health care benefit files. The teachers were told in a memo that if they didn't show up to scheduled interviews to provide the documentation, it would "result in your dependents' coverage ending effective May 30." As was revealed in a Nannette Asimov Chronicle article a week earlier, the "professional benefits counselors" turned out to be insurance brokers, who spent most of the time with the teachers trying to sell them life insurance. In other words it was a coercive scam put together by the district to lure teachers in under false pretenses, which Mr. Carroll loudly and properly condemns. However, he gets the instigator wrong.

"See the respect shown to teachers by the school board!" Mr. Carroll writes. He goes on to mention the school board three times in his column, noting that in conflicts between teachers and school boards, "I tend to favor teachers."

Problem is, as in any other action taken by the Oakland Unified School District in the last two years, the school board had no say in the matter. The Oakland schools were taken out of the hands of Oakland voters by the State of California two years ago after the Oakland school board and former Oakland Superintendent Dennis Chaconas discovered that they had a massive budget shortfall due to a teacher pay raise which they later found they couldn't afford (it's hard to get an exact amount on the shortfall; the general figure seems to be between $40 million and $50 million). The Oakland schools are now being run by California Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell through his state-appointed administrator, Randolph Ward.

I know this is old news to many, but if a Chronicle columnist doesn't know that Oakland ain't running its own schools, I wonder how many other folks are ignorant of that fact.

Anyways, last week-almost two years after the state legislature passed SB39 (authored by State Senator Don Perata) authorizing the school takeover-State Superintendent O'Connell returned to a town hall meeting at Oakland Technical High School supposedly to tell Oaklanders how we could get our schools back. Forgive me for going into some detail, here, but pay attention, children, this is one where you've got to read the fine print in order to understand how this game is being played.

SB39 declared a fiscal emergency in the Oakland schools, and found that it was "necessary that the Superintendent of Public Instruction assume control of the district in order to ensure the return to the district of fiscal solvency." The Oakland school board was to remain in place, but only as an advisory group, with no powers to make decisions or set policy.

The takeover legislation also provided that the state superintendent-through his hired administrator-had to provide a decent education for Oakland children, but also noted that this was only to advance along the lines of gains already being made in the district prior to the takeover. "The Oakland Unified School District has made demonstrable academic improvements over the last few years, witnessed by test score improvements, more fully credentialed teachers in Oakland classrooms, and increased parental and community involvement," SB39 read.

And to make sure we understood that they were serious that Oakland had been on the road to educational recovery prior to the takeover, the legislature also noted in SB39 that "To the extent allowed by district finances, it is the intent of the Legislature that the [revised education program to be implemented by the state superintendent and his administrator] shall maintain the core educational reforms that have led to districtwide improvement of academic achievement, including, but not limited to, educational reforms targeting underperforming schools, new small schools, and other reforms that have demonstrated measurable success."

So in other words, Oakland hadn't mishandled the education of our children. We had overspent our budget in trying to provide quality education, is all. That's an important point to keep in mind while examining the question of under what circumstances Oakland will be able to get its schools back.

Moving on. In return for taking over the schools, the State of California gave the Oakland Unified School District a $100 million line of credit in order to meet its May, 2003 payroll and keep from going bankrupt.

How much of that line of credit has actually been drawn on, and why, is a(n interesting) subject for another time.

Anyways, many observers were under the impression Oakland could only get its schools back when the line of credit was paid off. Actually, that's not true. We can get them back before that, but under certain conditions. SB39 provides a multi-part recovery process in which 1) the state-financed, semi-autonomous Fiscal Crisis Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) must come up with an improvement plan for the Oakland schools, 2) the state superintendent and the state-appointed administrator must come up with a "multi-year financial recovery plan," 3) the state-appointed administrator must negotiate collective bargaining agreements with the respective school unions "consistent with the terms of the improvement plan," and 4) both the state-appointed administrator, the state superintendent, and FCMAT must agree that future compliance by the Oakland Unified School District with the improvement plan … and the multi-year financial recovery plan … is probable."

If all of these conditions occur, SB39 concludes sunnily, "the governing board of the Oakland Unified School District shall regain al of its rights, duties, and powers."

Careful readers will quickly note the "oddity" in this law: the Oakland schools will be run by the state superintendent and his administrator until the state superintendent and his administrator decide that they-the state superintendent and his administrator-are running the Oakland schools properly. As soon as the state superintendent and his administrator come to that conclusion, the Oakland schools will be turned back over to Oakland, presumably under the theory that this process will prove that Oaklanders can run our own schools. It's like a thief-is that too harsh a term? let's just say a "friendly" neighbor-promising to give you back your new car as soon as he learns how to drive it, giving you the reason that he's only trying to ensure that you'll be able to drive it yourself.

If you think I'm making all of this up, friends, or misinterpreting the law somehow, look it up for yourself and draw your own conclusions.

Last week, two years after the state takeover, State Superintendent O'Connell and state administrator Ward released a 107-page Multi-Year Fiscal Recovery Plan called for in SB39 and Section 41327 of the state Education Code, and that was the purpose for the town hall meeting at Oakland Tech.

Thoughts on what happened at that meeting will have to wait until next week's column. Meanwhile Oakland, poor Oakland, continues to bleed, while taking the blame for others' actions.