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




March 25 , 2003

Me, I hate to go cynical, I really do, but it’s hard not to get suspicious when a politician ends up with the same result he originally advocated, but for exactly opposite reasons.

Like when the President proposes a federal tax cut because we have a national budget surplus and then, when the national budget surplus disappears, proposes a tax cut not in spite of the fact that we no longer have a national budget surplus, but because of the fact that we don’t have the surplus. That one, of course, was easy for everyone (except my good Republican friends) to see.

Less easy to follow is the thread of state Sen. Don Perata’s advocacy of a state takeover of the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). That takeover is pretty certain after the Senate Education Committee voted this month to loan OUSD $100 million, with the schools being run by a state-appointed administrator until the money is paid back.

Some background, for those who haven’t been following:

Last year, OUSD Superintendent Dennis Chaconas discovered that the district was running a deficit, which is not allowed under state law. There’s no agreement on exactly what led to the deficit, although Chaconas and School Board President Greg Hodge have said that one major cause was the old computerized accounting system that failed to account for all the costs in a huge teacher pay raise (it was the new accounting system put in place under Chaconas’ watch that detected the deficit). In January, Perata announced that he was introducing a bill for a state loan, stating that “(u)nder (existing state) law, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction … must assign an administrator to run the district until the loan is repaid and the district is solvent. The school board becomes advisory, its legal authority suspended in favor of the state administrator.” He blamed the fiscal crisis on what he called “cooking the books” by a “previous business manager.”

What Mr. Perata didn’t say—but which some folks remember—is that four years ago he called for exactly the same remedy (a state takeover of the Oakland schools) but for entirely different reasons.

Back in 1998, the senator called for the firing of then-Superintendent Carol Quan because of Oakland’s habitual low student test scores, on-campus crime, discipline problems and substandard textbooks and instructional technology. He also cited poor fiscal management, but poor fiscal management in 1998 terms didn’t mean overspending the budget, but rather a bloated downtown bureaucracy and not enough money for direct-education things like teacher salaries and counselors. And if the OUSD School Board didn’t fire Quan, Perata said he would—guess what?—sponsor a bill to have the state take over administration of the Oakland Public Schools. In fact, at the time, he said he was already drawing up such legislation.

Carol Quan, you may remember, resigned under pressure from Perata and Jerry Brown, and the School Board hired Oakland Assistant City Manager George Musgrove to run the schools until a full-time superintendent could be found. But when Brown tried to pressure the board to make Musgrove the permanent superintendent, they balked. Presumably working under the assumption that a big-city school superintendent ought to have some experience as a school superintendent, the OUSD board hired Dennis Chaconas.

Still with me?

While Mayor Brown fussed and fumed over the Musgrove rejection, Perata got pointedly quiet on the Oakland school issue during the first year or so under Chaconas. We’ve come to expect that from the senator, who tends to get distracted with other things once an issue stops breaking his way, leaving supporters and protégés to clean up the public mess and catch the hell (see Raiders, Oakland). That’s one of the reasons Perata is sometimes called the California version of the Teflon Don.

Perata did surface briefly on the Chaconas issue back in early 2000, during another period when the OUSD was being threatened with a state takeover over charges that Oakland might owe the state $12 million for possibly overstating its daily attendance figures (the matter was settled, obviously without a takeover). Chaconas had nothing to do with the attendance problems, since he was only just then in final negotiations with the Oakland School Board to get the job. But given the situation at the time, Perata criticized the board for offering Chaconas a guaranteed three-year deal. “If all this is as bad as auditors indicate and there is no way to prevent a state takeover,” he told the Chronicle’s Matier & Ross column, “then you have just bought this guy a couple years on the beach.” Interesting how this state takeover thing keeps resurfacing, each time for different reasons.

In any event, Chaconas skipped the beach. Instead, he stayed in Oakland and, by all accounts, helped lead a turnaround in the Oakland schools in all of the areas where Perata had expressed concern. Teacher salaries went up, as did student test scores. Some of the bureaucracy got cleared out at the 2nd Street headquarters. In schools like Castlemont High—crime-ridden and low-achieving and almost given up as a lost cause in recent years—the turnaround during Chaconas’ tenure from dejected despair to some measure of hope is clearly visible. But because of faulty bookkeeping—put together in part by a “top” fiscal manager sent over from the Alameda County Office of Education and approved in audits by both the county and the district’s own outside auditor—the Oakland schools are almost certain to be taken over by the state.

After the state Senate Education Committee vote that came close to sealing the Oakland schools’ fate, a group of OUSD elected officials, administrators, teachers and parents met on the steps outside the capitol building and put much of the blame for the imminent state takeover on Perata’s shoulders.

“Perata could have prevented it, if he’d wanted to,” one parent activist said.

Did Perata want a state takeover of the Oakland schools? It’s a valid question to ask. An even more interesting question might be, did he want it as far back as 1998?

Don’t mind me, though. I’m just being suspicious.