State Took Over Oakland Schools in Haste

Friday June 20, 2003

Part One: The California Legislature, possibly to ensure the re-election of Gov. Gray Davis in 2002, fails that year to enact that combination of spending cuts and tax increases necessary to deal with the problems of the dot-com bust and the energy company rip-off. As a result of delaying what seemed obvious to the casual observer, the Legislature causes the budget deficit to explode the next year to almost $38 billion. But instead of passing a constitutionally mandated balanced budget by the constitutionally mandated deadline of June 15, the Legislature goes home. 

Part Two: Over Father’s Day weekend, the United States Congress meets in an extraordinary emergency session. Declaring that by violating its own State Constitution the California Legislature has abrogated its right to self-rule, a bipartisan majority of Congress says it has no choice but to enact legislation to seize management of California. President Bush signs the bill into law, and immediately appoints a cabinet-level Secretary of California Affairs to take over all administrative affairs of this state, both legislative and executive. 

Ahhh, you say, you recognize Part One because that is exactly what is happening in Sacramento, even as we speak. But the second, you argue, could never happen. The explosion of political outrage—from conservatives, moderates and liberals—would burst across the nation like a volcanic eruption. If Congress could seize California on such a pretext, what other state would be safe? Front page editorials would scream “Despot!” in 48-point type. The talk shows would burst their decibels. Demonstrators would flood the streets of Washington and Atlanta and, of course, San Francisco, bringing the nation’s business to a halt. Congress couldn’t get away with it, seizing the running of the state of California from the citizens of this state because of the actions of the California Legislature. 

Who then, cries for Oakland, when the state Legislature seizes the running of the public schools from its citizens because of the actions of the Oakland School Board and the OUSD superintendent? 

Poor, sad Oakland. Not a tear shed in her defense.  

In 1998 and 2000, the voters of Oakland elected the School Board that eventually accepted Carol Quan’s resignation as OUSD superintendent and hired Dennis Chaconas in her place. Chaconas and the School Board then launched reforms to upgrade the quality of education in the Oakland schools and to bring them on par with other schools in the Bay Area.  

But at the beginning of the 2002-2003 school year, Chaconas discovered the reforms had put Oakland’s school budget out of balance, something state law does not allow school districts to do. How the budget got out of balance has been much discussed, and is not the point here. The point is that the budget discrepancy was not discovered until after the last School board elections in March of 2002. Therefore there has been no chance for the voters of Oakland to act on this crisis, even if Oakland had wanted to do so by making wholesale changes in the School Board. 

The state Legislature never gave Oakland the opportunity. Instead, while loaning the school district enough money to meet its payroll, the state appointed an administrator to take over the operation of the Oakland schools. When asked why they did not appoint a trustee instead (a trustee would have the power to veto any proposals that went overbudget, but the School Board and superintendent would have been left in place to continue to run things), legislators said they couldn’t do that because an administrator was mandated by the school bailout law previously passed by the Legislature, California Education Code Section 41325 (a) and (b). 

Law, as Thomas Jefferson once said, is often but the tyrant’s will. 

Perhaps as disturbing as the Legislature’s act of administrative usurpation (sorry about the big word, but it’s the only one that seems to fit), was its pointed indifference to discovering either the causes of Oakland’s budget crisis or determining whether the School Board and superintendent were acting on a sound plan to correct the problem.  

Presumably, answers to those questions might go a long ways toward determining whether Oakland was fit to rule its own schools. But when senators at the state Senate Education Committee hearing last April tried to ask Chaconas and School Board President Greg Hodge to go into details, Education Committee Chairman John Vasconcellos pointedly cut them off. There was no time for that. The committee had already put in half a morning on this issue, he said. Half a morning in the cause of self-rule? How inexpedient. The senators stopped asking, and went back to their finger-wagging and scolding, of which they are expert.  

“The true danger” according to Edmund Burke, “is when liberty is nibbled away, for expedience, and by parts.” 

The true danger is when a state Legislature, which has not balanced its own budget, decides it must take control from Oakland citizens because an Oakland legislative body could not balance its. Where are my conservative friends, constant with their cry of freedom of the vote abroad? Where are the liberals and progressives, so quick to defend civil rights? Where, my civil libertarians? Does Oakland ... being Oakland ... not count in their equations? Or did they simply fail to notice? 

Oakland should shut its mouth, some might say, for the sake of Oakland’s children, and be glad that the Legislature stepped in and saved our burning supper. 

“Experience should teach us,” Justice Brandeis might reply, “to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent.”  

Thus endeth the lesson. Or beginneth.