Brown & Co. Power Grab Guts School System

Friday December 12, 2003

I was sitting in my desk in my second grade classroom, I think, at Highland Elementary in Oakland—which takes this back a ways, I know—when an earthquake came and split a crack so wide in the school’s administration building that you could stick your fingers in it. That summer, they tore down the administration building and put up a new one. Eight years later, when I had just entered Castlemont, Oakland built a high school for the rich kids up in the hills. 

In the spring of 2002, voters in Oakland passed Measure A, the $303 million bond referendum allowing school construction and facilities improvement in the city. As far as I can determine, between 1963 and 2002—a period of some 40 years—Oakland built no new schools. Quite the contrary. During that period, while a need for school facilities increased with a rising population, popular support for school financing plummeted after the hope generated during the administration of Superintendent Marcus Foster. Following Mr. Foster’s assassination, Oakland wallowed in a long, meandering period that drifted between scandal, corruption, resignation, and despair. 

All of which one needs to keep in mind if one wishes to understand the passage of Measure A and the brief administration of Superintendent Dennis Chaconas—a brief and shining moment of hope in Oakland when we began to believe in ourselves again and our power to transform our circumstances—and how much we lost when those greedy bastards took it all out of our hands. 

I’m probably understating my point. If so, I offer my apologies. But I’m awfully angry about this, and when you’re angry, you tend not to stutter and not express yourself so well. 

For the months leading up to the state takeover of the Oakland schools, we heard a string of accusations—from both politicians and the press—on how the School Board and Mr. Chaconas had screwed up the schools, and education in Oakland could only be saved if responsibility was taken out of their hands. An essential point was missed, here. The antiquated computer and accounting system that hid Oakland’s financial problems preceded Mr. Chaconas and every present sitting member of the school board by several years. So long as Oakland’s various school administrations marked time, took their paychecks, and allowed the city’s public schools to wallow in mediocrity, the problems of the accounting system never saw the light of day. It was only when Mr. Chaconas—under the direction of the School Board and with the support of the Oakland public—began clearing out the dead weight in the administration building, shaking out nonfunctioning or underfunctioning teachers and administrators and—most important—brought teacher salaries in the city up to a competitive standard, that Mr. Chaconas and the school board discovered the house of cards upon which our schools’ finances were constructed. 

Okay. You can make a case, if you want, that they should have figured that out earlier. 

But even for those who take that position—and I don’t happen to be one of them—the prudent next step should have been to rally around our elected school representatives and hired superintendent, go to Sacramento as a united front, and worked our way out of this mess as a united community. 

Instead, Mayor Brown and State Senator Don Perata and Alameda County School Superintendent Sheila Jordan merrily stirred the pot of dissent, conspired with the folks at the Fiscal Crisis And Management Team—if you are to believe Robert Gammon of the Oakland Tribune—and helped pave the way for the State of California to seize the Oakland Unified School District. 

We are told that sometime, somewhere, in the unforeseen future—based upon conditions that are far outside of our control—the state will give us back our schools. There are people in this city who are willing to wait that long. I don’t think we can. Before our eyes, we can see the collapsing of Oakland people’s confidence in the Oakland public schools, as enrollment spirals downwards, and parents seek education solutions elsewhere. Developers have long had their eyes on the downtown administration building. We now hear from the overseer—Dr. Ward—that schools may be forced to close. Think of that, my friends. Three years after Oakland voters approved the first Oakland school construction in a generation, our assets are going to be parceled out like this was a yard sale. Wonder whose got their eyes on those parcels? 

Forty years ago, Oakland would have stormed the legislature with demonstrators, sat down in the halls up in Sacramento and blocked the doors. We would have pulled our children out of the schools en masse and opened up Freedom Schools in synagogues and churches and community centers and garages, and stayed out until we forced the legislature to give us our schools back. But maybe Oakland has grown old, and lost its heart. Or maybe—as the block boys like to say—Oakland’s heart is still there somewhere, but it’s just pumping Kool-Aide.  

Last year and this, we built a new, two story-classroom wing at Highland with the Measure A money, my old elementary, the first capital improvements to the school since I was in the second grade. The new building replaced the dilapidated, wooden portables where I spent my fifth and sixth grades. A new building, put up by Oakland people, with Oakland money, for Oakland children. 

If we don’t do something, and do it soon, that’s the sort of legacy that will be lost, and there will be nothing but scraps left for us after the pigs finish gorging themselves on the meal that is Oakland.