UnderCurrents: Oakland School Chief Makes Dubious Promise

Friday January 16, 2004

State-appointed Oakland School Administrator Randolph Ward says that when he first got to California some years ago, he intended to register to vote as an independent. Instead, he says that by mistake, he ended up checking the box on the California Voter Registration Form for the American Independent Party, the party originally formed in 1968 to advance the presidential candidacy of the anti-black segregationist George Wallace. “Who the hell knows what that means?” Mr. Ward told the Oakland Tribune this week, the “that” referring, presumably, to the American Independent Party. Well, actually, a lot of us who were around in the ‘60s know what that means. Let’s hope that during Mr. Ward’s several years as a schoolteacher he was not called upon to instruct in modern American history. 

In any event, the other night Oakland School Board Member Gary Yee asked Mr. Ward to give a guarantee to the Oakland community, and got an interesting response. What Mr. Yee asked Mr. Ward to do was to guarantee that Mr. Ward will not sell any of the five Oakland public schools he (Mr. Ward) is proposing to close down at the end of the school year. 

Mr. Yee’s request came at the end of the end of that public hearing at the Paul Robeson Administration Building at which Mr. Ward invited parents, students, teachers, and administrators from 11 Oakland elementary schools to come out and say why their particular school should not be one of the five he wants to close down.  

Predictably, more than a thousand Oakland citizens showed up, so many that most of them had to wait on the sidewalk outside, since the Board Room only allows about 150 people at a time. Angry at the way they were being treated but determined to speak, the Oakland folks filed into the Board Room and took their turn at the podium and made their cases, many of them giving detailed information about test scores and innovative programs and community support. Hour after hour they came, long into the night. The next day, Dr. Ward released the list of the five elementary schools he was proposing to close (Burbank, Foster, John Swett, Longfellow, and Toler Heights), which is a really short time to do an intelligent job of paring down a closure list from 11 to five, which leads one to believe that either Mr. Ward already knew which schools he was going to try to close, and it didn’t really matter what those hundreds of people came out to say, or else he just sat around the next morning and pulled names out of a hat. You choose which one you think happened. Mr. Ward has not yet supplied us with the details of his final selection process. 

Equally murky is Mr. Ward’s publicly-stated reasons as to why it is necessary to close any Oakland public schools at all. 

We are told that it is a cost-cutting measure, though exactly how much money it will save us, and in what ways, seems to be a moving target. Mr. Yee says that when Mr. Ward first came up with the school closure idea, Mr. Ward gave no cost-saving figure at all, so Mr. Yee figured up the potential savings himself at $1.5 million, which he said he got from adding up the administrative costs to run five schools. Last week, however, the Chronicle put the potential cost-saving figure at $2 million, based upon Mr. Ward’s report of a $400,000 cost to run each school. The Bay City News reported the potential cost savings at “an estimated $2.8 million annually,” without saying who did the estimating. But, of course, the cost of running a school is not necessarily the cost one will save by closing it. Does Mr. Ward’s estimates, for one example, include the salaries of the teachers? If they are not going to be fired (and presumably Mr. Ward can’t fire the teachers at the closing schools because they’ll have to be transferred over to the schools where the students from the closed schools are moving), then those salaries can’t be included as part of the savings. 

In the absence of any detailed analysis of the financial aspect of these proposed school closures—and if there is such an analysis, Mr. Ward hasn’t released it to the public—we are left with such open questions, and widely varying estimations of what, if anything, might be saved. 

Good luck, too, at figuring out why these particular five schools ended up on the final hit list. Is it declining test scores, or declining enrollment? At different times, in recent days, Mr. Ward has said one or the other. If declining enrollment is the problem, one might speculate that the steep drop in enrollment in Oakland’s schools this year came in part because the turmoil over the school takeover last year, and, if that is the case, then the turmoil over Mr. Ward’s proposed school closure plan is most likely to cause more parents to take their children to other school districts, leading to more reasons to close schools. This might go on merrily in a dwindling downward spiral, until only Mr. Ward remains as the only school employee around to cut himself a last check, at our expense, and then turn off the lights at the Paul Robeson Administration Building. Which would then be sold. 

Which leads us to speculation going around Oakland that these school closures are part of a plan by developers to buy up these newly-vacant school properties for their own profit, and, therefore, Mr. Yee’s request that Mr. Ward ward off such rumors by publicly guaranteeing that the school properties will not be sold. “I have said it many times before, but I’ll say it again,” Mr. Ward replied. “I have no intention of selling any school properties.” Having learned of other odd things resulting from Mr. Ward’s intentions (see the first paragraph, above), Oakland is not reassured.