UnderCurrents: Criticisms Arise Over Siegel’s School Lawsuit

Friday May 21, 2004

The recently filed lawsuit by certain Oakland politicians and taxpayers to try to overturn the state seizure of the Oakland schools has drawn a flurry of criticism and complaint from predictable sources. Me, I’ve always thought that for a man bound hand and foot in a closet, any movement is a good movement. But let’s examine the issue to make sure. 

Sometime last year, the Oakland Unified School District discovered that, in an attempt to bring up the educational standards in the Oakland public schools to a minimally acceptable level, it had inadvertently overspent its budget. The OUSD was given no legal choice but to accept a considerable loan from the State of California, with the added indignity that the state (in the form of State Superintendent Jack O’Connell) stepped in to take control of the operation of the Oakland public schools. 

The California Superior Court lawsuit, filed by attorney Dan Siegel (a member of the Oakland School Board) and representing a small knot of Oakland citizens, some of them recognizable public figures (former School Superintendent Dennis Chaconas, present School Board Member Paul Cobb, and former Oakland City Councilmember and mayoral candidate Wilson Riles, Jr.), names Superintendent O’Connell as defendant. The complaint charges that the school takeover should be overturned because it “represents an unconstitutional abridgement of the rights of the city’s electors under the Oakland City Charter.” 

On to the predictable responses: 

Robert Gammon and Alex Katz of the Oakland Tribune write that State Senator Don Perata, who wrote the legislation that put through the loan and the school takeover “did not return a phone call seeking comment” concerning the lawsuit. This, of course, is no surprise, as Mr. Perata has perfected the habit of bailing on involvement in political issues at the precise point at which they reach a stage that might cause Mr. Perata some political problems (see “Raider deal” for details). 

Mr. Gammon and Mr. Katz then report O’Connell spokeswoman Hilary McLean as saying “we” (presumably she and the state superintendent) are “disappointed by the filing of this lawsuit. It’s our hope that rather than spending precious taxpayer dollars on lawsuits, we can all focus our time and energy where it’s needed the most -improving the schools for Oakland students.” 

One wonders, of course, where Ms. McLean and Mr. O’Connell may have been during the long years when Oaklanders were, in fact, attempting to improve the schools for Oakland students, and when Oaklanders were complaining that the money simply was not available to do such simple things as pay the teachers a decent salary, buy books and supplies for every child, heat the classrooms, and clean the toilets. But we will leave Ms. McLean to her disappointments, and move on. 

Then comes Mr. Chip Johnson, East Bay columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, writing, at length, that “the lawsuit is disappointing [there’s that word again; it seems Oaklanders are making a habit of disappointing people] and suggests a repeat of the petty infighting and internal confusion that paved the road to the district’s collapse.” Mr. Johnson then makes an allegation that Mr. Siegel has “vot[ed] against nearly every cost-reduction plan presented by State Administrator Randy Ward to balance the district budget” and therefore concludes that “given all that’s transpired since the takeover, it’s a long leap of faith to believe that Siegel—or any other school board member—should be given the go-ahead to lead it.” 

Facts, it appears, should never be allowed to get in the way of Mr. Johnson’s conclusions. 

Try as I might, I can find no evidence—whatsoever—that it was “petty infighting and internal confusion that paved the road to the district’s collapse.” But given that we have yet to have a public accounting of what actually led to the district’s takeover (collapse? when did the district collapse? I missed that part), I suppose one can get away with saying anything one wants. 

(This has nothing to do with Mr. Johnson’s comments, by the way, since it occurred after the takeover crisis began rather than before, but what I have always found the most remarkable—and what, in fact, made me proud once more to be an Oaklander—was how the members of the Oakland School Board, each and every one of them, submerged their many differences and presented a united front during the period of the school takeover. There were many ways that the board could have done it wrong in those difficult times, and they did none of them. That was one of our finest moments as a city. That the board has now taken to some internal bickering—with the recent ouster of Board President Siegel and Vice President Greg Hodge—is only a testament to how notable it was their holding together before.) 

The allegation that Mr. Siegel “vot[ed] against nearly every cost-reduction plan presented by state administrator Randy Ward to balance the district budget,” if it is true, overlooks the fact that in the weeks preceding the school takeover, the school board presented a balanced budget to correct the mistake that had been made. When Mr. Ward was appointed by Mr. O’Connell to run the Oakland schools, Mr. Ward explicitly rejected that balanced budget proposal on the grounds that, since he had a $100 million state loan to draw on, a balanced budget was neither necessary nor legally required. You can look up his quotes on the matter in the Tribune, if you’d like. 

Finally, to Mr. Johnson’s conclusion, that it requires a “long leap of faith to believe that Siegel—or any other school board member—should be given the go-ahead to lead” the Oakland Unified School District. Any school board member? It’s sounding, here, very close to an assertion that Oaklanders are too dumb or too corrupt to run our own schools. But I’ll leave that to Mr. Johnson to clarify. 

All that being said, there are two problems with the Siegel-led lawsuit, the first legal, the second, political. 

The Siegel lawsuit is filed on the grounds that Oakland’s status as a charter city—under which the school board was formed—trumps state law. Case law, however, may not support that assertion. There is also the charge that Siegel may be merely using this lawsuit as a way to gain publicity for a possible run for mayor of Oakland. 

But even if both are true, the idea that Oakland has a constitutional basis for a challenge of the school takeover should not be so quickly dismissed. There is considerable fire smoldering beneath this first, small indication of smoke.