Column: Undercurrents:Mr. O’Connell Comes to Oakland With No Exit Plan In Hand J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday May 06, 2005

Sorry to continue to be a bother about this, but I continue to be puzzled over the details of how Oakland’s schools got taken over by the state, and what needs to be done to get the schools back in Oakland’s hands. 

In last week’s column, we noted that State Senator Don Perata’s SB39—the 2003 legislation that authorized the state seizure of Oakland’s schools—gave a mandate for how the Oakland schools should be run during the takeover: “To the extent allowed by district finances, it is the intent of the Legislature that the [revised education program to be implemented by the state superintendent and his administrator] shall maintain the core educational reforms that have led to district-wide improvement[s]...” 

Does anyone ever actually look at these things after they are passed? 

Print that sentence out, tape it on the wall above your breakfast table, and then read (or re-read) Robert Gammon’s long and informative article in the April 27 East Bay Express on state-appointed administrator Randolph Ward’s overhaul of the Oakland Unified School District and its education programs. Rather than maintaining Oakland’s core educational reforms begun during the regime of former Superintendent Dennis Chaconas, as called for in the law that authorized his hiring, Mr. Ward has taken Oakland education in a completely different direction. His own? Financier and education-dabbler Eli Broad’s? It certainly ain’t what Oakland had decided we wanted, and which we’d been having success with until the bottom blew out of the budget. 

(In one of those revealing passages you sometimes find like a gold nugget in the midst of government documents, the State Superintendent’s multi-year fiscal recovery plan for Oakland released last week said—a little too eagerly, I think—that “OUSD’s current financial crisis creates an unprecedented opportunity to move beyond recovery to the old academically ineffective system to true renewal of the Oakland school system.” Renewal? And who’s to be the determinator of that?) 

Meanwhile, after two years were spent by his state-appointed school administrator doing things that SB39 didn’t authorize, like revamping the education program, California Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell came to Oakland Technical High School last month to tell Oaklanders why he was so late producing something that was specifically called for in the legislation: producing the multi-year plan for the Oakland system to get out of its fiscal difficulties. 

In his opening remarks to the packed audience in the Tech auditorium, Mr. O’Connell acknowledged that the plan was a long-time coming, but explained the delay. “We didn’t know the tremendous problems facing the district when we took over,” he said. “The problem was bigger than I thought.” 

Let us sit around the hot stove and ponder this statement for a moment, friends. 

In the years leading up to the 2003 state takeover of Oakland’s schools, no school district in the state was under more of a fiscal microscope than Oakland Unified. The state-organized Fiscal Crisis Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) was hired in April of 1999 to look into Oakland Unified’s financial problems, and published a comprehensive fiscal assessment of the district later that year. Oakland’s school financial problems were then being monitored by the Alameda County Office of Education and the county office’s fiscal advisor, Pete Yasitis, who was later loaned to OUSD to oversee Oakland’s fiscal recovery. The next year, in fact, OUSD Superintendent Dennis Chaconas hired Yasitis away from ACOE to be his deputy superintendent in charge of fiscal affairs. (It was Yasitis, by the way, who wrote the unbalanced budget that bankrupted the Oakland school system and led to the state takeover, one of those “oddities” about this situation that has never been fully explained.) 

Then in October of 2002 (this time while her former fiscal deputy, Mr. Yasitis, was running Oakland Unified’s budget show) Alameda County School Superintendent Sheila Jordan again sent for FCMAT to oversee the Oakland’s school finances and the organization produced another series of comprehensive reports on the situation. And finally, in June of 2004, following the state takeover, the office of the California State Controller completed and published a comprehensive audit of Oakland Unified’s 2002-03 budget detailing the “problems facing the district” that Mr. O’Connell talked about at Tech. All of these are on top of the financial audit reports regularly issued by Oakland Unified’s own auditors. 

But ten months later, after a long period of state and county and local oversight and with comprehensive fiscal reports mounting, Mr. O’Connell came to Oakland and said that, frankly, he couldn’t produce a recovery plan sooner because he hadn’t known how bad things were. Didn’t he read the reports? 

It gets worse. 

In April of 2003, Oakland school officials traveled to Sacramento to testify before the Senate Education Committee to speak on Perata’s SB39 bill and the proposed state loan and school takeover. During the hearing, in answer to questions by Senators, Superintendent Dennis Chaconas and then-Oakland School Board President Greg Hodge tried to provide details on how Oakland got into its fiscal problems. Senate Education Committee Chairperson John Vasconcellos cut them off, saying “we’re not here to talk about that.” In fact, there has never been a state investigation-as opposed to an audit-of how Oakland’s school problems came to be, including what might be interesting testimony from the long-departed Mr. Yasitis (he retired from his job as OUSD’s fiscal director sometime before the residue hit the fan). If Mr. O’Connell didn’t know the true extent of the Oakland problem when the state legislature was considering handing the Oakland schools over to him in the spring of 2003, why didn’t he just drop by the Senate Education Committee hearings and ask somebody? 

Or then again, maybe the two-year delay in the release of the multi-year recovery plan was simply a stall for something else. 

In any event, Mr. O’Connell did come to Oakland last month, and released the long-awaited plan detailing how he and Mr. Ward will get Oakland Unified in good enough fiscal shape to turn it back over to Oakland. 

Someone from the audience asked him the obvious question: Can you give us a date certain as to when local control will return? 

“I wish I had a date,” Mr. O’Connell replied. “I don’t have a date. There are certain standards that have to be met.” And what are those standards? “The standards will be set by the county office of education and by our auditing agencies.” [The emphasis on the will be set are mine.] 

The problem is, try as I might, I can’t find the part in SB39 that mentions some sort of new standards for local control that need to be set in order to OUSD’s governing board to “regain all of its rights, duties, and powers.” The only such standards for return of local control that I can find are outlined in SECTION 5 (e) (6) of the law, which reads: “The Superintendent of Public Instruction concurs with the assessment of the administrator and FCMAT that future compliance by the Oakland Unified School District with the [FCMAT] improvement plan … and the [State Superintendent’s] multiyear financial recovery plan … is probable.” 

FCMAT’s updated Assessment and Recovery Plan mandated under the Oakland takeover law was completed and released in September of 2003. Mr. O’Connell came to Oakland last month with his multiyear recovery plan. Yet he still says that “certain standards” for the return of local control have yet to be set, standards that don’t seem to be called for in the law. 

Is Mr. O’Connell really searching around for these elusive “certain standards?” Or is the real problem that Mr. Ward’s overhaul of Oakland’s education program-another little item not called for in SB39-needs more time to be completed? 

I don’t have any answers to that one, friends. I’m just sitting around here, asking a couple of questions. Like I said, sorry to be a bother.