Press Releases

Column: Undercurrents By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday May 13, 2005

For the last two years, there has been mounting anger in Oakland over the rule of Oakland School Administrator Randy Ward, who was appointed by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell after the California legislature seized the Oakland Unified School District from Oakland residents and taxpayers. 

(Note: the Oakland schools were not seized from the school board and Superintendent Dennis Chaconas—the school board only set policy as the elected representatives of the real owners: Oakland residents—and the superintendent only ran the schools as the hired employee of the school board. That’s a small lesson in basic civic government that seems to always get forgotten in discussions of Oakland’s recent school problems.)  

In any event, back to Mr. Ward, the closing down of some neighborhood schools entirely and the escalating policy of turning over others to charter organizations by the state-appointed administrator has been particularly galling, leading many Oaklanders to the understandable belief that there will be only a shell of a district left when—and if—Oakland Unified is finally turned back over to the actual people who are providing the children and footing the bills. In recent weeks—particularly after a group of demonstrators were arrested during a sit-in at Ward’s office while demanding that Mr. O’Connell come to Oakland to meet with Oaklanders about the school situation—that anger has spread out to include the State Superintendent himself. 

Last month, that anger came to a head when Mr. O’Connell came to Oakland to present his long-delayed multi-year recovery plan to the local public at Oakland Tech High. The crowd booed Mr. Ward when he was introduced. They booed Mr. O’Connell through much of the first part of his presentation. They booed Oakland City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente who for some unaccountable reason (since neither he nor City Council have anything to do with the running of the schools) was up on the auditorium stage to make a short presentation himself. At one point, the crowd even booed the moderator. 

Given that anger, and given Oakland’s history of social action, one has to wonder why there has been no serious effort so far mounted to topple Mr. Ward and return control of the schools back to Oakland. 

(And please, please don’t tell me that can’t be done simply because state law requires California to run Oakland’s schools. Some of us who are still around lived in an era when elderly African American women had to get off the Trailways buses along the side of the road and urinate in the woods because the laws in some states forbade them to use the public restrooms that were reserved for white folk. We lived long enough to see those laws fall. Laws are written by people. Laws can be rewritten, or erased altogether, by those same people, or by others succeeding them. It happens pretty much every day.) 

The problem is not that the state takeover of the Oakland schools is “the law.” The problem is a huge but largely-undiscussed fissure dividing the likely three-way coalition that, if it came together, would have the potential to overturn state rule. 

That three-way coalition would logically be made up of Oakland teachers, parents of Oakland schoolchildren, and a broad, what we might call “Home Rule activist” collection of progressives, school board and PTA members, and neighborhood folks who have been active in supporting Oakland’s schools. 

And, in fact, that coalition has come together on some issues surrounding Mr. Ward’s administration, particularly in opposing the closure or charter conversion of some neighborhood schools. In these instances, the interests of the three parts of the coalition are identical—teachers, parents, and “Home Rule activists” all want most, if not all, of Oakland’s neighborhood schools to remain open and not converted to charters. 

But that unity doesn’t hold when it comes to the steps that are needed to restore Home Rule to Oakland schools under the existing school takeover law. 

As pointed out in last week’s UnderCurrents column, the takeover law (SB39) calls for return to local control when “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.” 

The budget of the multiyear financial recovery plan—which was released last month by Mr. O’Connell when he came to Oakland Tech—is based in large part on the district reaching a contract agreement pretty much along the lines of the terms offered this year to the Oakland Federation of Teachers by Mr. Ward. And so, following last month’s Oakland Tech appearance by Mr. O’Connell, Oakland Advisory School Board President Gary Yee huddled on the sidewalk outside Tech with OFT President Ben Visnick, urging him to get his union members to sign that contract. 

“If the teacher contract is signed, the state superintendent will have to certify that compliance with the recovery plan is probable, and we can apply to move forward with restoration of local control,” Mr. Yee argued. “The teacher contract is the last barrier. Just do it for one year.” 

The implication was clear, though never stated by Mr. Yee, that once it regained its power, the OUSD School Board would revisit the teacher contract—not to unbalance the district’s budget, which would immediately trigger a state re-seizure—but to work with the teachers union to find creative ways both to keep the budget balanced and to restore some of the concessions the teachers gave up. 

But Mr. Visnick disagreed. His responsibility is to his own union members, and, understandably, he’s reluctant to set what he would call “bad” precedents in this year’s contract on the hope that they might be reversed by the school board at some later point. Of particular concern, he pointed out, was the contract proposal provision formally capping the district’s contribution to teacher health care benefits. With rising health care costs, Mr. Visnick argued, that would quickly eat up any future pay raises granted by either the state or the OUSD Board. He also thought that the district should operate without the usual state-mandated 3 percent reserve in order to fund a teacher pay raise. Mr. Visnick and the OFT Executive Committee lobbied union members against Mr. Ward’s proposed contract and late last month, those union members voted 5-1 to reject it. 

No contract, no state superintendent certification, no quick return to local control. No coalition. 

This is not a criticism of either position, either that proposed to the teachers by Mr. Yee (sign the contract and take your chances with a local school board next year) or that proposed to the teachers by Mr. Visnick (don’t set a precedent that might not be able to be overturned). In this instance, both men were consistent, arguing on principle, and representing the interests of their particular constituents. Hard to argue against that. 

But it is equally hard to see a movement to return local control to Oakland schools without the support of the Oakland Federation of Teachers. Perhaps in recognizing their legitimate differences, the teachers, Oakland parents, and the collection of “Home Rule activists” can figure out a way to overcome those differences and unite against those who they all agree are the common enemy—the non-Oaklanders who have taken over Oakland’s schools.