Oakland Unified Regains Limited Control By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday October 07, 2005

In the wake of a recommendation by the Fiscal Crisis Management Assistance Team (FCMAT), the California superintendent agreed this week to turn over what he is calling a “limited” measure of local control to the Board of Directors of the Oakland Unified School District. 

The limited power transfer would be in the area of what FCMAT calls “community relations and governance” in its five areas of school district evaluations. 

However, no details have been released about what that limited local control will actually mean. The office of the state superintendent referred reporters to the office of the state-appointed Oakland school administrator, Randolph Ward, for details, and Ward was not available for comment. 

Gary Yee, president of the Oakland school board, said he has not heard anything official on the transfer back of power, and criticized the return to local control if all it amounted to was “doing such public relations things as presenting the district position to the press and at community meetings.” 

In a statement released this week, State Superintendent Jack O’Connell said the state’s aim was to improve student achievement, return the district to sound financial health, and return the district to local control as soon as possible. 

“While the district still faces many challenges, I am happy to see that the Oakland Unified School District is making progress in improving communication with parents and community leaders in Oakland,” O’Connell said. “Community involvement and support for the tough decisions required for fiscal recovery and improved student achievement are key to the district’s ultimate transition back to local control.” 

The State of California took control of the Oakland district in 2003 after district officials reported a possible impending bankruptcy, indicating that the district might not be able to meet the upcoming payroll because officials had miscalculated the total amount of a teacher pay raise. 

Payroll was met when the state advanced a $100 million line of credit, and since that time the district has been run by Ward. The elected school board has remained in place, but only as a powerless advisory body. 

In addition, the state legislation which authorized the state takeover of Oakland Unified was vague on what steps needed to be taken for the district to resume local control. 

FCMAT is a Legislature-created organization set up to intervene in school districts that the state considers to be troubled, almost always in the area of fiscal management. The organization sometimes functions in an advisory capacity—as it did until this spring in the Berkeley Unified School District—but at other times is mandated by the legislature to formally take over as a school district’s fiscal agent. 

Whatever the manner in which FCMAT enters a California school district, however, it always provides consultant work and progress reports in five identical areas of operation—community relations and governance, personnel management, pupil achievement, financial management and facilities management—whether or not those areas had anything to do with state intervention in the district’s problems. 

Berkeley school officials said that they found the FCMAT evaluations “useful,” and plan to use the five FCMAT criteria as a guideline for the district self-evaluation now that FCMAT’s role in Berkeley Unified has ended. 

FCMAT’s evaluation role in Oakland ended with a September report recommending the limited return to local control, but a notation in the report said that “it is anticipated that FCMAT will continue to monitor the district’s progress for the district’s return to local governance ... At the time of this report ... there is neither legislation nor funds identified to continue the assessment and monitoring process for the 2005-06 school year. Steps are currently underway to address this issue.” 

In its September report, FCMAT gave OUSD a 6.42 rating in the area of community relations and governance on a 10-point scale, up from a 5.73 rating a year ago, and a 3.92 rating in the first report following the state takeover. 

FCMAT ratings of OUSD were significantly lower in other areas, with a 4.56 in personnel management, 4.57 in pupil achievement, 3.10 in financial management, and a 4.52 in facilities management. 

The problem with using these assessments to determine a return to local control, Yee said, is that after two years and four months of state control, FCMAT is only evaluating how the state is operating the Oakland Unified School District, not how local control is working. 

Yee said that because the term “governance” is so vague, there are two widely different interpretations of what a return to local school board governance would mean. 

“What ‘governance’ means to a school board normally is selecting and evaluating the superintendent, passing the budget, and setting the school curriculum,” he said. “But I don’t think this is what O’Connell has in mind in returning that area of concern back to the control of the local board.” 

Yee also said that if return to local governance meant “operating in an inspector general capacity” in which the school board was given monitoring powers over the state-appointed administrator, “we would embrace it.” 

But Yee said it is more likely that “community relations will be the only role” given the board. 

Yee was elected to the Oakland Unified School Board following the events that led to the state takeover. Earlier this year he refused a request by O’Connell to sit on the stage at Oakland Tech High School with O’Connell, Ward, and state officials when O’Connell held his first and only public meeting in Oakland on the school takeover. Yee said at the time that he did not want to give the false impression that the board was invested with any decision-making power.