Oakland Mayoral Debates Center on Education

Friday April 21, 2006

With the state-controlled Oakland Unified School District narrowly averting a one-day teacher strike, and the mayor of Los Angeles requesting the state Legislature to give him control of that city’s schools, the Oakland mayoral campaign took an educational turn this week. 

Candidates held debates at Skyline High School and Merritt College that focused, in part, on education issues, and one candidate—City Councilmember Nancy Nadel—renewed her call for the office of Oakland mayor to take over writing the Oakland public school budget. 

The Oakland mayor’s office once had more control over city schools than the mayors of most California cities. In the spring of 2000, Oakland voters approved a four-year experiment to allow Mayor Jerry Brown to appoint three additional members to the seven-member OUSD school board. That authority expired in May 2004, however, and Brown did not return to voters to ask for a renewal of that authority. 

After the state seized the Oakland Unified School District three years ago, Oakland’s schools have been operated by the State Superintendent of Schools’ office through appointed administrator Randolph Ward. The elected seven-member school board operates in an advisory capacity only, with no power to set policy. 

Nadel’s proposal would leave the elected school district undisturbed, allowing it to return as the district’s policy-making body when local control is eventually won back from the state. 

But while she told audience members at a Skyline High School debate this week that “I’m not talking about the mayor taking over the schools,” she said that the mayor’s office should be responsible for writing the school district budget as well as that of the Port of Oakland. 

Currently, the port’s budget is written by a board of commissioners appointed by the mayor. 

“We need to have one person looking holistically at all of these government institutions in the city,” Nadel said. 

She added that the mayor’s office could look at overall city priorities, taking money from the more prosperous areas such as the port and giving it to areas such as the schools which need more resources. 

“It’s wrong for the port commissioners to be sitting up having big meals at fancy restaurants while teachers in our schools have to scrounge for paper clips,” she said. 

On her campaign website, Nadel has expanded on the idea, writing that she is suggesting giving the Oakland mayor the same responsibility for the school budget as the mayor’s office has with the city budget. 

“Currently,” she writes, “the mayor develops the city budget with the city administrator and presents it to the council for review, modification and adoption. The charter change I suggest would give similar power to the mayor with respect to the OUSD budget as well as the port budget, with the final budget decisions still in the hands of the democratically elected school board, and port commissioners. This new role for the mayor would insure that someone in the city is thinking holistically across the major functions in the city. … This charter change will allow the mayor to coordinate expenditures to achieve economies of scale and coordinate like services.” 

Speaking days before the state administrator and the Oakland Education Association teachers union reached a tentative agreement on a new teacher contract, mayoral candidate Ignacio De La Fuente said at the Skyline debate that teachers were “the most unrewarded of our professionals,” and deserved a pay hike. But he questioned how much city government could do to help out. 

“How would we pay for it?” De La Fuente asked. “We could use the resources of the city to share revenues with the school district, but we have to be realistic. That would mean that we would be neglecting the areas such as public safety that city government is obligated by our charter to perform.” 

But De La Fuente said that the mayor could act as a powerful advocate for the schools, helping to bring in outside resources and coordinating city efforts with the school district. 

“When I was first elected to City Council, every school in my district was a year-round school, every school was overcrowded,” De La Fuente said.  

The City Council president noted that he used his considerable influence to help get the Cesar Chavez Educational Center built on the grounds of the old Montgomery Ward building at 29th Avenue and International Boulevard, one of the first new schools built in the city in several decades. Preservationists and developers had wanted to convert the Montgomery Ward building into housing, but De La Fuente said “I helped fight them off, because what we needed was a new school.” 

That’s the model he said he would bring into his job as Oakland mayor if elected, pledging that he would appoint the “first deputy mayor for education” in the city. 

At the Merritt College debate, which De La Fuente did not attend, candidate Ron Dellums called for a quick end to state control of the Oakland Unified School District, saying that “we need to take back our schools.” 

He said that the schools should be the center of social delivery service in the city, “where we wrap around such services as health care, mental health, housing, and tutoring.” He called on city leaders and other adults to “start listening to our young people. If we do so, they’ll provide us with a lot of the answers to our questions.”  

But none of the Oakland mayoral candidates come close to asking for the kind of power over city schools asked for this week by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. 

In his annual State of the City address, Villaraigosa said he was requesting the state legislature to set up a council of mayors in Los Angeles County to run the Los Angeles public schools on a six-year trial basis. Set up on a proportional basis so that Los Angeles, which has the largest population in the county, would have the largest representation on the council, Villaraigosa proposed that the council of mayors hire and fire the Superintendent as well as approve the district budget. 

The superintendent would take the traditional responsibility for directing personnel and managing the instructional program, but would take on the added role of granting charters, a powerful position following the passage of the national No Child Left Behind Law that favors charter school development.  

But while Villaraigosa’s proposal would retain the elected school board, it would significantly reduce its rule in the decision-making process, relegating board members to “reviewing complaints, creating and issuing school accountability report cards, conducting an annual survey of parents, and making recommendations based on the results.” 

In addition, the Los Angeles mayor suggested the “ultimate charge” of the school board should be to “help parents navigate through the system and solve problems with their kids’ schools.” 

If the proposal is adopted by the Legislature, that would make the role of the Los Angeles Unified School District board similar to that of the Oakland Unified School District board under state control: advisory only. 

If passed, the Los Angeles proposal would set a precedent for other school districts in the state. It is expected to receive significant opposition, particularly from teachers’ organizations.