Columnist J. Douglas Allen-Taylor is to be commended for devoting attention to the situation in the Oakland schools. It is unfortunate that he did not take the trouble to check his facts and ask for comments from the people directly involved before committing his thoughts to print. His grand conspiracy theory, in which the Oakland schools crisis was just a pretext for an alleged land grab, would not have survived performance of these basic journalistic obligations.
Perhaps I should be flattered by Allen-Taylor’s scenario, in which I play the role of evil mastermind, engineering a vast statewide fiscal crisis, manipulating the governor to cut school budgets, pulling the strings in the mayor’s office to have my opponents appointed to the school board, and cunningly remote-controlling the Oakland district to take a path of fiscal irresponsibility and ruin, all for the purpose of helping an unknown developer to realize a speculative profit on the sale of district real estate nearly 20 years later. I never realized I had so much power or foresight.
The reality is much less glamorous. The Oakland district has had serious administrative problems for many decades. The statewide fiscal crisis and the governor’s Prop. 98 budget cuts stressed every school district in the state, and none more so than in the high-cost Bay Area. (Four out of the seven district bankruptcies in the state occurred in the Bay Area.) Oakland’s response to the crisis was politically seductive but economically perilous. The Oakland district undertook a series of expensive reforms without asking where the money would come from to pay for them.
Instead of frankly disclosing the resulting budgetary problems, as it was required to do by law, the Oakland administration chose to paper them over. It submitted budget documents to the county office that appeared to comply with all requirements. Under then existing state law, as the Oakland administration knew, the county office had no power to override local control so long as the papers looked proper.
A key battle during this period was the Oakland administration’s effort to divert school construction bond money, authorized by the voters for repairing and building schools, to patch its operating deficit. The state Attorney General ruled that school construction money could not lawfully be used for operating expenses. If the Oakland administration had got its way and diverted that money, no school construction bond measure could ever again win the confidence of voters.
In the fall of 2002, the house of cards that the Oakland administration had built finally collapsed. The district stood in immediate danger of not being able to meet its payroll. At that point, state law permitted the county office to step in. The rest is history. The district’s real budget was so deeply in the red that it would have bankrupted the whole county. Only the state had the resources to bail the Oakland school district out.
An independent audit of Oakland’s books, completed two years later, found that the district had misrepresented the true financial position of its general fund; hidden a $31 million deficit; made unrealistic projections for savings in personnel expenditures four to five times the average amount in previous years; failed to provide documentation for this estimate; falsely affirmed to its board and to the county office that it had balanced its budget and was financially solvent; had inadequate internal controls over many of its operations creating an environment ripe for fraud or other inappropriate activities; illegally transferred $14 million in building funds to the general fund to reduce the deficit; and improperly used a portion of the interest of $15 million bond fund for general maintenance operations contrary to the purpose of the bond measure – among other improprieties.
Currently on the table, if news reports are to be believed, is a proposal to sell or lease a portion of Oakland Unified School District real estate in order to pay down the state loan and speed up Oakland’s return to local control. The county office has no jurisdiction over this matter, has not been consulted, and plays no role in deciding it. I have lived in Oakland for 30 years; I have been an Oakland City Council member and a member of the School Board. I am strongly in favor of a return to local control, but only if the transition is made via an open, public process.
Oakland is too large and dynamic a community to remain long under state administration. Oakland will find a way, perhaps very soon, to return to local control. However, in order to get there, Oakland will have to turn its back on the coterie of frustrated politicos who imagine themselves the victims of fantastic conspiracies, and who have nothing to offer but reruns of the tired old blame game.
Berkeley Unified School District and the supportive Berkeley community modeled the importance of focusing on solutions in order to move forward. When BUSD was grappling with its own fiscal challenges, there was honest dialog over policies, issues, and ideas to improve education for all students. Although BUSD board members often embrace opposing viewpoints, they are in agreement that a sound budget is critical to a stable district. They keep their constituents informed and garner the public support necessary to make difficult decisions. Board members and Superintendent have worked consistently and collaboratively with ACOE business staff and the fiscal advisor I appointed and currently have a fiscally sound budget.
Much can be learned from Berkeley’s example. Instead of scripting B-grade movie plots, Allen-Taylor could help all of us by turning his powerful imagination to visualizing creative and realistic scenarios for Oakland’s recovery.
Sheila Jordan is the Alameda County superintendent of schools.