Column: Undercurrents: What Did Ward Accomplish in the Oakland Schools?

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday July 14, 2006

As far back as the spring of 2005, when State Superintendent Jack O’Connell was forced to come to Oakland Technical High School and release his legally required but long-delayed Fiscal Recovery Plan for the Oakland Unified School District, a group of Oakland educators and activists—led by Board of Trustees President Gary Yee—had been saying that the legal requirements had either been met or were close to being met for a return to local control of the Oakland schools. 

That local control movement slowly grew over the next year, gained considerable momentum after state officials released the letter of intent to sell OUSD’s administration building and five Lake Merritt-area schools, and has now kicked into high gear with the announcement of state administrator Randolph Ward’s pending departure from OUSD. 

With the escalation of the drive to put Oakland schools back into Oakland control has come the inevitable counterrevolution—those who argue that the State of California should continue to run the Oakland public schools, at least for the forseeable future, or, like Bro’ Rabbit’s tarbaby, they are ready to turn us go. 

The latest in this line of “keep them under control” advocates comes in a recent San Francisco Chronicle op-ed by Mills College professor and former state superintendent Delain Eastin, bless her heart. According to Ms. Eastin, Oakland Unified was “quite dysfunctional” before Mr. Ward arrived, Mr. Ward “dramatically” turned the district around educationally, administratively, and fiscally in three years, and Oakland needs “another strong leader” sent down from the state to keep us from “becom[ing] a failing school district again.” 

One hopes it is not history that Ms. Eastin is teaching to the young ladies up at Mills, since she either misunderstands or understands but misstates the actual facts of the Oakland school takeover. 

Ms. Eastin begins by announcing that prior to the state takeover “those in charge [of Oakland Unified] had been running the district for the benefit of the grownups—not the students.” This is one of those lines guaranteed to get long applause at a community meeting, but in the absence of supporting detail (what exactly was done by whom to benefit the adults and not the students?) it is a pretty useless assertion. If Ms. Eastin has such details, she carefully hides them from us in her op-ed. 

Continuing, Ms. Eastin gets more specific, charging that prior to the state takeover, Oakland Unified “ran up a $100 million budget deficit.”  

She’s about $35 million to $43 million off. 

There has always been some disagreement about the actual size of the budget deficit that led to the 2003 state takeover. Recently Trustee Greg Hodge, who was president of the school board at the time of the takeover, said that the 2003 deficit was originally $57 million, but had actually been cut down considerably by the board by the time the state moved in. SB39, the state legislation that authorized the takeover, granted a $100 million line of credit to Oakland Unified, but up until last month, only $65 million of that amount had actually been borrowed from the state. It is fair, then, to say that Oakland Unified was somewhere between $57 million and $65 million out of balance at the time of the state began debating the takeover, but perhaps Ms. Eastin gets confused between what the state authorized and what Oakland actually needed. Anyways, we’ll return to that $100 million figure in a moment, since it is important. 

Ms. Eastin then paints a glowing picture of the work of Randolph Ward as he tramps through the Oakland vineyards, stating that he “dramatically improved academic instruction and student achievement. Between 2004 and 2005, OUSD reported one of the largest achievement increases of a large urban school district in California… Ward recruited and hired more fully credentialed teachers… Ward dramatically reduced administrative overhead and improved school operations.” 

All of this is true, though a little heavy on the “dramatic,” but needs some explanation to put it in context. 

Mr. Ward was hired in the fall of 2003. If he were to achieve such “dramatic” student achievement increases in a year and a half, all on his own and from scratch, he indeed would be supersuperintendent, and worthy of great praise. In the real world, however, jumping student achievement that far from a standing start is virtually impossible to achieve. In fact and instead, the OUSD student accomplishments that became evident in 2005 began during the administration of former Superintendent Dennis Chaconas, and were a result of a districtwide push that began even before Mr. Chaconas’ hiring in 2000. Whatever Mr. Ward did was built on what was already there. 

The reason Mr. Ward was able to recruit and hire more fully credentialed teachers? It was in large part because of the 24 percent teacher pay hike authorized by Mr. Chaconas, the pay hike that, according to the Associated Press in 2003 “put starting teacher pay at $38,000, bringing [Oakland Unified] up to the top third in the state and helping solve a pressing shortage of teachers.” It was also, ironically, the same pay raise that broke the OUSD budget, and put it into state control.  

Mr. Ward’s “dramatic” reduction of administrative overhead described by Ms. Eastin was also built on the foundation laid down by Mr. Chaconas. “Chaconas demonstrated the teeth in his reform plan this summer by firing several Oakland principals and shuffling many more,” the conservative Pacific Research Institute noted in an October 2000 report on Oakland Unified. “He has also reduced staff at the district level, cutting back on the bureaucracy.”  

All of these reform efforts under Mr. Chaconas were what prompted state legislators, in the SB39 state takeover legislation, to write in 2003 that “the Oakland Unified School District has made demonstrable academic improvements over the last years, witnessed by test score improvements, with more fully credentialed teachers in Oakland classrooms, and increased parental and community involvement.” 

Meanwhile, ignoring the good, Ms. Eastin chooses to emphasize the bad that Mr. Ward encountered on entering Oakland. Mr. Ward “discovered, for example,” she writes, “that hundreds of employees had district-issued cell phones with no justifiable need for them. He shut them off.” 

Perhaps. But Ms. Eastin fails to talk about what new and interesting expenditures Mr. Ward has authorized during his three-year tenure with the money he has “saved” us on such unjustifiable things. Earlier this month, we discover that Mr. Ward approved an amendment to the “Protective Services Agreement with the California Highway Patrol, for the latter to provide protective and transportation services for State Administrator.” The cost? $94,000 in overtime costs added to the original $173,308 base pay budgeted to provide Mr. Ward with a personal Highway Patrol driver and bodyguard for the period January 2004 through June 2005. That amendment brought the total cost to the district for the year-and-a-half period to more than a quarter of a million dollars. Is it “justifiable” for Oakland citizens to be paying more than $200,000 a year to have a bodyguard drive Mr. Ward around and sit in the next office while the state administrator works all day? Since Mr. Ward approves the district budget on his own and does not have to explain himself to the Oakland taxpayers who actually pay the bill, we can’t say for sure. 

Similar in the lack of full explanation is the revelation that one day before OUSD access to the $100 million state line of credit ran out, Mr. Ward borrowed the remaining $35 million for what the Oakland Tribune said was “to improve its computer finance program, bankroll moving the administration headquarters to a middle school campus and to create a reserve fund for unexpected costs.” 

According to Ms. Eastin, Mr. Ward “put Oakland’s fiscal house in order.” By putting us $35 million more in debt than when he was appointed by State Superintendent Jack O’Connell? Wasn’t running up a $57 million to $65 million debt the reason Oakland was placed in state receivership in the first place? Either Ms. Eastin has a different definition than I do of “in order” or she applies different standards to Mr. Ward’s activities than she does to Oakland. 

In fact, in her conclusion, Ms. Eastin lectures that “people in Oakland” need to “speak honestly” about why, in her opinion, we needed and continue to need a state administrator rather than local control over the Oakland schools. “The consequences of spending beyond your means needs to be driven home,” she scolds us. 

Myself, I think all of the events surrounding the Oakland school takeover only demonstrates the “Golden Rule” as they used to talk about it in the old comic strip, “The Wizard Of Id.” What was Id’s “Golden Rule?” Whoever has the gold, makes the rules. Oakland, not having control over the gold, in this case, watches the rules and standards change in breathtaking fashion, depending on whose actions are being described.