Column: Undercurrents: Keeping Watch Over Oakland’s Schools Was Not for Brown

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday August 18, 2006

When I was coming up, I used to attend Vacation Bible School, and faithfully study my daily passages, and then ask many questions that often seemed to annoy the teacher in charge of the class. 

One such passage was the parable of the responsible shepherd. “If a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray,” Jesus is supposed to have told his disciples, “doth he not leave the 90 and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?” 

“What makes the shepherd in this parable so good,” our Sunday School teacher explained, triumphantly, “is that he cares so much for each of his sheep, he will not abandon even one if that one is in trouble.” 

That was a puzzlement for me. “But what if some wolves attack his flock and kill the rest of the sheep while he’s off looking for the one?” I asked. “Don’t that make him a really bad shepherd?” 

I never got an answer. And I must confess that reading Chip Johnson’s recent San Chronicle column on Aimee Allison, Jerry Brown, and Mr. Brown’s Oakland Military Academy, I still don’t get the point. 

OMI, in case you have forgotten, was one of the two charter schools (the other was the Oakland School For The Arts) Mr. Brown tried to get authorized by the Oakland Unified School District board early in his first term. 

In his August 15 column “Anti-war City Council candidate up in arms over Oakland Military Institute,” Mr. Johnson writes that Ms. Allison, who is in a runoff for Oakland’s Second District City Council seat, “worries that, like other military high schools, the Oakland school will funnel students toward military careers. … As a council member, she would ask that the school’s continued operations be the subject of discussion with the Oakland school board.” Mr. Johnson adds that “the board, you may recall, balked at the idea [of the Oakland military charter school] when Brown proposed it in 1999, for some of the same reasons that Allison opposes it.” 

Actually, that’s not what I recall from the meetings in which the Oakland school board considered Mr. Brown’s military school proposal. Although most of the board trustees expressed uneasiness about the military aspect of the school, their main complaint was that the charter school proposal was all over the map, with city staff members presenting the plan for Mr. Brown unable to decide whether they were organizing an elite, college-prep school for Oakland’s top students, or a no-nonsense academy where students having trouble in other public schools could transfer and learn discipline. Another source of board concern was that the school made the state mandated pupil-teacher ratio by relying heavily on volunteer class supervisors sent over by the California National Guard. That proved a valid concern because the Guard, you may remember, ended up having other concerns than classroom duties a few years later, with the invasion of Iraq. 

Eventually, the deciding vote on the OUSD board against authorizing Mr. Brown’s military school came from one of Mr. Brown’s appointees to the board, Wilda White, a self-described “army brat” who said her father had been a career military man while she was growing up, and who was careful to explain that her opposition to the Oakland Military Institute charter did not reflect an opposition to the military itself, but only perceived flaws in the proposal. 

But misunderstanding the history of the opposition to Mr. Brown’s military charter school is not the main problem with Mr. Johnson’s August 15th column—it is his assertion that the issue of the military school is really one of having more choices in Oakland education. He writes that “Bruce Holaday, the [OMI] superintendent, said [the] military school certainly isn’t for every Oakland student and simply represents another option for Oakland students.” And then Mr. Johnson quotes Mr. Brown as saying that the military school “is a very high-quality, academic environment, and if people want this choice, why can’t they decide for themselves? OMI is a college-prep school that’s grown from zero to 500 kids at the same time the public schools are losing 1,500 students a year, and it’s unconscionable for an Oakland politician to take away an educational opportunity that parents want.” 

But what about the choices for the rest of Oakland’s public school students? 

A year after his election to his first term as Oakland mayor, Mr. Brown convinced Oakland voters to pass Measure D, giving him the power to appoint three additional members to the seven-member Oakland school board (Wilda White, who later voted against Mr. Brown’s military charter school, was one of those appointees). 

In his ballot argument asking for the school board appointment power, Mr. Brown wrote that “Everyone knows that the Oakland public school system is in crisis. … Families by the thousands have fled Oakland because they could not get the kind of education they believe their children deserved. Less than a third of our elementary school students read and solve math problems at grade level. In the higher grades, it is worse. … Vote YES on Measure D and create the mandate for dramatic public school improvement in Oakland. By authorizing the Mayor to appoint three at-large members of the school board, you will inject a new dynamic into the governing of our schools. You will signal that the status quo is unacceptable and that the time for dramatic change has arrived.” 

Voters who approved Mr. Brown’s request understandably believed that he would follow through on his promise for “dramatic public school improvement in Oakland,” expecting that Mr. Brown would spend considerable time and energy in reforming the public school system. 

Instead, Mr. Brown appeared to lose interest in the public school system once Measure D was adopted, focusing instead on trying to get his two charter schools approved. No one knows the amount of staff hours the City Manager’s office put into the approval process, but it was massive. 

The diversion of city staff members to Jerry Brown charter school duty did not end with the approval process. Once the OMI was approved and opened, City Manager’s office employee Simon Bryce moved his offices from City Hall to the OMI headquarters at the Oakland Army Base, working on the city payroll but spending much of his time coordinating OMI activities. Imagine if Mr. Brown’s office had put as much effort trying to help OUSD get out of state receivership? The City of Emeryville did, ending up in an innovative—and perfect legal—transfer of money to Emery Unified that allowed the school district to pay off their state loan. 

But Mr. Bobb and Mr. Bryce were not the only city employees working extensively on Mr. Brown’s private charter school on city time. So was Mr. Brown himself. 

On five separate days in July and August of 2005, for example, Mr. Brown’s official schedule shows entries of between three and five hours of something called, simply, “OSA Phoning with Marianne,” all taking place in the middle of the work week. On July 28th and 29th he is listed as working at this OSA phoning business for two straight days, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Thursday, and again from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Friday. I have no idea who Marianne is or why they needed to take up the bulk of the mayor’s working time, but you are free to make your own guesses. No other single activity took up as much of Mr. Brown’s time during the period of January 2005 through April 2006, the period in which UnderCurrents received copies of the mayor’s schedule. 

Meanwhile, Mr. Brown did list a meeting with OUSD State Administrator Randolph Ward during that period, but the subject of that meeting was not the problems in the Oakland schools, but, rather, “OMI Facility.” 

Could Mr. Brown have helped make “dramatic public school improvement”—as he promised in 2000’s Measure D—if he had put his full attention to solving Oakland’s school problems? It’s impossible to say. 

All we know is that while Mr. Brown was putting much of his time into his two charter schools, Oakland’s public schools were going into state receivership, with children sometimes vainly trying to learn amidst continuing chaos. For most Oakland students, there is no choice. Divorcing himself from the problems he said he was going to solve might make Mr. Brown a clever politician, and perhaps the next California Attorney General. But it also makes him a piss-poor shepherd. 

Thus endeth today’s lesson.