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OUSD Trustees Reject Property Sale

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday September 08, 2006

Oakland Unified School District trustees passed a resolution Wednesday calling for a multi-grade education center to replace the high-rise condominium tower development being considered for the district’s downtown administration building site. 

At the same time, trustees defeated a proposal by Trustee Kerry Hamill for a 60-day extension of the negotiations between state Superintendent Jack O’Connell and east coast developers Terra Mark and Urban America over sale of the property. 

Under the Letter of Intent authorizing contract negotiations between O’Connell and the Terra Mark/Urban America group, the two parties have until mid-September to sign a contract before the development group loses their exclusive negotiating rights. However, both O’Connell and representatives of the developers earlier indicated that they would be open to extending the deadline. 

Under the terms of the 2003 state takeover of OUSD, trustees have no legal authority to stop the sale, but can only advise the state superintendent. 

The OUSD votes on the proposal came at the end of the third and final hearing on the proposed sale of 8.25 acres of OUSD Lake Merritt area property, a hearing so packed that latecomers were crowded into the hallway outside the trustee boardroom, and could only hear the proceedings through the open doors. 

The votes followed an emotional speech by Trustee Noel Gallo, who sponsored the education center resolution, in which Gallo alternately disdainfully tossed papers onto the floor, called out State Superintendent O’Connell, and berated district staff members “for basically being the agents of O’Connell. They’re giving us back only what he wants us to give him.” 

Calling the Terra Mark/Urban America proposal “a bad financial deal” that he was “insulted by” from first reading it, Gallo said that “this land belongs to Oakland. We don’t need to beg. I don’t need anybody’s permission to build on it or to tell me what I build on it should look like.” 

Referring to the 2003 state legislation that authorized both the state takeover of the Oakland Unified School District and the sale of district property to help pay off money loaned to the district by the state, Gallo said that “SB39 says you may sell property to help pay off the loan. It doesn’t say that the property has to be on Second Avenue.” 

Following the meeting, Hamill said that the decision over the sale “is out of our hands. It’s now up to Jack O’Connell.” 

Hamill accused fellow board members of “not wanting to make the hard choices. There is no new money to build a new education center on the site. And if we use bond money that is earmarked for other projects, which projects are they going to bump off the list? We’re fooling ourselves.” 

Hamill said that she sent out a survey letter to constituents a year ago, asking them to rate various options to rectify OUSD’s financial problems, from closing schools to firing teachers to selling school property. 

“To a person, they all said to look to the property sale first,” Hamill said. 

Before the vote, OUSD interim state administrator Kimberly Ann Statham said that she was recommending an extension of the contract negotiations to Superintendent O’Connell. 

“The public process has resulted in substantial, productive changes in the proposal and I think further improvements can be made by further negotiations,” Statham said. 

But only trustee Greg Hodge supported Statham’s call and Hamill’s motion for a 60-day continuance. Trustees voted then voted 6-1 to reject the proposed developer contract and to support an educational/administrative center on the property, with only Hamill opposed. 

And though he supported a 60-day extension, Hodge himself took after O’Connell, stating, “I don’t think Jack O’Connell cares about the children of Oakland. He only came here one time during the three year takeover, and that was when he was forced to. That’s criminal. That’s negligent, at the very least.” 

And trustee Alice Spearman also took a swipe at operation of the Oakland schools since the state takeover, saying that “some of the things that have happened in the past two to three years have been just as egregious as what got us into state receivership in the first place.” 

Several trustees criticized the fact that even though Terra Mark and Urban America have modified their plans to include some of the schools on the property, trustees said they have seen no details of those school construction proposals. In addition, trustees said that they know of no available replacement sites within one mile of the downtown properties for any schools displaced by the proposed sale. 

A demographer hired by the district told trustees Wednesday night that she estimated that new home construction in the West Lake/Chinatown area would bring in 1,200 new students to the schools in the area to be affected by the proposed sale. 

During the hearing itself, a parade of citizens spoke against the proposed sale. 

Henry Hitz, one of the leaders of the Ad Hoc Committee seeking to restore local control to the Oakland schools, took a swipe at State Superintendent O’Connell’s reported 2010 gubernatorial ambitions, saying, “If you want to be governor, you need to listen to Oakland. We are saying no to any development of school district property without input from the citizens of Oakland. The road to the governor’s office does not lead through a rebellion in Oakland.” 

Another speaker, Oakland attorney Anne Weilles, said, “I feel like I have been colonized by the state.” 

Calling the proposed property sale “stealing,” Weilles said, “We can stop this sale by any means, including sitting in and stopping the bulldozers when they come.” 

Weilles was part of a group of citizens who were arrested during a sit-in in former state administrator Randolph Ward’s office in 2005, leading directly to O’Connell’s only public visit to Oakland during the state takeover to address citizen concerns about the schools. 

Representatives of Alameda County’s early childhood program spoke, saying that the two child care centers on the property were needed, and relocation would be devastating to the programs. 

John Rose, a 5th-grade teacher at La Escuelita Elementary, one of the schools on the downtown property, spoke in favor of Gallo’s educational center plan for the site. Citing the proximity to the main branch of the library, the Lake Merritt science center, and the museum “all within walking distance for student field trips,” Rose called the downtown site “an ideal location for education.” 

Only one speaker expressed limited support for further contract negotiations. Barry Luboviski, Secretary-Treasurer of the Alameda County Building Trades Council, said that there was “some logic to paying off the loan early.” 

But Luboviski added that “I’ve seen few public construction projects that have gone through a process that has been so stunted. 40 years ago, my predecessor in this position would have said build it at any cost. But that era is gone. Speaking for the building trades unions, there has to be a process that has the light of day, and has the support of both the board and the community. We need to hear more information from the developers.” 

The proposed sale of the property holding the OUSD administration building, three schools, and two early education centers has sparked one of the largest political controversies in recent Oakland memory. 

State Senator Don Perata (D-Oakland), the author of the legislation that authorized the property sale, said that the property sale provisions came at the request of the school board when it passed a resolution in 2003 requesting the state bailout loan. 

But during Wednesday night’s hearing, Board President David Kakashiba said, “We have to stop this myth that the board wanted to sell the property. That’s not what we asked for.” 

Kakashiba added, “If we were serious about settling the debt, we would be doing a survey of all the surplus property in the district to see what could be sold to help our financial situation. Instead, we have only been asked to considered the sale of this particular piece of property.” 

Following the meeting, trustee Dan Siegel cleared up one bit of confusion about how the property sale provisions got into the board request for the state loan in 2003. 

“I talked with [former OUSD Superintendent Dennis] Chaconas,” Siegel said, “and he said that it was put in the board resolution at his request.” 

The 2003 request called for a state trustee rather than the state administrator eventually instituted by SB39. Under a state trustee, the board would have retained much of its power, and the district superintendent would have remained in place. 

Siegel said at the time Chaconas put in the property provisions, Chaconas thought he would continue to be OUSD superintendent even after the loan, and so would have some influence over any potential property sale or lease. 

Chaconas has since said that he was opposed to the sale of the administration building property.