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O’Connell Kept Oakland Schools Official in the Dark

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Tuesday September 19, 2006

The appearance of State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell in Oakland on Friday morning to announce the selection of a new state administrator for the Oakland Unified School District shows how far OUSD School Board members are being kept out of the loop in the running of Oakland’s schools. 

O’Connell announced the appointment of Kimberly Statham to the post vacated by former administrator Randolph Ward at a press conference held at the new ACORN Woodland/EnCompass school campus on 81st Avenue in East Oakland. Statham, who previously served as OUSD academic chief under Ward, has been serving as interim state administrator since Ward’s departure in August. 

A Friday afternoon press release from the OUSD public information office said the press conference “was attended by Board of Education members Alice Spearman, Kerry Hamill and Gary Yee, Teachers Union President Betty Olson-Jones, Oakland Unified administrators and community leaders.” 

But while representatives of the news media were sent an e-mail announcement of the 11 a.m. Friday press conference on Thursday evening and then a follow-up announcement on Friday morning, members of the School Board said they were not notified of the press conference until shortly before it was scheduled to take place. 

Spearman said she received a call about about 9:30 a.m. and Board President David Kakishiba, who did not attend the press conference, said he only learned of it “about an hour before the event.” Both said they were notified by Statham’s office. 

Following Ward’s resignation, several board members had complained publicly that they were being kept in the dark by O’Connell’s office about who was being considered for Ward’s replacement. 

Meanwhile, in an impromptu question-and-answer session with community members and some press representatives following the formal press conference, O’Connell said that he expected a state administrator to be in place in Oakland “for at least five years,” according to local education activist Henry Hitz. 

“That was something of a shock,” Hitz said. “We have all been expecting that state control would end somewhat sooner.” 

Hitz, who said he managed to make it to the press conference after hearing about it only ten minutes in advance through a board member, said that during a brief discussion with a handful of gatherers following the press conference, O’Connell promised an “open process” in his upcoming decision over the controversial proposed sale of downtown OUSD properties, adding that “the process will be very inclusive.” 

According to Hitz, O’Connell told the group that he had “been in touch with the incoming mayor about the proposed sale.” 

Mayor-elect Ron Dellums, who takes office in January, has not yet taken a public position on the proposed sale. All eight members of the Oakland City Council have gone on record opposing the sale until local control is returned. Both the Oakland School Board and the Peralta Community College District Board of Trustees have passed resolutions opposing the sale. 

OUSD Board members have complained that O’Connell has failed to keep them informed about the ongoing negotiations with the east coast developer team of TerraMark/UrbanAmerica over the proposed sale. 

Hitz, coordinator for the Oakland Parents Together community group and one of the leaders of the Ad Hoc Committee seeking to restore local control to the Oakland public schools, said he and Ad Hoc Committee member Pamela Drake followed O’Connell to his car following the press conference, asking the superintendent questions along the way. 

“I asked him why he didn’t use the opportunity of the appointment to move towards local control,” Hitz said. “He told us that he’d already answered that question. He said that you’ve run up a $100 million debt, and you’ve got to take some responsibility for that. He was kind of huffy about it. I had to remind him that Oakland Unified only ran up a $65 million debt, and that the remaining $35 million was borrowed by the state administrator.” 

Drake added that O’Connell also indicated in his discussion that the final decision of the OUSD property sale would be “up to the Oakland City Council. I’m not sure what he meant by that.” 

While any proposed development of the OUSD property would have to come before the Oakland City Council for approval, the council has no legal say over the actual sale itself. 

Meanwhile, both school board members David Kakishiba and Alice Spearman said they were pleased by Statham’s appointment. 

“My reaction is good,” Kakishiba said. “I’m glad he made that decision. A big part of my concern is that this district needs continuity. We don’t need upheaval in our leadership. This appointment provides a leader from within the district. We expect a collaboration between the board and her.” 

“Her focus is going to far different from Randy Ward’s,” said Spearman.” Ward had to come in and put his foot down and stop a lot of the past practices of the district. He had to take some risks.” 

Under Statham, she said, she expected that the district “is going to do some assessments of what has taken place under the three years of state control. Our enrollment is down 2,000 students again this year, but we are still creating small schools, which means more drain on the budget. We’ve had significant gains in test scores, but we were far below basic to begin with, so that’s just been a move from the sub-basement to the first floor.”  

In his Friday press statement, O’Connell said, “Dr. Statham offers significant expertise and stability to the district, and also brings a collaborative, cooperative spirit to the crucial effort to improve Oakland schools.” 

Hitz was more guarded. 

“I’m withholding judgment on the appointment,” Hitz said. 

He added, however, that he has “been noticing already that there seems to be a more open attitude since her appointment as interim administrator. Two principals and some other employees have been speaking out publicly about problems in the district who wouldn’t normally have spoken out under Ward’s sometimes intimidating regime. So that’s a good thing.”