One of the things you learn in the business of journalism is that in trying to uncover the real meaning and purpose of a particular public policy, you rarely come across a smoking gun.
The “smoking gun” analogy, for those who don’t know, describes coming into a room so soon after a murder took place that smoke is still coming from the gun held in the murderer’s hands. Next to actually being in the room and seeing the shooting yourself, that’s about as conclusive eye-witness evidence as it gets.
Few things in politics and public policy are so conclusive. Politicians are so gifted at hiding their actions and motives these days that mostly we are only barely able to see them dimly, as through a glass, darkly, as the Apostle Paul once said.
Every so often you get a breakthrough in understanding, so that even if you are not able to reach a conclusion and a complete understanding, you are able to narrow your field of questions. So it was this week when I finally got a chance to see a video of the May 21, 2003 meeting of the California Assembly Appropriations Committee and its deliberations on SB39, the legislation that led to the state takeover of the Oakland Unified School District.
The May 21 Appropriations Committee meeting is important to understanding the proposed sale of 8.25 acres of prime, Lake Merritt area Oakland Unified School District property currently being negotiated between California Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell and the east coast development team of TerraMark/UrbanAmerica. As I wrote in an August 11, 2006 Berkeley Daily Planet article entitled “The Curious History of the OUSD Land Sale As Told in the Legislative Record,” the provision allowing the sale or lease of OUSD property was mysteriously taken in and out of State Senator Don Perata’s bill while it passed through the legislature. But it was in the Assembly Appropriations Committee that the provision was significantly changed, with someone taking out the language that would have allowed a lease of any property to help pay off the state debt, as well as taking out that language that the property must be declared surplus before it could be sold. In addition, the Appropriations Committee took out language that would have authorized the sale “only [for] surplus property that is currently used to house administrative services or used as warehouse space.”
The surplus language may have been taken out to avoid conflict with Section 17387 of the Education Code, which requires community involvement in the sale, lease, or rental of excess school property, including the setting up of a community advisory committee.
And unless you believe in accident or inadvertence, the lease provisions were almost certainly taken out so that the Oakland school district (or, actually the state superintendent, who is legally in charge of the Oakland school district) would only have the option to sell—rather than merely lease—any OUSD property in order to bring down the debt. It also hardly seems accidental that someone took out the provision that limited the property sale to administrative or warehouse property.
The question has always been, who took the lease and surplus property provisions out of SB39 and expanded the scope of the property that could be sold when the bill went to the Assembly Appropriations Committee back in 2003? Asking questions of that individual would be helpful in determining how much the idea of the sale of the Lake Merritt properties was a factor in the Oakland school takeover.
The tape of the May 21, 2003 Appropriations Committee does not reveal who actually put those amendments into Senator Perata’s bill. Sacramento Assemblymember Darrell Steinberg, then Appropriations Committee chair, only said that the bill contained “two minor technical corrections.” These were hardly minor, but it is unclear whether Steinberg knew it at the time, or whether he was simply taking someone else’s word for it. Meanwhile, an Appropriations Committee Clerk said this week that the legislative analyst who worked on SB39 is no longer employed by the committee, and there is no record as to who actually took the lease and surplus language out, as well as the language limiting the sale to administrative and warehouse properties. “It could have been the legislative consultant, or it could have been Mr. Perata himself,” the clerk said.
The administrative and warehouse property limitation language deletion is important, considering the fact that if that language had remained in the bill, State Superintendent O’Connell would not be able to sell the property containing five OUSD schools as is currently happening.
Meanwhile, the review of the tape of the May 21, 2003 Appropriations Committee hearing was not altogether unproductive, because it revealed an interesting comment by State Senator Perata concerning the sale provisions.
“We have included a provision that would allow the Oakland school district to sell specific pieces of non-classroom property for the purposes of buying down or paying down the debt,” Mr. Perata told committee members.
Mr. Perata said this, even though the form of the bill that was then being considered by the committee had been stripped—by someone—of the provision that would have prevented the sale of classrooms.
One is led to one of two conclusions. Either Mr. Perata deliberately misled appropriations committee members in his statement, or he was unaware of things which were being put into and taken out of his own bill. Here, as we said earlier, there is no smoking gun. Only a narrowing of the scope of the questions.
What is clear is that at least some appropriations committee members believed that the bill would limit any possible sale to non-classroom OUSD properties. Committee member Jackie Goldberg, who also served as chair of the Assembly Education Committee, mentioned that belief moments before committee members voted on the bill, and no-one contradicted her.
But what Mr. Perata said immediately following his “non-classroom” assertion is equally probative, as they say in the courtrooms.
“Basically,” he added, “there could be the ability of the district to pick up a third of that hundred million dollars [the amount of the state line of credit included in the bill] in that fashion. And that, frankly, is the only way we’re going to save this district from further troubles with educating the kids.”
Now how, exactly, was Mr. Perata able to put an approximate dollar figure on the possible proceeds of a sale of OUSD property pursuant to his SB39 state takeover bill? SB39, after all, never identified any particular piece of property, it only mentions “property.” Recently, OUSD Board President David Kakishiba has said that the district has several pieces of surplus property around the city, mostly warehouse space, which could be considered for sale to help pay down the debt.
Did Mr. Perata have some particular piece of property to be sold in mind during the time the state takeover bill was going through the state legislature in 2003? Was that piece of property the OUSD administration building, the suddenly-valuable parcel that sits on what will soon be the extension of Lake Merritt?
I can’t answer that. But if anyone else can, I’m welcome to hear from you. Perhaps Mr. Perata’s office can explain.
Finally, there was one other bit of interesting information taken from the review of the May 21, 2003 Assembly Appropriations Committee hearing.
During the discussion, Assemblymember Goldberg remarked that while she was supporting the SB39 bailout of OUSD, she was concerned about the provisions that stripped all power from the district school board. She said that AB1200, the state law under which school district takeovers are authorized in California, was “flawed,” in that it did not make a difference between districts which were clearly guilty of mismanagement (such as having board members use district credit cards for unnecessary trips, Ms. Golberg explained), or, as was the case with Oakland, a district that was simply unable to meet its budget. In the latter case, Ms. Golberg suggested, while the school board ought not to lose all of its powers, AB1200 gave the legislature no choice but to remove them. Ms. Golberg said that she and other legislative leaders were looking into changes to AB1200 to allow the state to make such differences between outright malfeasance and mere economic difficulties.
“If the change is ever made in that policy,” Appropriations Chair Steinberg said, “we can always revisit the question of Oakland.”
It would seem that both a change and a revisiting are long overdue.