In a dramatic but not necessarily unexpected announcement, California Superintendent for Public Instruction Jack O’Connell said on Thursday that the proposed deal to sell more than eight acres of prime downtown Oakland Unified School District land to an east coast development team is dead, killed by overwhelming Oakland opposition.
The proposed sale property included the district’s Paul Robeson Building administrative headquarters as well as five education institutions, including Dewey and MetWest high schools and La Escuelita Elementary and two child care centers, all of which sit near the soon-to-be-renovated Lake Merritt Channel. The developers had proposed putting up luxury high-rise condominium towers in their place.
“Ultimately, Oakland community members made very clear that this project is not in line with their vision for their community, and I respect that point of view,” O’Connell said in a press release. “As a result, I have decided to end the discussion over the sale of this property.”
O’Connell’s release said that the decision was made “by mutual agreement” between himself, the OUSD State Administrator, Kimberly aStatham, and the proposed buyers of the property, TerraMark/Urban America.
Statham alerted OUSD Board President David Kakishiba about the decision on Wednesday night, and made the announcement herself on Thursday morning at a speech to the Oakland Chamber of Commerce.
While the decision does not completely kill any chance that the OUSD properties will be sold off by the state, O’Connell’s press information officer said by telephone that “there is no consideration at this time to sell the property.”
Authority allowing the state superintendent to sell OUSD land came in the State Senator Don Perata-authored legislation in 2003 that also authorized the state takeover of the Oakland public schools.
In May 2006, the Planet broke the story that O’Connell was close to a deal on the sale of the property. Under the terms of the state takeover, O’Connell had sole authority to complete the sale on behalf of the Oakland school district.
But led by parents from the five schools slated to be displaced by the sale, opposition in Oakland quickly jelled, leading to a rare show of political unity in which the newly-elected mayor, Ron Dellums, the incoming and outgoing assembly representatives, Sandré Swanson and Wilma Chan, the entire Oakland City Council and Peralta Community College District Board of Trustees, and the six of the seven members of the advisory OUSD Board of Trustees all either came out in opposition to the proposed land sale outright, or called for a slowdown in the sale negotiations.
Last fall, Oakland trustees voted to recommend that instead of selling the property, a multi-grade educational center and new administration complex be built to replace the current five schools and aging administration building.
OUSD Board President David Kakishiba says now that the TerraMark/Urban America deal is off the table, “it should clear the way toward building the new multi-school campus.”
Kakishiba said that work to build community support for the educational center has been ongoing since trustees held public hearings on the proposed land sale last fall, and a March 1, 6:30 p.m. meeting with parents, community representatives, and local political leaders has been set for the Laney College Forum to discuss the education center proposal in detail.
Kakishiba said that the decision to move forward with a community effort to support the education center proposal began in part with the Oakland Community Organizations (OCO) faith-based coalition, which Kakishiba said has “close ties” with MetWest High School “and wanted to conduct a listening campaign in the community to see what they wanted for the downtown land in place of the sale.”
Kakishiba said that at the same time, he was meeting with parents of La Escuelita students following the public hearings on the land sale, telling them that “I’ve gone as far as I can on this issue as a board member, and if you want to save the school on this site, you are going to have to organize.” Kakishiba said to assist the organizing effort, he brought in the East Bay Asian Youth Center, where he works. The effort has also involved the school district’s Office of Community Accountability, which participated in the community survey and is helping to coordinate the March 1 Laney Forum meeting.
Meanwhile, reaction to the decision to kill the TerraMark/Urban America deal was universally positive among Oakland political leaders who had been active in the fight against the land sale.
Oakland attorney Dan Siegel, who served on the Oakland school board during the state takeover and chose not to run for re-election in last November’s election, said that “I’m glad [the sale] is not going forward. It was a terrible proposal that would have tied up the district’s land and resources.”
Siegel credited the change in two political offices from last year to this—the 16th District Assembly seat from Wilma Chan to Sandré Swanson and the Oakland Mayor’s office from Jerry Brown to Ron Dellums—to helping kill the land deal.
That was similar to comments by board member Greg Hodge, who credited the reversal on the sale “as a result of a lot of community pressure from political office-holders and the public, and just plain old good sense that led Jack O’Connell to actually make a good decision on this. Do I think [O’Connell’s] intentions were good? No. But I think it’s good for Oakland.”
Both Siegel and Hodge said that they hoped that the land sale decision would help speed up the return to local control of the Oakland public schools.
“One of the reasons many of us believed O’Connell was maintaining his authority over the Oakland schools was so that he could complete this land deal,” Siegel said, adding that O’Connell may be less enthusiastic on holding control over the Oakland schools now that the land deal is off the table.
In a prepared statement, Assemblymember Swanson said, “I appreciate the Superintendent’s response to the Oakland community’s concern about the potential land sale of Oakland Unified School District property. I appreciate his acknowledgement of the importance of citizen participation in these very important decisions and the role that parents, teachers, and students play in developing a school environment where learning is in fact our top priority. I support the superintendent’s three goals [stated in O’Connell’s press statement announcing the end of the deal] of improving student achievement, developing sound financial systems for our district, and returning the district to local control as soon as possible. In that regard, I am moving forward with my legislation, AB45, which will begin an orderly transfer of educational responsibilities to the Oakland School Board in January of 2008.”
Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums was out of town on Thursday and unavailable for comment.
A spokesperson in the office of State Senator Don Perata said, “The Senator did not make any statement when the initial land sale deal was proposed, and we probably won’t make any statement now.”