Column: Undercurrents: Oakland School District Land Sale Plans and Local Control

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday March 02, 2007

Given the almost universal community and political opposition inside Oakland to the proposed deal between State Superintendent Jack O’Connell and a group of east coast developers for the sale of the Lake Merritt-area Oakland school properties, it shouldn’t be surprising that there was almost universal relief expressed in Oakland with the announcement last week that the deal had been killed. 

But “almost universal” is not universal, and so we had the editor of the East Bay Express, in grumbling dissent, posting to the Express’ blog the following on February 23 under the headline “Oakland Schools Must Like Servitude And Debt”: 

“Despite years of impotent rhetoric from area educational leaders about the importance of resuming local control of the Oakland schools, the district and the state have shelved what appeared to be the only viable option for making that happen. As Jill Tucker notes in today’s Chronicle, the district and the state have killed a proposed downtown property sale that could have helped pay off the bulk of the district’s $100 million debt. Elimination of this debt is a likely precondition to the state returning control of the public schools to Oakland’s elected school board. A multitude of critics had opposed the property deal for reasons ranging from opposition to development to support of a competing plan to general obstreperousness. But school board member Kerry Hamill got it exactly right when she called the deal’s death a ‘terrible, wasted opportunity.’ For the complete story of how the deal could have bailed out the schools, check out Robert Gammon’s 2006 feature “The Plot To Oust Randy Ward.”  

While one is tempted to treat this as the old-time Arabs used to do (“the dogs bark, but the caravan moves on”), the Express is a powerful corporate voice whose opinions will be read—and believed—far from the Oakland borders. And so, we offer our own opinion on the subject. 

While Mr. Buel is free to reach his own conclusions in any way he sees fit, the facts he alleges in his blog posting don’t fit the facts on the ground, like they say in the military. 

When Mr. Buel says that “elimination of [OUSD’s] debt [to the State of California] is a likely precondition to the state returning control of the public schools to Oakland’s elected school board,” he is flat wrong. Repayment of the state loan as a condition of return to local control is not included in SB39, the state law that authorized the state takeover (all of the conditions of return to local control are set out in Section 5(e) of SB39, which is available on the web, if any of you care to check on this). SB39 only requires that the district come up with and carry out a budget and a plan which calls for the eventual repayment of that loan. 

And, in fact, other California school districts in recent years have been returned to local control after state takeover, while still owing—and paying back—the state loan that triggered the takeover. The West Contra Costa Unified School District was taken over by a state administrator in 1991 because of a state fiscal bailout, but was returned to what we call local control (where a state trustee has veto power over budgetary items, but the local board of trustees sets policy and hires a superintendent to run the school) a year later, with payments on the original debt still due to the state through 2018. 

But this does not mean that repayment of the state loan by Oakland Unified would not be a good thing. The annual debt service on that loan, something like $4 million, is an enormous burden on Oakland Unified’s back, taking money away from needed programs, buildings, equipment, and staff and teacher pay. 

But could the proposed TerraMark/ UrbanAmerica purchase of the OUSD Administration Building and lands and five adjoining schools have “helped pay off the bulk of the district’s $100 million debt,” as Mr. Buel asserts? It’s not likely. 

That’s because the TerraMark/ UrbanAmerica proposed land purchase was one of those “government brie” deals (poor people get government cheese, developers get the bigger stuff) that has given Oakland the name of “Moneytown” in developer circles around the country. And so the $65 million price tag for the 8.25 prime property acres which got thrown around in the local media so much was not actually the guaranteed price that the developers were offering; instead, their proposal always indicated this was the price they would pay if conditions were met by the City of Oakland that allowed the developers to make maximum money off of their development. One of those conditions was selling the developers a portion of 2nd Avenue so they could put one of their high-rise condominiums on it; a second was that the Oakland Planning Commissioner and the Oakland City Council agree to allow the developers the maximum number of floors and individual housing units they were seeking. 

Given the opposition of Mayor Ron Dellums and all eight members of the Oakland City Council to the proposed deal, it is not likely that the developers would have gotten everything that they were asking from the city. That would have dropped the price OUSD was paid in the contract, providing less money to pay back the loan. How much less it would have been, no-one knows. 

The second variable that made the TerraMark/UrbanAmerica such a bad deal was the unknown relocation costs—and district disruption—that it would have mandated. The two day care centers and the one elementary school, La Escuelita, on the 8.25 acre site serve residents in the Chinatown/East Lake area, so they would have had to be relocated somewhere in that area. But OUSD staff have never publicly identified any land parcels in the area large enough to relocate those facilities, and school board members—who had gone on previous school site searches—doubted that any such sites existed. In addition, the two high schools on the site also needed to be located in that immediate area, MetWest because it offers classes at nearby Laney College as part of its curriculum, Dewey because it draws on students from all across the city, and needs to be near a transportation hub. 

In fact, it was opposition from parents and students of these schools—and their supporters—that provided the most vigorous community dissent against the proposed land sale, and probably what sank it. When Mr. Buel says that opposition to the land deal came from people with “reasons ranging from opposition to development to support of a competing plan to general obstreperousness” (and, no, I don’t know what general obstreperousness is off the top of my head and, no, I’m not going to look it up for you), he leaves out one of the most important factors in that opposition. 

Meanwhile, the one person cited in Mr. Buel’s commentary in support of the proposed OUSD land deal—Trustee Kerry Hamill—was not all that enthusiastic about the terms of the TerraMark/UrbanAmerica deal herself while it was still on the table, and recommended that the state superintendent and state administrator continue to negotiate for better terms. What Ms. Hamill was most concerned about—during the three public hearings on the proposed land deal—was that the district not hold onto valuable “administrative” property when it had so many unmet educational needs. And other OUSD trustees wondered why there was so much attention by the state superintendent to the Lake Merritt properties when there were other surplus administrative properties owned by the district that could be sold—with much less controversy—to help pay down the debt. 

Finally, Mr. Buel’s proposition that the land-sale-would-have-substantially-paid-down-the-state-debt-and-the-repayment-of-the-debt-would-have-led-to-return-to-local-control is wrong because, while land and money may have been the ultimately reason for the original state takeover, the situation has since passed far beyond that. Stripped of the ability of Oakland residents to stop it, the Oakland Unified School has become a vast educational experimental ground, where people come from all over the country to try out their various ideas on Oakland children. 

It is one of the key testing grounds for President George Bush’s No Child Left Behind, to see how much public education can be corporatized and privatized and profitized. Under the fog that fell down on Oakland with the loss of local oversight, these folks have established a firm foothold in the school district, and will not now easily give it up. They have powerful friends in high places. 

If Oakland is to regain control of the education of Oakland children, that is where the next battle will have to be fought.