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OUSD Local Control Bill Passes Committee

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday April 27, 2007

Assemblymember Sandré Swanson’s AB 45 Oakland school local control bill overcame its first legislative hurdle this week, passing the Assembly Education Committee on a 7-2 party line vote (Democrats voting aye, Republicans voting no), but in a vastly modified form that drastically changes the terms under which local control would be restored. 

“I am extremely pleased with today’s outcome.” Swanson said in a prepared statement following the vote. “AB 45 provides a structured and orderly process for the return of all administrative and fiscal operations to the Oakland Unified School Board. It is necessary for a pragmatic and sustainable transfer of governance and to ensure that parents can hold their elected School Board accountable for the educational decisions of their children.” 

With state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell announcing his opposition to the bill, several Oakland residents, activists, and officials traveled to Sacramento for Wednesday’s public hearing to voice their support. If they were critical of the changes to Swanson’s bill, none of them voiced it publicly to the committee on Wednesday. 

Oakland’s public schools have been under state control since 2003. Fulfilling a promise made during last year’s election campaign, Swanson introduced his Oakland school local control bill as his first piece of legislation, on the day he was sworn into office. 

On Wednesday, Assemblymember Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley), an Assembly Education Committee and one of several AB 45 co-authors, called the bill “fair and thoughtful,” and said it “sets out a framework for an orderly return to local control.” 

Under Swanson’s original legislation, power would have been immediately transferred from the state superintendent’s office to the Oakland Unified School District Board of Education in four of the five areas of concern being monitored by the state-authorized Fiscal Crisis Assistance Management Team (FCMAT). Those operational areas would have been community relations and governance, facilities management, personnel management, and pupil achievement. The state superintendent’s office would have continued to retain control over the fifth area of operation-fiscal management-under Swanson’s original bill, although some local school activists and officials, including Oakland Education Association President Betty Olsen-Jones during her testimony at Wednesday’s hearing, have said they wanted Swanson’s original bill amended to include return of local fiscal control as well. 

The day before the hearing, however, Swanson introduced an amended version of his bill that took out the immediate return provision, substituting a provision that would return local control in each operational area only upon FCMAT’s recommendation. Under the current law governing the OUSD takeover, the state superintendent has the final say over return to local control, and can ignore FCMAT’s recommendation. In fact, FCMAT has recommended since September of 2005 that local control be restored to the Oakland School Board in the area of community relations and governance, but Superintendent Jack O’Connell has so far failed to do so. Swanson’s amended bill would make that return mandatory, rather than at the State Superintendent’s discretion, following the FCMAT recommendation. 

FCMAT has come under severe criticism at several Oakland school board and community meetings for its oversight activities, and activists who have worked for return to local control questioned Swanson on Wednesday both before and after the hearing about the necessity of keeping the local control decision in FCMAT’s hands. 

Swanson said he would use his oversight authority in the state Legislature to ensure that FCMAT gives a “fair evaluation” to Oakland Unified, and said the amendments adding FCMAT recommendations for restoration of local control were necessary in order to ensure passage and enactment of the bill. 

“I don’t just want to get a bill passed, I want to get it signed by the governor into law,” Swanson said. He said that because AB 45 would set a precedent on how local control is restored to California school districts taken over by the state, staff members of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, especially, were concerned about having some independent authority decide when that local control would take place. 

Swanson told bill supporters that the state legislature was “a tough place,” and said he “wanted to craft a bill that could not be refuted by a simple statement.” 

That was in reference to a statement read into the record at Wednesday’s hearing by California Education Department staffmember Andrea Ball announcing O’Connell’s opposition to the bill. 

While the statement said that ‘the state superintendent would like nothing more than to return the operation of the Oakland school district to local control,” O’Connell said that “although the Oakland USD has made progress in fiscal responsibility and academic achievement, more work needs to be done,” and that he opposed AB 45, in part, because it “would make fundamental change to the role of FCMAT in making recommendations and reports on district progress” and “would set up a new bureaucratic process that would blur lines of responsibility.” 

O’Connell’s statement added that “the state superintendent will not return authority to the board until the district is on sound footing to recovery and the state can be assured that the district can sustain its gains and not be at risk of its authority being returned to state control.” [See excerpts from O’Connell’s full statement in a sidebar to this article.”] 

Following the hearing, Swanson was critical of O’Connell’s actions over the bill. 

“I met with the Superintendent as I was preparing this bill, and asked for his input,” Swanson said. “I even offered to have his office write a bill themselves that gave guidelines and timetables for a return to local control. I got back not one suggestion. Until now, they have remained neutral on the bill. This is the first time they have said that they were in opposition.” 

OUSD Board President David Kakishiba said that “if you take over something that you do not intend to hold permanently, you’ve got to nurture and support a plan for succession of the new leadership. If the State Superintendent had done that, this bill would not have been necessary. We never heard clear expectations and areas of our responsibility and time frames for return to local control from the superintendent’s office.” 

Acknowledging that Swanson “had to make changes” in order to ensure passage, Oakland City Councilmember Jean Quan, who was serving on the Oakland School Board at the time of the takeover, called Swanson’s bill a “smart bill” and told local control supporters “we all have to tell Don Perata that we have to get it through the Senate, as well. We need to send him letters of love and support.” 

That elicited groans from the Oakland activist crowd, many of whom have criticized Perata for the original OUSD takeover. But Quan said that “we need to let him know how we stand on this. He’s a smart politician.” 

AB 45 would also provide money for yearly FCMAT evaluations of the Oakland school district until the full restoration of local control. Under the original takeover legislation, money has run out for FCMAT evaluations, making it currently impossible for the district to officially demonstrate progress. 

In addition, Swanson’s bill would restore pay to school board members as each area of local governance is restored. The original 2003 OUSD takeover legislation stripped school board members of their pay.