California State Superintendent for Public Instruction Jack O’Connell came to Oakland on Monday to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) returning a portion of the Oakland Unified School District back to local control, telling a crowd of reporters, citizens, education activists, and politicians gathered at East Oakland’s Franklin Elementary School that “this is a big day for Oakland Unified. This is a new beginning for us. The district’s future looks brighter than ever before.”
In a news release, the state superintendent added that “this is a crucial first step toward returning the Oakland school district to local control and realizing long-term financial recovery and continuing improvement in student achievement. Substantial and sustainable progress has been made in this particular area and I am pleased to see this first of five objectives successfully met.”
Speaking at the press conference announcing the turnover, Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums said, “My view has always been that we desperately need local control of the public schools. We should put forward every effort to return full local control.”
Board President David Kakishiba called the turnover “clearly a big victory for the people of Oakland. This school board has always wanted an orderly, responsible, timely return of local control. The MOU and today’s actions demonstrate what we have been doing.”
Kakishiba predicted that state audits “will soon affirm that we are ready for full return to local control. I hope that comes by the start of the next school year.” And Assemblymember Sandré Swanson (D-Oakland) said that “schools are supposed to be our greatest example of democracy, and we want to prove that here in Oakland.”
The official turnover by O’Connell of the area of community relations and governance to the OUSD School Board comes just two days before a scheduled hearing before the Senate Education Committee on Swanson’s AB45 legislation that would take discretion for the return to local control out of the state superintendent’s hands entirely.
But while Oakland politicians and education activists expressed satisfaction with the return of one area of school operations to the school board, it was still unclear exactly what this action would mean for day-to-day policy and decision-making at OUSD, and they made pointed statements that this was only the first step in an ultimate goal of return of full local control.
The MOU—signed by O’Connell, his appointed district administrator Kimberly Statham, district School Board President David Kakishiba, and Board of Education Secretary Edgar Rakestraw in front of a lineup of elected officials that included Dellums, Assemblymembers Swanson and Loni Hancock, Oakland City Councilmember and former school board members Jean Quan, and several current school board members—immediately transfers authority over community relations and governance to the Oakland school board as defined by the state-financed Fiscal Crisis Management Assistance Team (FCMAT), reducing the role of state administrator Statham in that area to a trustee with merely “stay and rescind authority” over any board decision that “may adversely impact the financial condition of the district.”
Control over four other areas of school activity, as defined by FCMAT, will remain in the hands of O’Connell and Statham for the foreseeable future. Those include financial management, pupil achievement, facilities management, and personnel management.
Earlier, the school board met in special session at district headquarters to ratify the MOU.
The limited power transfer means that for the first time since the state takeover, Oakland school board members will be managing partners in the operation of the Oakland schools and will receive pay for their duties. The original SB39 law that authorized the state takeover in 2003 stripped the board of full power and pay.
Following his announcement, O’Connell informed reporters that “I’m told that [OUSD] facilities are improving. I’m hopeful that this will be the next area in which we will sign an MOU to turn over control in the near future.”
He refused to give a specific date or timetable for such a return.
On Monday, O’Connell also did not speak directly during his announcement to what authority the school board will now have, and the MOU itself was distinctly vague on the matter. The MOU did not state the board’s new duties and powers directly, only saying that such authority is returned “over the 54 Professional Standards enumerated by FCMAT” in the Community Relations and Governance sections of its report on OUSD.
But the 54 professional standards in the FCMAT OUSD document are not designed as outlines of duties, but are merely FCMAT’s assessments of board activities during the takeover years.
One of those 54 FCMAT “professional standards,” for example, says merely that “Board spokespersons are skilled at public speaking and communication and are knowledgeable about district programs and issues.” Another says that “functional working relations are maintained among board members.” How those spell out the details of return of authority to the board is difficult to determine.
At least one member of the local education community took a broader view of the turnover, saying that O’Connell’s actions appear to mean that the board will now have power over such things as opening or closing charter schools.
Oakland Education Association President Betty Olsen-Jones cited the recent closing of the East Oakland Community High School, which State Administrator Statham did after a majority of the school board members voted to keep the school open.
“Under the new situation, Dr. Statham would not make that decision if it directly went against a board vote,” Olsen-Jones said in an interview following O’Connell’s announcement. “That’s where I see this as being different.”
But Olsen-Jones said that she was “a little bit skeptical” of O’Connell’s actions, saying that “if you went by the rules laid down by FCMAT, community relations and governance would have been returned to local control two years ago when FCMAT recommended it.” Olsen-Jones called the partial restoration “a small step. But not until we get back full control in all areas will the complete deed be done.”
Asked by a reporter why it took two years to return community relations and governance to the Oakland school board after FCMAT’s recommendation, O’Connell said only that the turnover resulted from “ongoing discussions and negotiations” between himself, Statham, and the school board, “some of them difficult. We just recently came to an agreement.”
School board member Greg Hodge, who has been critical of O’Connell’s actions during the takeover, said following the announcement that “two things changed” since FCMAT’s 2005 recommendation that he believes may have led to O’Connell’s belated decision to follow that recommendation. “Sandré Swanson introduced AB45,” Hodge said, “and the land sale got killed.” The “land sale” referred to a tentative deal O’Connell signed last year with an east coast developer to purchase and commercially develop 8.25 acres of central OUSD property, including the district administrative headquarters and five schools. A number of Oakland education activists have charged that the original Oakland school takeover may have been triggered by developer desires to seize that property. O’Connell dropped the land sale following intense opposition from Oakland activists and most Oakland politicians.
Following the announcement, Assemblymember Swanson said that “the community should get a lot of credit for the state superintendent’s actions. They have been pushing very hard for a return to local control.” Swanson said that he will continue to press forward with his AB45 restoration of Oakland local school control bill, which has already passed the Assembly and will be heard this Wednesday morning in the Senate Education Committee.
“My bill focuses on the process of return to local control, and makes that process more transparent,” Swanson said. “I’m pleased that the state superintendent is moving forward now to do it on his own. You can argue about the timing of his announcement, but it’s a good thing that it’s happening.” Swanson said that AB45, however, “will ensure that the process of return to local control in each of FCMAT’s five interest areas takes place in a more timely fashion, and will make it easier to take place in the future.”