OUSD Local Control Bill Gains Support

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Tuesday July 17, 2007

Oakland Assemblymember Sandré Swanson modified his AB45 Oakland Unified School District local control bill again last Wednesday, giving back more powers to State Superintendent Jack O’Connell over when state control of the Oakland schools will end and winning, in return, key Republican support and passage in the California State Senate Education Committee. 

In the new version the state superintendent, not FCMAT, will control when local control is restored to the Oakland school board in the area of financial management. Swanson’s modified bill continues to give FCMAT power over when local control will be restored in the Oakland schools in all other areas of district operations.  

The new modification in Swanson’s local control restoration bill was not enough to win the support of O’Connell, however. State deputy superintendent for governmental affairs told committee members Wednesday that “although the bill as amended is better” and “FCMAT (Fiscal Crisis Management Assistance Team) reports are important and critical to the [local restoration] process” and O’Connell “understands the desire for local control and shares that goal,” the superintendent would not support a bill that takes away his discretion in that restoration. “He continues to oppose this bill,” California Education Department staffmember Andrea Ball said. 

But the modification was enough to win crucial 6-1 passage in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday, including—and perhaps, most importantly—the vote of one of the committee’s Republican members, Jeff Denham (Merced, Modesto, Salinas). Significant Republican support in the legislature is needed if AB45 is to overcome a possible veto by Republican California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, but even a small amount of Republican support increases the likelihood of Schwarzenegger signing the bill into law if it passes both houses. 

A second committee Republican, Mark Wyland (San Juan Capistrano, Carlsbad), cast the lone vote against the bill, saying that after “a good discussion” with Swanson, “I thought a lot about it” and preferred to keep authority over restoration in the state superintendent’s hands. 

“There has been tremendous improvement in student achievement [in OUSD], and it’s significant that this happened under the state administrator,” Wyland said. “I don’t want to upset that progress. I’d rather wait until the superintendent agrees it’s time to restore local control.” 

For Swanson’s part, he was upbeat about the passage. 

“Today’s vote represents substantial progress for the return of democracy and accountability to the Oakland Unified School District,” Swanson said in a prepared statement following the Education Committee vote. “I look forward to a successful vote on the Senate floor.”  

Assemblymember Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley), a co-sponsor of the measure, added that AB45 “will put in place important benchmarks for the return of local control to the Oakland Unified School District and set the standards for return of local control for districts that may face the same challenges in the future. I have every confidence in the Oakland Unified Board of Education to take the reins in a responsible manner.” 

But before committee members voted to support the measure, the hearing itself at one point threatened to unravel over the contentious, unresolved issues that continue to simmer in and around Oakland over the state takeover. 

It began during a parade to the microphone of Oakland parents, students, education activists, and officials who had come to Sacramento to support Swanson’s bill, with a seemingly innocent statement by Oakland Education Association teachers union president Betty Olsen-Jones that her organization “supports complete return of local control to the Oakland Unified School District.” 

While Olsen-Jones did not use the term “immediate return” committee chair Jack Scott (D-Pasadena) appeared to take it that way, interrupting Olsen-Jones to lecture her that “this bill is not about a return to full local control” to Oakland Unified, adding that “the reason that Oakland is not in full control now is because the district went bankrupt.” 

Olsen-Jones appeared stunned by the chairperson’s outburst and did not directly reply to it, though several people in the committee room who had come from Oakland said “it wasn’t bankrupt” loud enough for committee members to hear. And taking the podium several minutes later, Susan Harman, a former Oakland charter school principal who frequently clashed with former OUSD state administrator Randy Ward, began her testimony by telling Scott, “we were not bankrupt when the state took over the Oakland schools, but we’re bankrupt now. The district is further in debt under state administration than when it began.” 

Senator Denham then said that he had been in the Senate in 2003 when the OUSD takeover legislation was passed, and voted for it himself. When he asked Harman, “were we duped when we voted for that bill,” Harman answered pointedly, “yes.” 

That brought Scott back into the discussion, appearing disturbed by Harman’s challenge to his version of the school takeover issue, but before Swanson’s carefully crafted compromise could fall apart, the assemblymember smoothed things over by saying “it was clear that we needed assistance from the state in Oakland at the time it was given,” and Scott appeared satisfied and dropped the issue. 

But the state superintendent’s office caught committee heat as well from an unlikely Republican source. 

After Ball expressed O’Connell’s opposition to the bill, Denham told her, “you’ve said that there are gaps in [Oakland Unified’s] performance that prevent the return to local control. What are those gaps?” 

Ball answered that “until FCMAT gives the district a rating of 7 in any operational area, [FCMAT doesn’t] recommend a return to local control,” but when Denham asked her, again, what was keeping those scores from the local control threshold, Ball suggested that he read the FCMAT report. 

That answer appeared to annoy Denham, who told the superintendent’s representative, “you’re here to tell us that the school district is not ready for local control. I just want you to tell us why they are not ready.” 

Ball did not answer. 

A spokesperson for O’Connell later said by telephone that Ball realized following the hearing that she had been in error in saying that FCMAT requires a score of 7 on a scale of 1-10 before a recommendation is made for return to local control. The state superintendent’s public information officer, Hilary McLean, said that the actual score is 6, and comes from the written FCMAT scoring criteria that state standards in a given area “are implemented, monitored, and becoming systematic.” 

There was also a contradiction in Ball’s statement to the committee that was not caught by committee members or Swanson at the time. 

Making the point that AB45 was not necessary because the state superintendent was already moving ahead with a return to local control in several areas, noting last Monday’s return of community relations and governance to control of the Oakland school board, Ball said that “we are expecting a FCMAT report by the end of the year” that will contain “one other area for possible return.”  

O’Connell said on Monday that this area might be facilities management. 

But Ball failed to note that money authorized for FCMAT reports under the original takeover legislation has run out, and one of the provisions of Swanson’s AB45 is to restore that money for periodic FCMAT reports until full local control is restored. Without AB45 or some other form of legislative financial authorizations, there will be no future FCMAT reports, and no way under the SB39 takeover legislation for O’Connell to evaluate how well, or how poorly, the district is operating. 

AB45 now goes to the full Senate for consideration, where it will be floor-managed by State Senate President Don Perata (D-Oakland), who wrote the original SB39 OUSD state takeover legislation in 2003. The bill has already passed the Assembly. 

The Oakland schools have been run under state receivership since complications surrounding a teacher pay raise caused the district to be unable to meet its spring 2003 payroll, forcing the district to ask for a $100 million line of credit from the state. 

Swanson’s original bill would have immediately returned local control to the Oakland schools in four of the five areas that the state-financed FCMAT has been monitoring since 2003—community relations and governance, personnel management, pupil achievement, and facilities management. The fifth FCMAT monitoring area, fiscal management, would have remained under state control under Swanson’s original bill. 

But shortly before the bill was considered in the Assembly Education Committee last April, Swanson modified AB45 after discussions with Schwarzenegger and Perata, among others, convinced him that the bill could not be both passed and signed into law in that form. Under those April modifications, local control would no longer be restored immediately, but would be restored in any one of the five FCMAT monitoring areas upon FCMAT’s recommendation. 

Under the original 2003 state takeover legislation, FCMAT could make the recommendation for restoration of local control, but the State Superintendent retained the ultimate control over whether, and when, that restoration was carried out. 

That provision in the original takeover legislation led to one of the more contentious issues of the takeover, after O’Connell failed to act on a 2005 FCMAT recommendation that local control be restored to the Oakland school board in the area of community relations and governance. O’Connell came to Oakland on Monday of this week to grant that local control restoration in that area, two days before the Senate Education Committee hearing and vote on AB45, and two years after FCMAT made its original recommendation in that area.