Contrast Between State Takeovers of Oakland and Vallejo Schools Raises Questions

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday July 20, 2007

With a bill making its way through the state legislature that would take the state superintendent’s discretion out of the return to local control of the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), the granting of limited local control in the nearby Vallejo Unified School District last week raises new questions about how objective the standards are for returning power to a school district once it has been taken over by the state. 

In the most glaring discrepancy between state treatment of the two districts, the state-financed education consultants Fiscal Crisis Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) gave Oakland Unified half the improvement ratings of Vallejo Unified in pupil achievement over a three-year period, even though Oakland Unified’s Annual Progress Indes (API) scores rose twice as much as Vallejo’s in roughly the same period. 

On Friday, State Superintendent Jack O’Connell signed an executive order restoring local control in three areas of Vallejo Unified’s operations—student achievement, personnel and community relations/governance. The district’s state-appointed administrator will now become a trustee, and the district’s board regains the authority to hire a superintendent. For the time being the state retains control of two areas of Vallejo Unified’s operations—finances and facilities management. 

A state-appointed administrator sets district policy and carries it out unilaterally, with the school board acting in an advisory capacity only. A trustee, on the other hand, has only the power to veto board or local superintendent actions that the trustee feels may jeopardize the district’s financial situation. With a trustee in place, the school board resumes the power to set district policy. 

“Clearly, by any measure or standard, you are a school district moving in the right direction,” the Vallejo Times-Herald quoted O’Connell as telling district employees and community residents in the handover ceremony last week in Vallejo. 

Last week, two days before Assemblymember Sandré Swanson’s AB45 Oakland Unified local control bill passed the State Senate Education Committee on a 6-1 vote, O’Connell came to Oakland to transfer local control back to the OUSD board in the area of community relations/governance. But in Oakland’s situation, the remaining four areas of operation will continue in state hands and the state administrator will remain with full powers. 

On Monday, Swanson said that he was “very encouraged” by the Vallejo transfer. 

“Their scores were higher than Oakland’s, and by right those areas of operation should be transferred back to them,” Swanson said by telephone. “We have been pushing for a reliable, transparent process for return to local control in districts taken over by the state, and it appears that the superintendent is responding favorably. I hope that he will respond with like speed in Oakland.” 

And the president of the Oakland Unified School District board, David Kakishiba, said that a part of Vallejo Unified’s more rapid progress than Oakland Unified’s can be traced to greater FCMAT oversight in the Solano County district. 

Kakishiba said that the FCMAT visited and evaluated Vallejo every six months, as opposed to once a year in Oakland. 

“The consistent review, comment and evaluation that Vallejo had probably had some influence over their faster progress,” Kakishiba said by telephone. He put part of the blame for lesser FCMAT oversight in Oakland on the OUSD state administrator. “It’s one thing for the board to take FCMAT seriously, it’s another thing for the district to do so. When FCMAT ran out of money to do evaluations in Oakland, it was the board who went to state legislators and lobbied for that money, not the district administration.  

“FCMAT wouldn’t be coming back to Oakland this fall to do another evaluation and report if it wasn’t for the board lobbying effort. It calls into question how important the FCMAT process is to the district administrator.” 

Even taking into account the differences in FCMAT oversight in the two districts, it is difficult to understand why Vallejo got many of its powers back, while Oakland did not. 

“It brings into question on what basis they are analyzing progress in the different districts,” said Oakland Education Association teachers union president Betty Olsen-Jones. 

A 2004 FCMAT report on the circumstances of the Vallejo takeover listed a situation that sounded remarkably similar to Oakland’s. 

“In summer 2001, a review commissioned by the Solano County Office of Education and conducted by School Services of California, Inc., identified serious weaknesses in the district’s fiscal practices and operations,” the FCMAT report said, “including inadequate systems controls and a need to be aware of a downward trend in enrollment. District and Solano County Office staff attempted to work together to resolve these fiscal concerns, and the Vallejo City USD board began making some difficult decisions in an effort to reduce expenditures and maintain the district’s solvency. Unfortunately, by the summer and fall of 2003, despite the district’s staff reporting that the district would show a balanced budget and the 3 percent reserve, the Solano County Superintendent of Schools disapproved the district’s 2003-04 adopted budget … In mid-September, with the issues still unresolved, the Solano County Superintendent of Schools formally disapproved the district’s fiscal recovery plan and identified steps the district must take to remedy its situation. A fiscal advisor to the district was appointed at that time. Throughout the fall and winter the district again attempted to work with the Solano County Office of Education and the fiscal advisor. A number of additional budget cuts were approved by the board; however, by that time the total annual deficit was projected to be in excess of $20 million, necessitating that the district seek a loan from the state and submit to state takeover provisions as part of the requirements of receiving the loan.” 

When senators discussed Swanson’s AB45 in the Education Committee last week, much was made of the fact that Oakland Unified could not get most of its local powers back because when it was taken over by the state in the summer of 2003 because it was in jeopardy of failing to make its payroll, the state authorized a “loan” of $100 million, the largest school bailout in the history of California. 

The $100 million is a much-misunderstood figure, however. SB39, the 2003 legislation that authorized the OUSD state takeover, did not “loan” the district $100 million, but merely established a $100 million state line of credit for the district. The district immediately borrowed $65 million of that amount, and functioned under that loan. The remaining $35 million was not borrowed until the last days of former state administrator Randy Ward’s suspension after three years of operating the district under state control. In other words, $65 million of Oakland Unified’s $100 million debt was attributable to the district under local control before the takeover. $35 million was attributable to the district while operating solely under state control. 

By contrast, according to the FCMAT reports, Vallejo Unified drew down $50 million of its $60 million state line of credit immediately after the state takeover of the district in 2004, making the actual bailout of Vallejo Unified only $15 million less than the Oakland Unified bailout, if you only take the debt actually incurred as a result of the actions under local control. 

Vallejo Unified’s debt came in a district that is less than half the size of Oakland Unified’s, with a little over 12,000 students taking the state API exam in 2006, compared to close to 29,000 students taking the exam in Oakland in the same year. The major difference between Vallejo Unified’s current situation and Oakland Unified’s is that FCMAT recommended return to local control in three operational areas for Vallejo, but only in one operational area for Oakland. 

Under the state legislation authorizing the state takeovers for the respective districts (SB39 for Oakland, SB1190 for Vallejo), operational control is returned to the district in any of the five operational areas—at the discretion of the state superintendent—after FCMAT “determines that for at least the immediately previous six months the school district made substantial and sustained progress in implementation of the plans in the major functional area.” 

In defining when it will make such a recommendation, FCMAT says in its takeover reports that it will do so when it rates any area a “6” on a scale of 1-10. 

In its various reports, FCMAT has judged that Vallejo Unified has made progress in the five operational areas between its initial findings in 2004 and its current ratings: from 3.35 to 7.82 in community relations and governance, 1.34 to 7.20 in personnel management, 2.39 to 7.61 in pupil achievement, 1.31 to 5.28 in financial management, and 2.46 to 5.80 in facilities management. 

In contrast, FCMAT’s Oakland Unified ratings between September 2003 and September 2006, the date of the last progress report, went from 3.92 to 7.0 in community relations and governance, 2.64 to 5.20 in personnel management, 2.47 to 5.0 in pupil achievement, 0.73 to 4.0 in financial management, and 1.46 to 5.8 in facilities management. 

The difference in judging pupil achievement in the two districts is puzzling. 

Vallejo’s API scores jumped 33 points between the 2003-04 and 2005-06 school years, from 642 to 671. Oakland’s, on the other hand, rose twice as much in the same period, a full 65 points, 592 to 653. Oakland’s API scores rose 33 points in 2004-05 alone, and when O’Connell came to Oakland last week, he praised Oakland as having the largest jump in API scores of any urban school district in the state. Yet FCMAT raised Vallejo’s ratings in pupil achievement more than 5 points during the state takeover, while at the same time giving Oakland only a 2.5 point increase. 

The problem in comparing the Oakland and the Vallejo scores is that there is no statewide standard for FCMAT ratings. The scores are developed on a baseline that is set up by consultants for each individual school district, and a “6” in the Oakland Unified School District rating has no relationship to a “6” in the Vallejo Unified rating. FCMAT, for example, was called in by the Alameda County Superintendent’s office to be the fiscal advisor for the Berkeley Unified School District in 2003 after BUSD ran into fiscal problems, rating BUSD in the same five operational areas that it did Vallejo and Oakland. 

In January of 2005, BUSD Superintendent Michelle Lawrence told the Daily Planet that the scores were not transferable from one district to the next. “Since FCMAT is not evaluating all school districts in the state, there’s not a standard by which we can judge ourselves and take examples,” Lawrence said. “If there is a school district that got a perfect 10 in any of the areas, for example, we’d like to go and look at it so we can go and see what they’re doing that we are not. I asked FCMAT, but they told me they haven’t given out any 10s. So in the absence of statewide standards, we can only use the reports as internal documents by which to measure our own progress.” 

In fact, using FCMAT’s criteria for districts taken over by the state that local control could only be returned if a district achieved a “6” evaluation, Berkeley Unified might have been eligible to lose local control in two operational areas. In its last report on the district in 2005, completing its job as BUSD’s fiscal manager, FCMAT rated Berkeley Unified a 5.65 in personnel management and a 5.70 in financial management.  

Another problem in using FCMAT’s reports as a guideline for suitability for return to local control is that in districts such as Vallejo and Oakland that have been taken over by the state, the reports can only analyze what the state has done in running the districts, not what the districts under local control have accomplished. 

Meanwhile, Oakland attorney and local educational activist Anne Weills said that she thought it was Oakland’s willingness to fight the state takeover that was the difference in Vallejo’s more rapid progress towards local control than Oakland’s. In early 2005, Weills was arrested along with four other activists during a sit-in in the office of then-OUSD state administrator Randolph Ward while demanding that State Superintendent Jack O’Connell come to Oakland to answer questions about the takeover. 

“I think this is punishment for Oakland” by the state superintendent’s office, Weills said. “I think it’s straight-up retaliation. We are the source of the fightback. We’ve fought Jack O’Connell tooth and nail. We resisted the land sale.” 

That was in reference to an attempt by O’Connell to sell 8.25 acres of centrally-located OUSD property, including the district administrative headquarters and five schools. O’Connell abandoned that effort earlier this year in the face of widespread opposition in Oakland. 

By contrast, the state-appointed administrator in Vallejo Unified has sold five parcels of surplus property to help pay down the state debt, including an 18-acre athletic field to a residential developer for $17.6 million. The transaction has reportedly left some 300 Vallejo Little Leaguers without a place to play baseball. 

Weills said that one possible motivation for the state to continue to hold onto control of the Oakland school district is “they don’t want conditions in the district to be exposed to the public,” which she said would happen once the board is able to get in and monitor financial books and other records concerning what has taken place under state control.  

“It’s a disaster,” Weills said. “It would be a huge embarrassment to the state.”