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Resignation Shocks Oakland School District

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Tuesday September 18, 2007

The Oakland Unified School District, struggling to regain local control after nearly five years of state receivership, was sent into turmoil at the end of last week with the abrupt and unexpected resignation announcement of State Administrator Kimberly Statham. 

California School Superintendent Jack O’Connell—who has run OUSD since a 2002 budget shortfall triggered the state takeover— immediately named OUSD Chief of Staff Vincent Matthews as Statham’s interim replacement, but that did little to stem the controversy over the rapid turnover in district leadership. 

Matthews’ selection means that all three administrators hired by O’Connell to run the Oakland schools under state receivership have been trained by the Broad Foundation, founded by Los Angeles businessman and philanthropist Eli Broad, who has been put millions of dollars into the training of superintendent candidates in order to promote his foundation’s goal of “dramatically improv[ing] K-12 urban public education through better governance, management, labor relations and competition.” 

In addition, despite the fact that the 2002 state takeover legislation required O’Connell to hire an administrator for OUSD with “recognized expertise in management and finance,” none of the three administrators hired by the state superintendent has had a specific background in finances. 

According to a press statement released by the district, “Before joining the Oakland Unified School District as Chief of Staff, [Vincent] Matthews was an area superintendent for the San Diego Unified School District from 2006 to 2007. He was an educator-in-residence at NewSchools Venture Fund in San Francisco from 2005 to 2006, and served as principal of John Muir Middle School in the San Leandro Unified School District from 2004 to 2005. From 2002 to 2004, Matthews was the California Regional Vice President of Operations for Edison Schools. He previously served as a principal and teacher in several San Francisco Bay Area school districts.” 

“This is the third state administrator hired since the state took over,” School Board President David Kakishiba said in a telephone interview, adding that “because this is an interim appointment, there is the potential of a fourth hire as well. If an elected school board did something like that, we’d be taken over.” 

Kakishiba said that it was “reflective of a growing sentiment in the Oakland community, a sentiment that is shared by the entire school board” that the state “allow the local community to begin the search ourselves” for the new OUSD district leader. The board chair said that the state was not following through on its responsibility to restore fiscal integrity to the district. 

“They may be focusing their efforts in that area but if they are, I am not aware of it, and that is the first order of responsibility under receivership,” Kakishiba said. “They keep telling us that they are concentrating on improving academic achievement, but in a school district, that’s supposed to be a given. It’s like the old Chris Rock routine where a parent is making a big deal about taking care of their children, and Rock says, ‘but you’re supposed to do that.’” 

OUSD has failed to balance its budget in the five years since the state took over, and last month district officials announced a projected $4.7 million deficit for the coming fiscal year, up from the $1.3 million deficit it anticipated only months before. 

In light of the leadership turnover and the district’s fiscal problems, a group of Oakland school parents have already begun circulating a petition calling on O’Connell to allow the OUSD school board to hire a superintendent in place of the state-appointed administrator.  

Oakland Education Association teachers union president Betty Olsen-Jones said that she was preparing a letter to O’Connell calling on the superintendent “to continue the process of returning local control in the area of governance that he began in July by immediately restoring the authority of the Oakland Unified school board to hire the district superintendent.” Olsen-Jones said that OEA was “concerned about the huge instability in district leadership” that has occurred under state receivership, including what she called “the enormous turnover in the district’s central administrative office that has led to an almost complete loss of institutional memory.” Olsen-Jones also said her organization was “concerned that the state is seeing Oakland as a test case to be experimented with.” 

Meanwhile, district officials, parents, and Oakland community residents were waiting for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s decision on whether to sign or veto a bill that they hoped would speed up the return to OUSD local control. Both houses of the state legislature earlier this month passed Assemblymember Sandré Swanson’s AB45 OUSD Local Control Bill, which would take return to local control in various areas of school operations out of the hands of O’Connell and leave it to the discretion of the state-funded school interventionist and assessment organization Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT). 

Kakishiba said he was hoping that when FCMAT completes its next scheduled report in mid-October, “it will conclude that the district has met its necessary threshold of progress under state receivership” and can recommend the return of local control in “one to three areas” by the beginning of next year. 

Statham announced her resignation, effective September 27, in a letter released to the public last Friday. In it, she said that “the Oakland Unified School District has made remarkable strides in the past two years and is on the cusp of even greater accomplishments in which I would love to take part. Determining to leave a district of such outstanding promise at a time when it is poised to reveal its potential was an agonizing decision, but a necessary one for me and my family. I gave my all to OUSD for the past two-and-a-half years and now it's time to lavish my family with the same level of attention and devotion.” 

In a prepared statement, O’Connell said that he had accepted Statham’s resignation “with regret … She is a respected curriculum expert, passionate educator and able administrator who has been completely committed to the mission of providing students in Oakland with desperately needed educational opportunities. [T]he District as a whole, [is] undoubtedly better off for her efforts.” 

Despite O’Connell’s statement, however, rumors immediately circulated throughout the Oakland school community that Statham had been forced out, either from political pressure by the board, or directly by the state superintendent’s office. Kakishiba, however denied that.  

“No, it wasn’t at the request of the board,” he said. “I also heard through the grapevine that she was not pushed out by Sacramento. As far as I know it involved a family matter, and it was her decision.” 

Kakishiba said that he was “supportive of Dr. Statham’s decision,” even though it left the district in a leadership crisis. “I really don’t believe there was anything else she could have done about it,” he said. 

Statham came without her family when she originally arrived at Oakland Unified in 2005, leaving at least one school-age child in Maryland, and sources in the district said she often worked a full week on district business and then flew back on the weekend to be with her family. “It has really been a strain for her,” the source said. 

There were reports, originally printed in the Washington [D.C.] Examiner and reprinted in the San Francisco affiliate of the paper, that Statham has been hired as the chief academic officer of the District of Columbia Public Schools at a salary of $170,000, but those reports could not be verified. The Examiner quoted former Oakland City Manager Robert Bobb, now the president of the Washington, D.C. School Board, as saying that it was “great news that we have someone on board with such a depth of experience” and D.C. Superintendent Deborah Gist calling Statham “a real rock star. She's really, really strong on school turnaround. And that's something we're focused on.” 

Statham was hired as Oakland state administrator in September 2006 to replace Randy Ward, who had served as OUSD state administrator from the time of the state takeover in 2002 until August 2006, when he was hired as superintendent of the San Diego County Unified School District.