A Year of Political Turnaround in the Oakland Schools

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday December 28, 2007

If a high school English class were assigned to write a summary of the Oakland Unified School District for 2007, they would probably borrow and paraphrase from the opening lines of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: The year started out as the worst of times, and though by the end of 2007 it wasn’t the best of times, yet, it had certainly gotten decidedly better. 

At the beginning of the year, Oakland Unified was moving towards its fourth full year of state takeover, with little prospect on the horizon for local control. Randolph Ward, the state-appointed OUSD administrator who had run the district like a dictator, was gone, and had been replaced by the more likeable Kimberly Statham, but Statham retained Ward’s dictatorial authority to make decisions for Oakland schools without regard for the opinion of the elected school board.  

The May 2003 state legislation authorizing the state seizure of Oakland’s schools—SB39—allowed the state superintendent—Jack O’Connell—complete authority over the decision about when local control would be returned. O’Connell had already twice ignored the recommendation of the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) that Oakland’s powerless advisory school board should be granted authority over the limited area of community relations and governance.  

And over the objections of the school board, O’Connell was still considering the sale of 8.5 acres of prime East Lake OUSD property, including the district’s administrative headquarters and five education institutions, in order to speed up the payment of the $100 million state loan. O’Connell had dug his heels in in Oakland, and there seemed no way to budge him. 

By the end of the year, however, the state superintendent had signed over community relations and governance authority to the local board, and negotiations were in place to sign memorandums of understanding to return local authority in two more operational areas—personnel management and facilities management.  

O’Connell had also given the go-ahead for the board to hire a superintendent to run its three areas of responsibility, the first locally-hired superintendent the district would have since the state takeover.  

In addition, the newly-hired interim state administrator who replaced Kim Statham—Vince Matthews—was cooperating with the school board in an ambitious board initiative to build a multimillion education complex on the same 8.5-acre OUSD eastlake property that the State Superintendent had only recently been determined to sell.  

By any measure, 2007 was a year of remarkable political turnaround by the Oakland Unified School District. 


Introduction of AB45 

The political events of OUSD in 2007 actually began in the waning days of 2006, following the 2006 general election. On the day he was sworn in after winning the 16th Assembly District seat, Sandré Swanson followed through on a campaign promise to introduce legislation to speed up return to local control of the Oakland Unified School District.  

In its original form, Swanson’s AB45 would have granted control to the OUSD school board in four operational areas—community relations and governance, facilities management, personnel management, and pupil achievement—while leaving fiscal control in the hands of the state superintendent and the state-appointed administrator. 


Death of the Land Sale 

In February, the Daily Planet reported that O’Connell had finally given up his plans to sell the district’s eastlake educational and administrative properties. 

As reported in the paper on Feb. 23: 

In a dramatic but not necessarily unexpected announcement, California Superintendent for Public Instruction Jack O’Connell said on Thursday that the proposed deal to sell more than eight acres of prime downtown Oakland Unified School District land to an east coast development team is dead, killed by overwhelming Oakland opposition. 

In May 2006, the Planet broke the story that O’Connell was close to a deal on the sale of the property. Under the terms of the state takeover, O’Connell had sole authority to complete the sale on behalf of the Oakland school district. 

The Planet reported: 

But led by parents from the five schools slated to be displaced by the sale, opposition in Oakland quickly jelled, leading to a rare show of political unity in which the newly elected mayor, Ron Dellums, the incoming and outgoing assembly representatives, Sandré Swanson and Wilma Chan, the entire Oakland City Council and Peralta Community College District Board of Trustees, and the six of the seven members of the advisory OUSD Board of Trustees all either came out in opposition to the proposed land sale outright, or called for a slowdown in the sale negotiations. 


The AB45 Pressure 

The statewide publicity generated by AB45, coupled with continued calls for restoration of local control by Oakland residents and officeholders, began to take its toll on O’Connell, who had aspirations to run for governor of California in the 2010 election. AB45 passed the Assembly Education Committee and the full Assembly in June on party-line votes—Democrats supporting, Republicans opposing. As the bill moved over to the Senate, the political pressure also moved O’Connell. As reported in the Daily Planet on July 6: 

The president of the School Board for the Oakland Unified School District said late this week that State Superintendent for Public Instruction Jack O’Connell will come to Oakland next Monday to announce his decision to immediately turn over the area of “Community Relations and Governance” from state control to control by the school board. 

“The transition back to local control has started,” board president David Kakishiba said in a telephone interview on Thursday afternoon. 

The state superintendent’s official announcement of the turnover will come just two days before the State Senate Education Committee is scheduled to hold hearings and vote on Assemblymember Sandré Swanson’s AB45 bill.”  


Modifications And Maneuverings 

The successful transition of AB45 through the first stages of the legislative process had forced O’Connell to cede some of his power over OUSD, but in order to keep the AB45 momentum going, Swanson was forced to make concessions himself.  

In order to win the support of powerful Senate President Don Perata—the Oakland Democrat who had written the original SB39 takeover legislation—as well as the possible support of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Swanson made significant modifications to his original bill as it moved over to the Senate side.  

Rather than granting immediate local control in four operational areas, Swanson’s amended bill would now grant local control only upon the recommendation of FCMAT, still taking, however, the granting discretion out of the state superintendent’s hands. 

In that new form, AB45 passed the Senate Education Committee in late August and the full Senate in early September, again on largely partisan votes. 


The Return Of The FCMAT Reviews 

Another Swanson legislative action kept the local control ball rolling. The money originally granted to FCMAT under SB39 to conduct reviews of Oakland Unified had run out, and without those reviews, even the state superintendent had no authority to grant the return to local control.  

Swanson included money for new FCMAT reviews in AB45, and then had that provision switched over to the main state appropriation bill. As a result of those new appropriations, FCMAT began new reviews of Oakland Unified in September and early October of 2007. 


The Death of AB45 

On Oct. 16, the Daily Planet reported what appeared to be devastating news for Oakland citizens seeking an early return to local control of the district schools: 

“In a move that Oakland Unified School Board President David Kakishiba said was ‘not unexpected,’ California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed Assemblymember Sandré Swanson’s AB 45 Oakland school local control bill on Saturday. The veto means that the fate of the future of the Oakland Unified School District remains under current state law, which allows the California school superintendent unlimited discretion as to when local control can be returned.” 

The Planet reported Kakashiba’s bitterness over the governor’s veto, writing that “While some people have been talking about the problems with the local school board, nobody in state government—from the governor’s office to the state superintendent to the Republican members of the legislature—wants to be culpable for what has happened to the Oakland schools under state control,” Kakishiba said. “During five years of state receivership, we have never had a balanced budget, and the executive turnover has been far worse than any other urban district in California during that time.” 

But the Planet also reported that Swanson was considerably more upbeat: “’I believe that the Governor’s action puts more pressure on the Superintendent, as he now must continue the transfer of authorities without the structural guarantees that I was attempting to put in place with AB 45,’ Swanson said in his prepared statement.” 

Swanson, clearly, knew something that others did not. 


The Dam Breaks 

In late November, the Daily Planet reported welcome news in Oakland: 

“State Schools Superintendent Jack O’Connell appears ready to turn over two more areas of control to the Oakland Unified School District on the recommendation of the Fiscal Crisis & Assistance Management Team (FCMAT), a move that could lead directly to the hiring of a new OUSD superintendent under local control. 

“O’Connell’s office has set up a conference in Oakland for Friday morning (today) in which it will “announce the process of returning two additional operational areas to the Oakland Unified School District governing board: Personnel and Facilities. 

“FCMAT, the state funded school intervention organization, issued a report on Wednesday in which it recommended that O’Connell turn over control of those two areas. 

“Following the release of this week’s FCMAT report, and even before O’Connell’s announcement of agreement with the organization’s recommendations, the OUSD board moved quickly to begin the process of employment of a superintendent. At Wednesday’s board meeting, OUSD Board President David Kakishiba said that he was putting an item on the board’s Dec. 8 retreat agenda that will ‘begin the dialogue on how we should go about the superintendent search process.’” 

Under the new arrangement, OUSD will operate for some time under bifurcated management. The state-appointed administrator will operate fiscal and pupil achievement matters. The board-hired superintendent will operate personnel, facilities, and community relations and governance matters, with the state-appointed administrator acting as a trustee in those areas with the power of veto.  

But events in December showed that interim state administrator Vince Matthews is likely to exercise that authority in a far different way than did his two predecessors, recognizing the new political realities in Oakland and the state. 

While O’Connell and the school board were sitting down to negotiate the terms of the turnover of the two new operational areas and the board was beginning its plans for a superintendent search, the Daily Planet reported on a mid-December OUSD administrator-board meeting showing how far the district had come in twelve months: 

“With little fanfare and no dissent, the Oakland Unified School District agreed this week to move forward with the building of a $75.5 million, four-school education complex on 6.5 acres of the district’s East Lake properties. 

“’I believe this project is long overdue,’ interim state administrator Vince Matthews said Wednesday night in approving the proposed operating budget for the complex. 

“Matthews’ decision came shortly after a unanimous advisory vote by the OUSD Board of Education. 

“Under the state takeover of the OUSD, the state administrator has sole authority to approve the project, but Matthews had said earlier that he would not do so until he had heard from the board on the matter.”