Oakland Schools Face a Rough Road Back to Local Control

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Tuesday March 04, 2008

In December 2007, State Superintendent Jack O’Connell came to Oakland to announce that he was turning over two more areas of control to the state-operated Oakland Unified School District: personnel and facilities management.  

The Daily Planet reported that during his December visit, “O’Connell also announced that once a memorandum of understanding (MOU) is signed between his office and local district officials concerning the power transfer, the OUSD board can begin the selection and hiring of a new school superintendent.” 

Three months later, the MOUs have not been signed, the district has not moved forward with the superintendent hiring process, and the OUSD board president is now throwing cold water on the superintendent hiring plan for the near future. In addition, during O’Connell’s visit to Oakland this month to highlight the superintendent’s disagreement with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s education budget cuts, local board members and teachers union officials were reportedly left out of the visit planning and not notified until the last minute. 

All of this points out the rocky road Oakland Unified is facing coming back from full state seizure in 2002. 

OUSD Board President David Kakishiba, who appeared eager to move forward with the hiring of a new superintendent when announcing the personnel and facilities management turnovers three months ago, now says he is having second thoughts, and believes that the hiring should take place only after all five areas of authority have been returned by the state to the board, including finances and pupil achievement. 

“I’ve had second thoughts since then, and I’m concerned with our ability to attract the best candidates to Oakland given the present uncertainties,” Kakishiba said. “With only three of the five operational areas under local control, there is quite a bit of unknown territory involved in what is to be controlled by the local district and what is to be controlled by the state. We could easily get mired down in disagreement. I think it’s better to wait and have a clean transition.” 

Meanwhile, last Friday O’Connell held a press conference at Prescott Elementary in West Oakland, part of a three-city tour that day to denounce Schwarzenegger’s budget plans. Calling the education budget cuts a “hostile act,” O’Connell said, “This was supposed to be the year of education. I fear this will be the year of education evisceration.” 

But the night before, the events surrounding the O’Connell Oakland visit were themselves being denounced. 

In an e-mail sent to OUSD state administrator Vincent Matthews, OUSD board member Greg Hodge, who represents the district in which the O’Connell visit took place, said that he had only been informed about the press conference the night before, adding, “I am writing this note to express my view about the lack of meaningful notice to myself and other OUSD board members on this important issue. Superintendent O’Connell seems to believe that Oakland schools can serve as a convenient backdrop for press conferences inasmuch as he has used our facilities in the past to make various announcements, most notably the return of local control in at least three content areas, one being public relations. It seems clear from the content of the release that OUSD board members are not invited or included as participants though the event is happening in Oakland. There is a utter lack of respect for our schedules when this type of event is planned. We are not given any real opportunity to participate nor are our constituents—parents, teachers, local union officials and others. I would hope that in the future that the Board would actually be included in authorizing the planning and implementation of significant press events which are held on our school campuses, that we would be included as the hosts and that the State Superintendent would respect the role that, by state law, we are responsible for discharging.” 

In his response, Matthews formally apologized, telling Hodge that he was “correct.” “You should have received prior notice regarding a press conference being held at a school in your district,” Matthews wrote, adding that “we are continually attempting to get better at informing board members of events that are occurring in your districts or incidents that have occurred ... However we still make mistakes and this was one.” 

In a telephone interview, Kakishiba agreed with Hodge’s complaint, saying that “it is completely appropriate to have the board president or board members notified early on to be a participant” in such press events. “Now, more than ever, the Superintendent should be giving the message that he’s giving transitioning authority to the local district. This could have been an oversight. Or it could be construed as sending out a different message.” 

The Hodge notification oversight was apparently not the only one made during O’Connell’s visit, however. Oakland Education Association teachers’ union president Betty Olson-Jones said in a telephone interview that her organization was not informed of the press conference until Thursday night as well.  

In his e-mail to Matthews, Hodge also noted that “it is peculiar that we have not finalized the Memorandum of Understanding for the return of local authority over personnel and facilities, the substance of the last press conference the State Superintendent had on one of our campuses.” 

Kakishiba confirmed that the MOUs were still under negotiation, and he had met with a representative of O’Connell’s staff as late as last Wednesday. Kakishiba could give no details on the negotiations themselves or what might be holding up the agreements. A spokesperson in State Superintendent O’Connell’s office would only say that the MOUs were “still being negotiated.”