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Controversy Continues Over OUSD Hiring of Interim Superintendent

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Tuesday April 15, 2008

A week after the newly empowered Oakland School Board announced that they had made their choice for an interim superintendent, controversy over the move continued to simmer. 

At its April 9 meeting—a day after the signing of a memorandum of understanding with State Superintendent Jack O’Connell giving the board the power to hire a superintendent—the board announced its intention to hire Roberta Mayor, chief management analyst for the Fiscal Crisis and Management Team (FCMAT) monitors that have been overseeing the monitoring of OUSD’s finances during the five years of state control. 

The board is currently in contract negotiations with mayor who, if she takes the one-year interim position, will start employment on July 1. 

The decision was made on a 4-3 closed session vote (David Kakishiba, Alice Spearman, Gary Yee, and Greg Hodge aye, Noel Gallo, Kerry Hamill, and Chris Dobbins, no). 

At the same time, the board is moving forward with a second piece of authority handed over in the O’Connell MOU—the hiring of an independent auditor. That process is expected to begin with deliberations in the district’s audit committee within the next few weeks. 

Part of the controversy revolved around confusion over the manner in which the mayor announcement was made. 

During discussion following a report on state administrator responsibilities, Noel Gallo indicated that an interim superintendent had been hired. After one public speaker—former California Teachers Association Executive Director Ward Roundtree—indicated that the board had announced that there were no reportable actions coming out of the executive session immediately preceding Wednesday’s meeting, board President Kakishiba said that the decision had been made at a special executive session that originally convened on April 4 and was adjourned and reconvened twice in the following days. Kakishiba then went on to make the announcement of Mayor 

The question raised immediate concerns about possible notice violations under California’s Brown Act. But a review of board agendas currently available on the OUSD website shows that the matter was properly noticed and agendized, with the sole item on the April 4 closed session agenda the item of “Superintendent of Schools” listed under “Public Employee Appointment.” 

But with sensitivity over local involvement in a district that has been without local power for five years, whether or not the choice of Mayor was politically proper, rather than merely legally proper, is another matter. 

On the Oakland Public School Parents e-mail list, reaction against the appointment was swift. 

“Why is our school board going directly to the lapdog of the state (FCMAT) to choose an interim superintendent?” wrote North Oakland parent activist Christopher Waters. “This supposedly impartial third-party agency has facilitated the state takeover agenda and timeline for the past five years so that they have been expressly on Jack O’Connell’s terms, and nobody else’s. Was there not some agreement amongst Oaklanders that major reform is needed regarding the autocratic nature of the current structure for state takeovers? Why is our board putting their newly regained authority and trust right back into the hands of the state?” 

And another parent, JG, wrote, “It is a great concern that the school board did not take the time to arrive at a candidate that they could all agree upon. What’s the hurry? Is this an example of more ‘shoot from the hip’ type of decisions that we can expect from the board in the future? This was a wonderful opportunity for the school board to demonstrate to the public that they can be thoughtful about their decisions and take the time that it takes for a decision as important as this. Here we go again!” 

And Oakland Education Association President Betty Olsen-Jones, who called the mayor’s decision “truly dismaying” in a posting to the parents group e-mail list immediately after the decision, had not changed her position a week later. 

“I was disturbed by the way it came out,” Olsen-Jones said in a telephone interview. “The public perception [of hiring someone from FCMAT] is that this is like having the fox guarding the henhouse. I don’t know where they are going to find the quarter of a million dollars and benefits to hire her for one year. Something is going to have to be cut. It all feels very messy. It does not look like something done in an open, transparent process. It’s not what the board needed on its first public relations piece [after winning two more areas of local control].” 

As for Mayor herself, Olsen-Jones said, “all I know about her is seeing her at board meetings when she presented the FCMAT report. I was impressed with the fact that she is a stickler for detail. Her reports came out very hard on the state in the area of fiscal control. She personally may end up being the best person for the job. Who knows?” 

Meanwhile, in separate interviews, two of the board members who voted for the Mayor contract negotiations defended their choice. 

“I think it’s a shrewd move,” District 7 Director Alice Spearman said. “We needed somebody who knew what’s been happening in Oakland since the state takeover.”  

Spearman also said she did not believe Mayor would have allegiance to FCMAT once she comes over to the district, saying that “she’s very loyal to the board.” 

And District 4 Director Gary Yee said the decision to hire an interim superintendent was made, in part, because of the confusion that would have resulted in district operations if they had not. 

Currently, state administrator Vince Matthews runs Oakland Unified, taking orders directly from State Superintendent Jack O’Connell. Had the OUSD Board chosen not to hire an interim superintendent, Matthews would have worked under the direction of the board in the areas of community relations and governance, personnel management, and facilities management—the three areas that have been returned to local control—while continuing to work under O’Connell’s direction in the two areas still under state control—fiscal management and pupil achievement. 

Complicating the matter would be that Matthews would serve as trustee in the three areas under local control, with ultimate state-sanctioned veto power over decisions if, in his opinion, they threatened the fiscal integrity of the district. In effect, Matthews would be in a position of answering to both the state and the local board in three local governance areas. 

“I think that Matthews is an honorable person,” Yee said. “But I think it would be a difficult task—virtually impossible—for him to represent both the state and the local board at the same time. We prefer to have someone who answers only to us.” 

Yee said the decision to hire Mayor was based, in large part, that board members did not want the interim superintendent to spend much of her year in office being brought up to speed on the details and history of Oakland’s financial situation. The lack of senior staff longevity has been a particular problem in Oakland under state control, with most in senior management having only two to three years experience in the district. 

Yee said he hopes that some of the bad feeling over the manner in which the Mayor appointment was announced will be smoothed over in the search for Oakland’s permanent superintendent, which is expected to start in earnest this summer. 

“We want to have a thoughtful community engagement process in this decision,” Yee said. 

Spearman agreed, saying she expects that community members will be invited to sit on the interview team for the permanent superintendent. 

“We want to know, what does the community want in the new superintendent,” Spearman said. “It’s been so long since we’ve had to make a decision like this, we want to make sure that the community is comfortable with the decision we make.”