Public Comment

Montgomery Wards or Cesar Chavez Learning Center?

By Oakland Councilmember Jean Quan
Monday September 20, 2010 - 04:07:00 PM

When I was elected as school member 20 years ago, the city had not done any major repairs, modernization or expansion in 20 years. Many of schools had not been seismically retrofitted. During my time as school board member, I changed state laws to get more funding for Oakland and other urban districts and I raised local bonds. This allowed us to expand and reduce class sized to 20 in grades K-3, and modernize and retrofit our schools. 

In addition, in the Fruitvale area the school sizes ranged from 1400 at Hawthorne to about 800 at Garfield etc. Immigrant and other poor children in the flatlands were in seriously overcrowded schools and forced to go to school in year round shifts, breaking up their school year and learning. Teachers had to move every 3 months. The average school size then was about just under 400 kids, so this neighborhood was getting the worst and most overcrowded facilities and education. Parents jusifiably thought their children deserved better and they united under Oakland Community Organizations to demand the site for a school. Hundreds of parents and neighbors came to School AND Council meetings. 

When the City took over Wards as a redevelopment site it was a blight and partially demolished. It had been vacant for decades. I was told the retrofit work required to save the building made the only likely use, fairly expensive condos. To try to save the building for part of a school would be too expensive for state bond requirements. That block was one of the few large spaces large enough for a school and playing fields. I was not on the Council at the time but did lobby for the site, we had not built a new school for nearly 25 years. There was discussion of letting a Seattle developer build condos in the old building on half of the block. In the end the Council gave the whole site to the schools and we built two small schools (which helped reduce the size of surrounding schools and stopped year round shifting of students) and the city built large playing and soccer fields...the only ones in that part of the city. 

This was a community choice between saving the Wards Building as condos and for its historical role as a catalog store (it was that role not the architecture that was cited as the reason for preservation) or building schools and fields for an underserved community. Other more affordable housing projects were underway and have built since at the Fruitvale Transit Center and nearby. 

Not every decision we make as public officials is popular. I work to hear as many views as possible and try to weigh what would be best for the city as a whole. This whole issue is many years ago and in a different part of town but I would say judge for yourself, take a drive by the neighborhood or check out the web sites for the schools: