Public Comment

Jody London, Sankofa Academy and the Mysteries of the Oakland Unified School District, and a BILLION (Yes a Billion!) in Assessment Tax Bond Money from B and now J

By Robert Brokl
Monday October 22, 2012 - 10:48:00 AM

Maybe it was the $7,000 illuminated "monument" sign that did it. Trying to figure out how that appeared like a toxic mushroom on the lawn at Sankofa Academy, with its newly minted McDonald's color scheme of bright red and gold, led down the proverbial rabbit hole, leaving more questions than answers. The quest led to unsatisfying interactions with Dist.1 Oakland School Board member/Board President Jody London (of the thousands of lawn signs), disturbing conclusions about the apparent lack of much state oversight even for a school district just emerging from bankruptcy and state takeoever, and the mystery of how 10.1 million (and counting) can be spent on a "green tier" neighborhood school, as those nearby either close or get all the gold stars. Not to mention the questions about whether to support more money (Measure J and another $475 million) for the Oakland schools when we're not convinced the Measure B funds are being wisely spent or even monitored at Sankofa. And since understanding the Big Picture may only happen after analyzing the little one—Is the Sankofa story emblematic of bigger problems with schools and their funding in general in Oakland? (Sankofa Academy is not even mentioned regarding Measure J in the official Voter Information Pamphlet for the upcoming election, only its former incarnation as "Washington Elementary.") 

By way of background, there has been a school at the corner of 61st and Shattuck for over a hundred years. Archival photos show the handsome old school, repaired after the 1906 earthquake, that was torn down in 1952, when the current building was constructed. Washington Elementary became Sankofa Academy, a K-8 charter school in recent years. Sankofa struggled in the shadow of Peralta Elementary, the beloved, purposely small, elementary school just two blocks east at Alcratraz and Telegraph. As legend has it, Shelia Jordan met fellow parent Jane Brunner there, and history was made. Peralta recently got a presidential award and, if you buy a house around here, your realtor will probably tell you if your house is located in the area that Peralta draws from. 

After the wrenching, bitter closing of nearby Santa Fe Elementary (on the Emeryville border) and and the threatened closures of Emerson in Temescal and Kaiser in the Hills, Sankofa benefitted big-time, including receiving 10.1 milion from measure B and foundation money, resulting in months of construction, with more to come. 

Sankofa opted for the monument sign at a time when citywide policy leans in the other direction—regarding billboards as pollution, and taking them down except the most remunerative illuminated mammoth ones along freeways. The voters pamphlet even argues that Measure J will "reduce light pollution!" So I was intrigued enough to try to find out how the $10.1 million was being spent, and whether there was any process that involved informing or including the community that is providing the revenue. As long-time nearby residents and property owners, it seemed a reasonable position. Just not one the school district or London shared, as it turned out.... 

"Local Control": 

I learned that three different departments at the state level had oversight over school construction—the Dept. of Education, the Office of Public School Construction, and the Office of the State Architect, under General Services. I talked to representatives in all three agencies, and their roles became more clear. Basically, they made sure ADA requirements were followed, building codes for schools were satisfied, etc. and, based upon applications from the school district, allocated money from previously approved state bond measures. These offices did not consider it their mandate to ensure any citizen involvment at the local level—"local control" was the phrase I heard repeatedly. Odd considering the school district was not that long ago in bankruptcy and under a state-approved receivership. Then Mayor, now Governor, Jerry Brown, had even tried to establish control over the School District by packing it with his own appointees, including Paul Cobb and Wilda White. 

City Auditor Courtney Ruby's assistant was quite helpful, and provided information about Measure B. Her take was that any public participation involved going to a monthly meeting at the school district offices of a committee overseeing bond measure B. But of course the committee is appointed by the State Schools Superintendent, so in-house. 

The local plannning and building dept. in the City of Oakland, the Community and Economic Development Agency (CEDA), was not involved because all building permits go through the Office of the State Architect. The CEDA department. concerned with historic buildings, the Oakland Cultural Heritage Survey, was not consulted either, even though the building is over 50 years old (generally required to be considered for National Register status) and the only evaulation of the building was an outdated "windshield survey" from 1986 (two planners driving around in their car making seat-of-their-pants summary judgements). But I've learned the school may qualify as a local "heritage property," with a "C" rating, implying there should be some modicum of review, not just by the school district. 

No traffic studies were conducted, either. Even before the former Santa Fe students now being driven or bused into Sankofa, 61st St. at certain times of day was a nightmare—parents double park and leave cars to drop off and pick up kids. Residents have been known to back out of the garages and plow into cars blocking their driveways. The School Superintendant, Tony Smith, evidently intends that Sankofa and Peralta will both increase to 380 students, so the situation will worsen dramatically. Emergency vehicles like ambulances and fire trucks can't pass at certain times of day even now, even though a parking lot at the easterly edge of the school would serve as a perfect pick-up and drop-off point. (We've since been told traffic issues will be addressed in "Phase 2," June, 2013, but within the last week, the south side of the 61st St. has been vacated by the school district, with new signs forbidding parking during school hours.) 

Opaque/unresponsive school district: 

The large banner on the cyclone fence along Shattuck cites the numerous foundations, as well as the Measure B money, underwriting the renovations. Urban Design Consulting, locally based at 4400 Market, gets top billing. As "design consultants," I assumed they might be the most helpful in terms of answering my questions. The receptionist steered me to Dean "X." He wouldn't answer any of my questions, or even provide his last name, and then hung up on me. My interest was piqued with Dean X's over-reaction, and when I called back to ask the address of the business, the receptionist, in full paranoid panic, asked if I was the one who had just called, and what my name and number was. 

The only persons who would talk to us on site were the project manager and the Principal, Monique F. Brinson. The manager had reasured us several months ago, when we saw work beginning, that the existing wood sash was to be retained. He downplayed the rest of the renovation, saying it consisted of modifications to bathrooms and hall ways. He never mentioned we could check out for ourselves what was being done, or any community meeting or process. The principal met us in the hallway after we popped in over the monument sign. She was dumbfounded we didn't like the "$7000 sign" and shot back that "she owned property, too" when we suggested that as nearby residents we deserved inclusion in the process. The manager later said the principal was responsible for the sign. She also was responsible, according to Councilperson Brunner's office, for spurning their offer of free astroturf for the playground, saying she "had other plans." Her "other plans" also included astroturf, presumably not free. 

When we called Jody London, Dist. 1 school board member/candidate and school district president, she divulged that there had been complaints about the construction. Presumably these were left unresolved or referred to the principal. We asked for a community meeting with neighbors—we've heard nothing back from either her or the superintendent's office, to which we made a similar request. 

A traffic engineer with the City has said that the school district will have the chance to come up with a traffic plan, before the City steps in, but we're not in any communication loop, and not holding our breath. 

"Green tier schools" 

Unresponsive elected officials and careless attitudes toward money aren't especially surprising in Oakland, but finding out about Sankofa's status as a "green tier" school was. I'd always assumed that Sankofa was the Peralta aspirant school, full of students who'd migrate over if slots opened up. (Logically, the different appearances of the two schools should have shown me the difference—Peralta has raised garden beds and murals covering the buldings, with one green banner identifying it from a side street. You don't need to advertise, evidently, when you're a known brand. Sankofa has no murals, no planted raised beds, and the garish McDonald's color scheme noted earlier, plus the monument sign.) 

According to a Dec. 9, 2009 OaklandNorth article, "green tier schools"—Sankofa is featured, and Burkhalter in East Oakland and Howard in Eastmont are also mentioned— "are elementary schools that serve minority populations and...are considered to be doing well academically..." 2011-12 statistics from the Dept. of Education website indicate just how different racially Sankofa is from Peralta. Peralta, with 312 students, has 136 white students, 51 African-American, 45 Hispanic, and 11 Asians. Sankofa, with 212 students, is predominantly African-American—150 African-American students, 6 whites, 20 Hispanic, 7 Asian, 7 Filipino. I mentioned this contrast to the aide of a prominent elected official who is assigned to the schools, and who was familiar with Sankofa, having toured before the renovations. She said that many African-American parents are pulling their kids out of Peralta, "where they don't feel comfortable" and putting them in Sankofa. I had always been told Oakland was the most integrated city in America—why should two schools so close together geographically have such different demographics? 

One billion for the schools! 

The 2006 Measure B parcel tax contributed $435 toward facilities improvements, Measure J on the Nov. ballot asks for another $475 million. In a 6 year period, Oakland property owners will be asked to contribute nearly 1 billion toward capital improvements to local schools. The money cannot be used for teacher salaries or textbooks, nor is the money tied to any performance standards or improvements. Nor, of course, is there any commitment not to close schools at the whim of the school district. The Alameda County Sample Ballot and Voter Information Pamphlet information for Measure J states: " Completion of some projects may be subject to further government approvals by State officials and boards, to local environmental review, and to input from the public." Don't take THAT to the bank. As we've seen with Measure B, local officials and planning staff, not to mention interested members of the public, are excluded from the process. 

Why I won't be sporting a London lawn sign 

Democracy works when elected officials are small "d" democrats—instinctively pushing for openness, transparency, inclusiveness. Clearly, that is not the case with Jody London, indicating that she's got a bright future in Oakland government!