A Bay Area Journalist's First-Hand Account Of How Mayor Jerry Brown Screwed Over Oakland On His Way To Sacramento



J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Oakland Unwrapped Column
UrbanView Newspaper
February 16, 2000

You've got to feel sorry for Oakland School Board members these days.

Sometimes they seem like a high school basketball team, 10 points down with time running out, dribbling the ball down the court with everybody screaming at them: "Shoot the ball!" "Set a pick!" "Not there, dummy!" And worst of all, a couple of the spectators are on the sidelines shouting, "No! No! Pass it to ME!"

No wonder school board members sometimes seem a little confused. After all, like it or not, they are the ones who were elected to set school policy.

Last year, Mayor Jerry Brown and State Senator Don Perata forced the resignation of School Superintendent Carole Quan, with Perata at one point threatening to sponsor a bill that would allow Brown to take over the school system if Quan didn't leave.

"I would prefer that the school board manage its own problems," Perata said at the time, "but I will introduce [the] legislation...if that doesn't happen."

So Quan got dumped, an interim superintendent was appointed, and the school board tried to "manage its own problems" by selecting a new School Superintendent. Presumably, that should have made Brown and Perata pleased that the board was doing its job. Instead, when the board announced a couple of weeks ago that it was close to making a choice, Brown and Perata were incensed. Calling the hiring of a new superintendent an "ill-advised and precipitous action," Brown and Perata expressed "strong opposition to taking any action to appoint yet another superintendent before the March 7 elections."

The March 7 elections, by the way, are the ones in which Brown hopes voters will approve his plan to appoint three extra members to the school board.

So Brown and Perata wanted the school board to slow everything down, until the election. Right?

Wrong. The day after the "strong opposition to appointing a superintendent" statement was issued the infamous state audit of the Oakland schools was released, giving a dismal report on our education system, and there were the Mayor and the Senator at a press conference, shouting at the school board to do something! "These changes need to happen today," Perata railed. "No more committees, no more meetings, no more reports. Now."

If the school board can't quite figure out what Brown and Perata actually want, it's understandable.

I think it's fortunate that the school board resisted Brown and Perata's pressure and hired Alameda city school superintendent Dennis Chaconas as Oakland superintendent. I don't know if Chaconas will do good or bad in the job--only time will tell. But it's the board's decision, and I'd rather have them making it than anyone else. The alternative--having the school policy basketball bouncing between the offices of the Mayor, the State Senator, and City Manager Robert Bobb--is a strategy of chaos. And haven't we had enough of that?

Even when the school board seems to be doing an excellent job--balancing between the many varied interests of Oakland while trying to make improvements in the schools--they get criticized by Brown's allies.

Last month, City Manager Bobb wrote in an op-ed column in The Tribune: "Just this week, the [school] board could not bring itself to endorse a performing arts academy or a math and science school. ...[T]he board simply could not make up its collective mind about something obviously good for the students of Oakland."

A history lesson is needed.

In an effort in part to "relieve overcrowding in Oakland’s neighborhood schools," the school board placed a $303 million bond referendum on the March 7 ballot. Part of the money was designed to build a new high school between severely overcrowded Fremont and Castlemont.

But at the school board meeting to decide excactly how the proposed bond money should be spent (the meeting Bobb was writing about), Interim School Superintendent George Musgrove suggested that instead of building the Fremont/Castlemont overflow school, the high school money should be spent to build a performing arts and a math and science academy. Brown and Bobb spoke up for the idea. After they were finished, a string of citizens got up blasting the academy plan and calling on the board to hold to its original idea of building the overflow high school. While the academy plan may have been "obviously good" to Bobb, it was "obviously bad" to many others. Rushing a decision just to please the Mayor and City Manager would have been a mistake.

Bobb's criticisms are revealing as to how the school board might operate if the Mayor gains control of the schools. Would a Brown school board simply ignore public input?

Just as bad about a possible Brown takeover of the schools is that the Mayor has not yet demonstrated that he fully understands the problems in the Oakland schools, and has a plan to correct them.

When I met with Brown a few weeks back he was promoting his "small schools" plan, saying that schools with large student populations are inherently bad. He cited 2,500 student Fremont High as an example.

Well, Mayor, I said, when I graduated from Castlemont in 1965 we had 3,000 students, and I think they provided us with a pretty good education. Why do you think that Oakland could provide a good education in large schools in 1965, but can't provide a good education in large schools in 2000?

The Mayor thought a minute and then said, "Good question."

May have been. But it certainly was a scary answer from someone who wants to run our schools.