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
April 12, 2000

During the midst of the civil rights struggle, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a book "Where Do We Go From Here, Chaos Or Community?" I always thought it was a better phrase to remember him by than "I Have A Dream," but who am I to say? In any event, it's a good question for Oaklanders to pose when talking about our school system these days.

Mayor Brown ought to be feeling good about his education accomplishments this past year. He carried his weight on the school bond referendum, which might not have passed without his endorsement and fundraising efforts. And if Jerry Brown hadn't raised hell with the school board we probably would still have Carole Quan as superintendent instead of Dennis Chaconas. Quan's heart may have been in the past league, but she was out of her league dealing with Oakland's myriad social and political problems.

Chaconas is not. He has hit the ground running, saying and doing the right things in his first couple of months on the job. Last month, he proposed one system of phonics instruction in all the district's elementary schools, replacing the confusing policy of each school teaching ready in different ways. Earlier, in presenting a plan to answer the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistant Team's devastating audit of the Oakland schools, Chaconas showed he had an understanding as to why Oakland school reforms have failed in the past: "For too long, Oakland has addressed severe systematic problems by rearranging organizational charts, bringing in new, uncoordinated programs, or putting additional mandates on the sites without removing ones that may be ineffective. This has not worked. Before taking any of these steps, we must first address the structures of the district as a whole that negatively impact student achievement. While we need change at the sites and in the classrooms, we must first make sure that the district support structures are in place so that these changes can be successful."

Seems like Chaconas has got a grasp of the problem dead-on, at any rate. He's shown that he's not going to just sit on his behind and draw a paycheck. Now he needs some time to implement his programs. A year, maybe two. Not a moratorium of criticism or spirited debate that Oakland is famous for. But a step back from the sort of toxic and bitterly divisive shouting-at-each-other that's been going on over the past year.

You would think Jerry Brown would be happy to give Dennis Chaconas that time. Politically, Jerry is in the catbird seat. If Chaconas succeeds, Jerry will be able to claim (correctly) that he forced the School Board into choosing a new superintendent and a new direction. If Chaconas fails, Jerry will be able to claim (again correctly) that while Chaconas was not his choice, he gave the Superintendent the space needed to do his job.

But apparently, Jerry's not willing to let the Superintendent run the schools, and one wonders why.

Late last month, in the same School Board meeting where Chaconas unveiled his single phonics plan, Jerry re-introduced his proposals for two new charter high schools: a military academy and a school for the arts.

I am not criticizing the concept of these schools. They may or may not be good for Oakland. In the next couple of months, I'm sure there's going to be enough information presented on both sides for us to make a more intelligent determination.

My criticism is this is another example of what Chaconas called "bringing in new, uncoordinated programs." The military and arts academies are not part of an overall, coordinated plan to improve education in the entire district. In fact, for all his bluster about the schools, if Jerry Brown has a coordinated plan to improve education in the entire district, he hasn't revealed it. I'm sorry, Jerry, but "we've got to do something" does not qualify as a plan. It's not even much of a campaign slogan, even though a majority of the voters bought it.

If the Mayor was paying attention to me...which I doubt he is...I'd tell him to let Chaconas run the schools for now. Give the Superintendent a chance to develop a coordinated program, and see if the academy plans can be woven into it. Maybe not right away, but after some of the other more pressing issues have been addressed. Like building an area high school to relieve the overcrowding in the Castlemont/Fremont districts. In the meanwhile, Jerry can be free to devote his considerable mental resources on some other important tasks. You know. Say, like, running the City of Oakland.