The Rise And Fall Of The Land Scheme That Almost Cost The Oakland Unified School District
FROM THE PAGES OF THE BERKELEY DAILY PLANET NEWSPAPER
BETWEEN A BEAR AND A GORILLA
October 6, 2006
This fall brings an enormous lesson in civics and how to understand the secret and inner workings of our government. Sometimes in the rush surrounding a particular event or action or piece of legislation, details get lost or overlooked, and it is only with the passage of time, and patient digging, that we begin to learn the truth of how a particular government action came to be. Thus it is with our emerging understanding of the actions of the Bush Administration with regard to terrorism both before and after the September 11th attacks.
Thus it is, too, with our emerging understanding of the 2003 takeover of the Oakland Unified School District, which we were reminded of this week by the release of the Fourth OUSD Assessment and Recovery Plan by the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team.
Many members of Oakland’s education community had been looking forward to the FCMAT report, hoping that it would show enough progress in the school district to either allow State Superintendent Jack O’Connell to begin giving back some measure of local control. They were disappointed. While FCMAT said that OUSD was slightly improving–averaging a little over 3/4ths of a point improvement on a 10 point scale in the five operational areas that FCMAT is judging–the improvement was only good enough for FCMAT to recommend returning local control in one area: community relations and governance. While FCMAT can recommend, Mr. O’Connell makes the ultimate decision.
More on the community relations/governance thing in a moment.
We know, now, that back in 2003 when the Perata bill was going through the state legislature, there was a fierce struggle between O’Connell and FCMAT over the “end game” of state control of the Oakland schools—that is, who would have the ultimate say over when Oakland could get its schools back, the State Superintendent or FCMAT. In testimony to the Assembly Education Committee in May of 2003, then-OUSD School Board President Greg Hodge likened it to a fight between a bear and a gorilla, with Oakland school officials only hoping that the district didn’t get smashed in between. Mr. Hodge wasn’t the only one concerned.
At the same hearing at which Mr. Hodge made his bear/gorilla remarks, Fresno Assemblymember Sarah Reyes raised the same question. “I’m trying to figure out the timeline for deciding whether or not you can have your district back,” the Assemblymember said to Mr. Hodge and State Senator Don Perata. “I don’t want a Compton. I don’t think you want a Compton, where [the state] is going to be running you for the rest of your lives.” Reading from the language in Mr. Perata’s bill that outlined how Oakland would eventually get its schools back, Ms. Reyes said, “I don’t know from my perspective if this language is clear and concise enough… As you move this bill forward, you really, Senator, need to narrow that focus. Because we could have a Compton here. I’d like to see that language tightened up to say in two years, if you have a payback plan and FCMAT certifies your payback plan, you can have your district back.”
Ms. Reyes went on to explain the problem with returning local control to the Compton Unified School District, which was taken over by the state in 1993.
“We’re right now trying to struggle to get a bill for [Los Angeles Assemblymember] Dymally. Compton has been okay for a while and [the state is] still there. They’re doing well. They’re in the black.”
A month after the May, 2003 Assembly Education Committee hearing on Oakland, ten years after the state originally took over, local control was restored to Compton Unified.
Meanwhile Ms. Reyes, whose own West Fresno Unified School District had earlier been taken over by the state, explained why she was concerned about the return to local control language in the Oakland takeover bill. “My problem with this language is it’s kind of esoteric,” she said. “If I think you’re doing okay, then you can have your district back. If I don’t think you’re doing okay, you can’t have your district back. There’s no third party analysis.”
Ms. Reyes’ complaint was that the Oakland takeover bill put too much discretion over return to local control in the hands of the State Superintendent. She felt that more authority should be given to FCMAT. “They have the number crunchers,” she explained. “That’s what FCMAT does.”
But is FCMAT an objective body that has set objective standards for Oakland to return to local control of Oakland’s schools? Hardly.
In August of 2003, when reporter Robert Gammon was with the Oakland Tribune (he has since moved over to the East Bay Express), Mr. Gammon wrote an article that charged that rather than helping prevent the takeover of the Oakland schools, FCMAT may have helped to orchestrate it.
“Before the state takeover of Oakland schools, top officials from a Bakersfield agency with power over the district kept in close contact with two high-profile East Bay politicians and the future boss of the city's schools, public records show,” Mr. Gannon wrote in an article entitled “Phone logs link 'politics' to school takeover.” “Critics say office and cell phone records obtained by the Oakland Tribune provide evidence the takeover, and the resulting loss of local control of Oakland's schools, was politically orchestrated,” Mr. Gannon continued. “The records show top officials from the Bakersfield-based County Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) called Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, the office of state Sen. Don Perata, D-Oakland, and then-Compton schools chief Randy Ward at least 40 times each in the months before the takeover. Brown and Perata at differing times in the past year voiced support for the takeover, which took effect in June and placed Ward and FCMAT in charge of the school district. By contrast, FCMAT officials made no calls to the Oakland school leaders they were appointed to advise on how to solve the district's financial problems.”
But what interest could FCMAT have in the state taking over of Oakland’s schools?
Part of it is in the structure and purpose of FCMAT itself. A non-state organization set up by state legislation, one of FCMAT’s major mandates is to intervene in “troubled” California school districts. To do so, it hires teams of consultants, whose salaries are paid for by the intervened districts themselves. Every time FCMAT is called into a new district, these consultants have more work to do. Further, the longer they stay in a district, the longer the consultants continue to get their paychecks. And it is the consultants—who set the standards by which the districts must be judged and then decide, themselves, whether or not the districts have met those standards—who decide when they (the consultants) are no longer needed. Before our conservative friends got so hot on privatizing government, they used to call this a classic conflict of interest.
But these are by no means the only problems with FCMAT’s intervention in Oakland, as well as its system of assessments.
FCMAT gives an overall score—between 0 and 10—in each of five operational areas. It also gives scores for individual areas within those five operational areas (within the area of Financial Management, for example, FCMAT rates 30 individual subtopics or subsets). To decide when it will recommend when Oakland can regain local control in any of the five operational areas, FCMAT has decided that it will do so “when the average score of the subset of standards in a functional area reaches a level of six, and it is considered to be substantial and sustainable, and no individual standard in the subset is below a four.”
Those level numbers and requirement that the individual subsets much reach a certain standard are FCMAT’s own, not SB39’s. The state legislation only reads that one of the requirements for return to local control is that “FCMAT … determines that for at least the immediately previous six months the school district made substantial and sustained progress in implementation of the plans in the major functional area.” FCMAT, which has a financial interest in remaining in Oakland as long as it can, was left to set the “substantial and sustained progress” bar wherever it wanted. There is no objective standard so that legally, under its own rules, FCMAT could string out the state takeover indefinitely. The American colonists once launched a lively rebellion when the British king and Parliament invoked the same type of arbitrary authoritarianism.
Meanwhile, how odd is FCMAT’s fourth progress report on Oakland Unified? In a district which has been completely stripped of local control, where democratic rights are no longer operable, where neither school board members nor the taxpaying public has any say in its operation, and where the State Superintendent has managed to completely ignore the wishes of the community in a major decision (the selling of the downtown OUSD properties, which is opposed all over Oakland), the only area where FCMAT says OUSD is doing well is in Community Relations And Governance. No, that’s more than odd. That, my friends, is perverse.
J. Douglas Allen-Taylor