Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet

Portrait by John W. Pearson




September 28, 2007

Our friends at The Oakland Tribune newspaper published an editorial this week with the opinion that “Oakland Not Ready For Control Over Schools” and urging, therefore, that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger veto Assemblymember Sandré Swanson’s AB45 bill that might speed up a return to local school control.

The Tribune—as everyone else—is, of course, entitled to its opinion on this and any subject they choose to discuss, but as the explanation in the unsigned opinion piece of rationale for this particular opinion is based upon “facts” that are so fundamentally, fatally, and flat-out dead wrong, it calls into question whether the people who wrote the editorial are even reading, and analyzing, the information being presented on their own news pages.

Oh, glory, this is going to take some sorting-out, so bear with me, brethren.

“Back in 2003,” The Tribune editorial begins, “the picture at the Oakland Unified School District was downright scary. ‘Ghost’ employees were collecting fake substitute teacher paychecks. School district officials were hiding tens of millions of dollars in deficits by cooking the books. Eventually, the gross fiscal mismanagement came to light. With Oakland Unified on the verge of bankruptcy … the state had no choice but to loan the ailing district $100 million … and Oakland Schools were put under state receivership.”

Whether or not it is true that the areas of items listed in the Tribune editorial amounted to “gross fiscal mismanagement” is beside the point—that’s a matter of opinion and this, as we said, is an opinion piece. The point is, however, these were not the elements that precipitated the OUSD fiscal crisis of spring, 2003 and the resultant state takeover. The sequence events that did precipitate the takeover—generally accepted in most quarters except the Tribune editorial room—was 1) OUSD’s student enrollment took a sudden, unpredicted downturn, causing an enormous drop in ADA-based state monies coming into the district, 2) OUSD staff discovered—after it re-ran the numbers on a newly-purchased computer system—that a recently-passed and implemented teacher pay raise, which had seemed to be fiscally sound to all local, county, and state monitoring agencies, was actually going to cost the a significantly larger amount than was projected in the budget, 3) these two fiscal hits meant that OUSD would not have enough cash on hand to meet the final district payroll for the 2002-03 school year, and 4) despite the fact that OUSD’s independent bond attorneys signed off on the district’s internal bailout plan, Alameda County School Superintendent Sheila Jordan and then-California Attorney General Bill Lockyer sabotaged and killed the proposal by the district to loan itself money from construction bonds to meet the payroll, thus forcing the district to ask the state for a fiscal bailout, thus precipitating the state takeover.

Who should be blamed for this series of events—and whether it amounted to accident, mismanagement, or plot to take over the district—has been a matter of debate and discussion since the state takeover. But failure to even list these events as the precipitate cause of the state takeover is the first fatal flaw of the Tribune editorial.

Unfortunately, there are more.

The editorial goes into its main point, that Mr. Schwarzenegger should veto Mr. Swanson’s OUSD local control bill because OUSD officials “have yet to demonstrate that they are capable of handling their finances in a responsible manner.” To back that point, the editorial produces a single line of “proof”: “In fact,” the Tribune editors inform us, “the County Office Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team—a task force that conducts regular audits on the district's performance—has consistently given Oakland Unified poor marks when it comes to its handling of money.”

This is just plain, poor writing, and we don’t mean the nitpicking point that there is no “county” FCMAT office; it’s a state-financed, statewide agency. The flaw in this particular formation is that FCMAT began monitoring OUSD’s finances before the state takeover—FCMAT has the dubious distinction, in fact, of having both approved fiscal soundness of the original OUSD payraise that helped bring down the district’s budget as well as recommended the purchase of the new computer system that allowed the district to discover the fiscal problems with the pay raise. But since the point of including the poor FCMAT marks in the Tribune editorial would seem to be to show that OUSD officials are still unable to manage district finances—and thus unable to take over full management of the district—we have to assume that the editorial’s reference to poor marks on handling district money refer to recent FCMAT reports; that is, reports taken in the past few years, since the state takeover.

Clever local readers of the Tribune editorial have already seen the problems with that assertion, however. Since local OUSD officials—the elected board—have had no hand whatsoever in the running of OUSD finances since the state takeover, the poor FCMAT marks on recent OUSD financial management only show that the state superintendent’s office has not shown it is capable of handling OUSD’s finances. So how can the FCMAT scores prove—or disprove—whether or not local Oakland officials are “ready” to retake control of the district? They cannot. But, of course, that has always been the Lewis Carroll-type lunacy present in the original 2003 state takeover legislation, so the Tribune editors perhaps, can be excused for getting this confused.

Now, the Tribune gets into the heart of its particular problem with Mr. Swanson’s AB45, and why they think Mr. Schwarzenegger should apply his veto pen.

AB45, the editorial explains “aims for a gradual return to local control. It would require State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell to return various aspects of school administration to the district in piecemeal fashion. If schools were to meet certain improvement targets, O'Connell would be bound by law to gradually return local control. The problem with AB 45, is that it would leave control of the district's purse strings in state hands. In our view, it makes no sense to separate the finances from the rest of school administration. How can a local board be in control of community relations, curriculum, personnel, facilities or pupil development, when the state still has the final word over spending?”

How, indeed?

The problem with the Tribune’s position on AB45 is that the difficulties in the piecemeal local control return revealed in their editorial paragraph quoted above did not originate in Mr. Swanson’s AB45, but are actually the creature of the original SB39 legislation by State Senator Don Perata that authorized the state takeover of OUSD. That legislation, and the underlying state law to which it is attached, goes into great detail on what circumstances must be in place for a local district to be taken over by the state, but gets decidedly frizzy and fuzzy when it comes to how the locals are to regain control and authority over their local school system. Mr. Swanson’s bill only seeks to bring some clarity and certainty and semblance of standards to the return-to-local-control process.

In fact, the return to local control in OUSD on the piecemeal basis complained about in the Tribune editorial has already begun, not under AB45, which is not yet law, but under the original SB39 takeover legislation. Under that law, State Superintendent Jack O’Connell earlier this year handed over local control to the OUSD in the area of community relations and governance, leaving the remaining four operational areas listed in SB39, including finances, in state hands.

As a side note, the piecemeal and seemingly arbitrary division of the local district into portions that cannot reasonably be divided—finances, facilities, personnel management, pupil achievement, and local governance—appear so arbitrary because they actually have nothing to do with determining how “ready” a school district is for restoration of local authority, but are the convenient suckholes originally determined by state legislators and FCMAT in determining where FCMAT could set down its tentacles into a local school district in order to draw out as much consultant contract money from those districts as possible. In most cases, FCMAT’s monitoring teams are called into a local school district—Berkeley Unified School District and Oakland Unified School District, to cite the recent local examples—because the local district exhibited fiscal problems. Once there, however, by virtue of the state law that allows its intervention, FCMAT brings in separate monitoring teams to evaluate the local district in each of the five areas listed above—fiscal management, facilities, personnel management, pupil achievement, and local governance—for which the local districts are required, again by state law, to foot the bill.

But back to our main point.

The Tribune editorial concludes that “there is no reason to [return local control to OUSD] hastily. Another year would give local officials a better chance to prove they're ready to take on such responsibility.”

Actually, there is a very good reason why local control should be returned to OUSD soon, although one would have difficulty describing such an event after five years of state control as “hasty.” The reason local control should be returned to OUSD soon, however, is that it is the state superintendent’s office which has proven itself incapable of running a local school district, particularly in the area of fiscal management. In the five years of state control, the two state-appointed administrators—the departed Mr. Ward and Ms. Statham—never submitted a balanced budget. And we have only recently learned from reports by OUSD’s state-run finance department that while projecting a $4.7 million deficit for the coming fiscal year, the district is both overrun with unspent cash and closing down critical and necessary educational programs because of an alleged lack of revenue. Mr. O’Connell has now compounded the problem by hiring—this time on an interim basis—the third administrator in a row who lacks the expertise in fiscal management that is specifically called for in the SB39 takeover legislation.

As OUSD Board President David Kakishiba remarked to me in an interview, a little wryly, if any district under local control had committed such fiscally irresponsible actions, they would be quickly taken over by the state. To their sorrow, as we in Oakland have learned, and to which we will gladly give testimony to any responsible party who will listen.

Respectfully, therefore, we disagree with our friends at the Tribune. Mr. Schwarzenegger should sign AB45, and quickly.