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New Oakland Team Optimistic About istrict's Future

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The leaders of a new management team recruited to reverse the fortunes of the troubled Oakland, Calif., school district maintain that its situation is not as dire as news reports have suggested and say they are optimistic that some of its major problems will be solved quickly.

"The public perception is far worse than the reality, both educationally and in terms of the resources available," said Richard P. Mesa, who began working as the district's superintendent last week, filling a vacancy that had been open for more than a year.

"Sure, we have major problems," he said, "but they're not any worse than in other urban districts."

The district is being closely watched because it was the target of a state law passed last year that allowed Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig to appoint a trustee to oversee its affairs. Some California educators believe the Oakland arrangement could serve as the basis for legislation allowing the state to intervene in other districts.

Coincidentally, Mr. Mesa and the state-appointed trustee, Rudy Gatti, attended college together 40 years ago and, more recently, served as superintendents of adjoining school districts in Santa Clara County, south of Oakland.

Both men said their longstanding relationship would help them avoid friction that might otherwise have seemed inevitable, given the sometimes-tense relations between Oakland and the state government and the threat of a state takeover implicit in the law.

Although Mr. Gatti, who assumed his post in early December, is currently serving in an advisory role, he could assume broad powers if the district does not make needed educational, fiscal, and management reforms.

"Personally," said Mr. Gatti, "I'd rather stay in an advisory capacity, because I believe in local control, and I will, as long as they're doing what they should be."

The first task facing the two men is to gain state approval for the current year's budget.

State and Alameda County education officials had objected to the district's plan to use $10 million raised from "certificates of participation"--bonds backed by the district's facilities--for operating expenses.

In a revised budget submitted late last month, the district earmarked revenue from the certificates for planned capital outlays, rather than operating costs.

Mr. Gatti said he was confident the changes would win state approval of the budget. But he said the state might ask for additional assurances that the district will not commit itself to any major new expenditures.

For example, he said, the district cannot agree to give its employees raises this year without finding new sources of revenue or cutting from other areas of the budget. Oakland's teachers and several other employee groups have been working without a contract since last June.

The district does not plan to use an emergency $10-million loan approved by the legislature in the same law that created the trustee's post, district officials said.

The state-intervention law was passed last year amid continuing allegations of corruption and other wrongdoing by local school officials. (See Education Week, Sept. 13, 1989.)

Ten current and former district employees have been arrested or indicted on charges ranging from theft of school property to misappropriation of funds, and more indictments are expected, school officials said.

The Oakland school board was also perceived to be overly involved in the day-to-day operation of the district--a situation that Mr. Gatti and Mr. Mesa said may have been a natural consequence of the fact that so many top administrative positions were vacant.

Nevertheless, before taking the superintendency, Mr. Mesa negotiated with the school board two unusual provisions for his contract: He will have exclusive authority for one year to hire, fire, and reassign employees, and the board will approve his 1990-91 budget proposal as long as it meets certain pre-set criteria.

The superintendent said he had not yet determined whether board members have actually used their positions to protect favored employees or programs, but said the contract provisions should prevent any perceptions that such interference is occurring during the coming year.

An adviser "told me I would be crazy to take the job without those protections," he said. "I was pleased by the boards' readiness to give them to me."

The district is currently undergoing management and financial audits, the results of which will be used to develop a state-mandated recovery plan.

Mr. Mesa said that he will likely seek to close as many as 10 schools to ensure the future solvency of the district. During the coming year, he said, virtually every aspect of the district's operations will be examined and, if necessary, overhauled.

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