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Published in Print: February 23, 2000, as Jerry Brown's Next Project: Oakland Schools

Jerry Brown's Next Project: Oakland Schools

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Into this gritty city by the San Francisco Bay rode Jerry Brown, past the boarded-up shops and paint-chipped schools, welcomed like a savior by the droves who sent him to City Hall in hopes that they had found their great fixer.

We want you to make our streets safer, they said. We want you to overhaul our schools so our children can learn. We want something we haven't known for decades: to live in a city where good things seem possible.

So faithful were the voters who elected him mayor in a June 1998 landslide that they gave him rare, expanded governing authority over the city's affairs. And on March 7, they will decide whether to give him even more power, this time over the schools.

Since taking office, the flamboyant former California governor and Democratic presidential contender once famous for his soaring, hyper-liberal rhetoric has hit the streets as Mayor Practicality. Mr. Brown booted out the police chief, pressed the embattled superintendent of schools into quitting, and coaxed piles of development money to downtown's iffy streets. He has become a one- man chamber of commerce, boasting that Oakland has more affordable rent, better weather, and an easier commute from anywhere than that boutique of a city across the Bay Bridge.

Mr. Brown is poised to join the growing list of big-city mayors who have gained greater control of their school systems, and if he does, he'll have a full plate. Long regarded as one of the state's most troubled districts, Oakland struggles with a huge population of poor students, abysmal test scores, fiscal mismanagement, lamentable school maintenance, and transient leadership—eight brave souls have tried the superintendent's chair in the past dozen years.

The Crusade

Into that mess ventures Mr. Brown. As mayor, he's been stirring it up, all right, and getting a big civic kiss; in one poll, 82 percent of respondents rated him favorably. But amid the love- fest, questions have emerged. Does he have viable plans, or just appealing ideas? Should we give him even more power than he already has?

"People saw him as a savior. They were impressed by royalty," said Mary V. King, who ran against Mr. Brown for mayor and is a member of the elected body that governs Alameda County, which includes Oakland. "A kind of blind faith took over Oakland, and it was all in Jerry. It's the kind of blind faith that can lead to disappointment."

Mr. Brown, 61, took that faith and transformed himself from the "moonbeam" governor of the 1970s, full of high-flown ideals, into the down-to-earth crusader Oakland wanted. These days, he focuses more on housing and test scores than on berating "amoral" corporations or attacking the military-industrial complex—favorite topics of Mr. Brown's in the 1980s and early '90s when he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination three times.

In his quest to revitalize the city, he makes no apologies for courting deep-pocketed entrepreneurs, saying they've got the capital he needs to breathe life into his moribund downtown. He brags about his idea of establishing a military academy run by the National Guard within the public school system, praising the Guard's "pride and discipline."

Mr. Brown, the first white mayor in 20 years in a city where two-thirds of the residents are members of minorities, had at first proposed to tackle Oakland's entrenched school troubles by appointing a school board to replace the existing, elected board. That system is already in practice in such cities as Boston, Chicago, and Detroit. But mixed with the "strong mayor" authority that voters had given him to hire, fire, and appoint city employees and officials and cast tie-breaking votes in the City Council, his plan last year to appoint the board sparked accusations of a power grab, and he backed off.

Instead, he proposed late last year the creation of what would likely be the nation's first "hybrid" school board, combining elected and appointed members. Even that compromise met with enough resistance in the City Council that the mayor had to use his newly minted tie-breaking powers to get it placed on the March 7 ballot.

If it passes as expected, Measure D will allow Mr. Brown to appoint three additional members to the seven-member board, forming the largest local school board in California. And his influence on the board might not stop there: He is backing four candidates, including his chief of staff, for the four elected seats that are up for re-election March 7 as well.

Mr. Brown's attempt to influence the choice of a superintendent, however, went up in smoke earlier this month. He had urged the school board to postpone the decision until after the March 7 election, a request widely seen as a device to increase the likelihood that Mr. Brown's choice—an assistant city manager—would be chosen by a newly reconfigured board. But in a pointed rebuff, the board ignored Mr. Brown's request and chose Dennis K. Chaconas, the superintendent of the nearby Alameda city schools.

Too Strong?

Some say that a "strong mayor" approach to school governance risks becoming too undemocratic. Bruce Fuller, a professor of education at the University of California, Berkeley, says a strong, effective mayor can be a positive force for change in schools, but must be balanced by mechanisms to ensure that community members still have input. In Chicago, for instance, where the mayor appoints the school board, school-based councils of parents, teachers, and community members also have a voice in decisionmaking.

"Jerry has not moved toward grassroots democracy at the same time that he is centralizing authority," Mr. Fuller said. "That is the worry."

William B. Patterson, a retired city administrator who is active in community affairs in Oakland, said that Mr. Brown initially alienated many community leaders "who worked in the trenches for years" by ignoring them once he got into office. Mr. Brown seems to be tempering that style now in favor of a more sensitive approach, Mr. Patterson said.

Another concern about "strong mayor" governance of schools is rooted in history. Gary A. Orfield, a professor of education and social policy at Harvard University, noted that early 20th-century civic reformers emphasized insulating school boards from political pressure by severing their ties to the mayor and making them autonomous entities.

"We go in cycles of who controls the schools," Mr. Orfield said. "Nowadays, we say those autonomous boards have become the problem and we need to shake them up."

In a recent interview at his huge, gleaming office desk, Mr. Brown dismissed that concern.

"This baffles me: 'Let's not have the mayor have a voice,' " he said. "This cannot come from a logical mind.

"Even the notion of a hybrid board—an idea recently considered in the District of Columbia but put on hold when the consensus for it collapsed—draws mixed reactions.

Ignacio De La Fuente, the president of the Oakland City Council, supports the idea for its potential to bring onto the school board "expertise that might not otherwise be achieved through the election process." Mr. Brown's additional influence would be no cause for concern, he said, because it would be balanced by the ultimate accountability: the power of the voters.

"By the end of his term, either the schools will have improved or they won't have improved," Mr. De La Fuente said. "Then he will have no excuses that the council or the voters didn't give him enough tools to accomplish change. He will be held accountable."

Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based advocacy group for urban school districts, said he feared the mix of an elected and appointed board would risk creating confused lines of loyalty and accountability, with some members answerable to the mayor and some to the voters.

"When it comes to changes in governance, cities make stuff up all the time, but no one has tried this stuff yet," Mr. Casserly said. "It will be interesting to see how it works."

But Gene Zahas, an Oakland businessman who has been a driving force behind winning voter approval for local taxes to support the schools, fears the expansion of the board to 10 members— with no provision for tie-breaking—could produce marathon meetings with little progress.

"The problems we have here in Oakland won't be solved by adding three people to the board," Mr. Zahas said.

Dan Siegel, the president of the school board, acknowledged that Oakland has a long way to go toward significant improvements. But he said the board is making progress. He cited a 15 percent hike in principals' salaries, a planned 21 percent pay increase for teachers over the next three years, a proposal to create a unified facilities department to streamline repairs, and a September 1999 school opening that saw no teacher or principal vacancies—a departure from past years when school officials scrambled to fill scores of positions.

"[Mr. Brown] can say we drag our feet, but I say some improvements take time," Mr. Siegel said.

Mayor Brown said that he hoped to be a "voice for excellence" in education, and that his three appointees—if he gets them—would bring focus to a school board he believes has long been mired in "inertia and obfuscation."

He decried the district's staggering problems, pointing to recent audits that criticized low student test scores, substandard facilities, and fiscal mismanagement that has left the district risking a state takeover.

"This place is a mess," the mayor said.

Decades of Struggle

No one is contesting that Oakland's schools need massive help, and the roots of the problems are deep.

This city of 383,000 knew better days decades ago. Here, at the end of the transcontinental railroad, the port boomed and heavy industry lured African-American migration from the South. A racially diverse middle class flourished. By the 1970s, a powerful black political establishment had replaced the white-dominated power structure, but high technology had also begun to replace old-line industry, leaving fewer workers skilled for the job market and Oakland tumbling onto harder times.

The city still is remarkably integrated—42 percent black, 34 percent white, 17 percent Hispanic, and 16 percent Asian— and possesses a stable middle class. But it also includes painful extremes, with luxurious cliffside homes in the northern hills of the city, and one of the state's largest welfare-dependent populations in the squat cottages and aging Victorian houses of East and West Oakland's "flatlands."

And as the city goes, unfortunately, so go the schools. Among the gently winding hill streets are freshly painted schools with high test scores and impressive family incomes. On the stark streets of the flatlands, drug dealers hang out near graffiti-marked schools where as few as 2.5 percent of the students in a given grade read at the national average, and many aren't even lucky enough to come home to one unemployed parent.

It's part of the "savage inequity" of Oakland schools, said Sheila Quintana, the president of the Oakland Education Association, the local affiliate of the National Education Association.

Aggravating the difficulty has been a stubborn culture of inefficiency and incompetence in the district. The troubles range from the estimated $20 million budget deficit and corruption scandal that put the district under the scrutiny of a state-appointed trustee in 1989 to simple but highly symbolic problems—such as a classroom fire alarm that sounded for days, ignored by district headquarters, until a parent came to fix it.

Fewer than a third of the 54,000 students in the district read or do mathematics at national norms, and that's not even counting the huge and growing chunk of students who are exempt from standardized tests because of their limited English proficiency. In a 1999 survey of 55 cities, conducted by the Educational Testing Service, Oakland parents emerged as the second-most unhappy with their schools, exceeded only by those in Cleveland.

Those struggles are layered on the one side by those of the students themselves and on the other by those of management. A third of the students are limited in English proficiency, and two-thirds qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Examinations of the district have turned up budget shortfalls and possibly inflated attendance, dozens of facilities in dire need of repair, and a disorganized curriculum. ("Calif. Audit Cites Litany of Troubles in Oakland Schools," Feb. 9, 2000.)

'Sound Bites'

Seated by a soaring, arched office window in City Hall during the recent interview, Mr. Brown offered his vision for change. He would add dozens of smaller schools to the 90 overcrowded ones, and create charter schools such as the military academy for top achievers and a performing arts high school. He would support innovative program designs; give principals greater control over their own schools; closely monitor test scores and make sure principals designed plans for academic improvement.

But skeptics say his plan is not enough for a district crying out for profound, systemic improvement.

"Charter schools are a good idea for how many, about 2,000 of our students? What about the other 52,000?" asked Ms. Quintana, the teachers' union president. In interviews, educators around Oakland said Mr. Brown ought to be talking about such measures as extending the school year, providing after-school and preschool programs, recruiting better teachers, and emphasizing smaller classes, especially for the poorest children.

"He's got sound bites, but not a plan," grumbled one school board member.

But in waving off the criticism that his plans aren't comprehensive enough, the former pacifist Mr. Brown assumes a militarist tone.

"I don't accept the word 'comprehensive.' That means you have planners, they write all this stuff up and nothing happens. [General] Patton didn't have a comprehensive plan," said the mayor, smacking his palm on the table. "He had a strategy, and it was highly focused. 'Comprehensive' can just be the rationale for never achieving. ... You've got to make stuff happen."


Coverage of urban education is supported in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

Vol. 19, Issue 24, Pages 1,16-17

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  • Read more information on Oakland mayor Jerry Brown, from the City of Oakland.
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