Education

Veteran Administrator Tapped for Oakland

By Joetta L. Sack & Robert C. Johnston — June 11, 2003 3 min read
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California’s state schools superintendent named an administrator last week to oversee the troubled Oakland Unified School District—the same administrator who turned around another sinking district in the state.

Randolph E. Ward, who is credited most recently with turning around the Compton Unified School District, will now turn his attention to the 48,000- student Oakland district, which was taken over by the state after the city school board requested the biggest bailout in the history of the state’s education budgets.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell announced the appointment last week.

On the same day, he also announced that the 32,000-student Compton district, which was placed under state control in 1993 after declaring fiscal and academic bankruptcy, would revert to full local control because it has significantly improved its test scores and finances.

The California legislature approved a $100 million loan for the Oakland district last month. The school system had already been declared insolvent because of its budget crisis and crippling debts. In return, the district’s leaders agreed to give up most control. Gov. Davis signed the bill June 2.

Mr. O’Connell said that Mr. Ward’s previous experience and successes made him the ideal candidate for the job.

“I am confident we have found the perfect person to fill this critical role,” Mr. O’Connell said in a statement. Mr. Ward “will strike the appropriate balance between maintaining student achievement and ensuring the districts’ financial ship is righted and the taxpayers of California are repaid,” the state chief said.

Mr. Ward began his work as the state-appointed chief administrator of the Compton Schools in 1996.

Concerns About Small Schools

Some community groups, though, are openly concerned about the state takeover, in spite of the district’s problems.

Sandra Frost, who co-chairs Oakland Community Organizations, a coalition of parent- and family-based groups, said her advocacy group was preparing an agenda to discuss with Mr. Ward. In particular, the group wants to protect the small, autonomous schools that have been created in Oakland through a 3-year-old improvement plan. (“Small-Schools Backers Wary of Oakland Shifts,” June 4, 2003.)

“We’re making good progress,” Ms. Frost said last week. “We don’t want to lose those schools and that progress be eliminated.”

Some local school leaders are anxious to hear what Mr. Ward plans for the district.

One of them, Hae-Sin Kim, the principal of the K-8 ASCEND school, said she and many colleagues were upset that Mr. O’Connell had not visited the Oakland district or consulted school leaders about his decision, but, with little notice, chose to use one elementary school as the backdrop for his announcement.

“It seems so unauthentic and offensive,” Ms. Kim said.

Mr. Ward’s first task as the district’s administrator will be to work with the state’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, an independent group, to review the Oakland system’s management practices. Mr. Ward will have full authority and responsibility for district decisionmaking, including such matters as leases, contracts, and operations, Mr. O’Connell said.

The new setup will turn Oakland’s 10-member school board into an advisory panel and eliminate the decisionmaking power of its superintendent.

As part of the plan, district Superintendent Dennis K. Chaconas was asked by the state to resign. According to newspaper reports, the state bought out the remaining 18 months of his contract at a cost of $389,000. District spokesman Ken Epstein was unable to confirm that figure.

Mr. Epstein said late last week that there were no plans to include Mr. Chaconas in any consulting or other work for the district.

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