Oakland To Vote On Giving Mayor School Say

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Mayor Jerry Brown has won the latest round in his continuing maneuvers to influence the operation and direction of the 55,000-student Oakland, Calif., school system. It now will be up to the city's voters to decide if they share their unconventional mayor's vision for education.

Following heated public testimony and a rare but impassioned appearance by Mayor Brown at the Nov. 30 Oakland City Council meeting, the council agreed to put before voters a measure that would let him appoint three new members to four-year terms on the seven-member school board, bringing the total to 10.

"He's saying we should have a board where the mayor's judgment and influence have a bigger role," said Liane Zimny, the staff director of the mayor's commission on education. A report released by that group this past summer served as a template for Mr. Brown's current school improvement efforts.

Mr. Brown cast the tie-breaking vote in the 5-4 decision. The proposal will go to the voters March 7, along with a $512 million school construction bond issue.

If the mayor's plan to pick three board members is approved, Oakland would not only be the largest local school board in California, it would be the first in the state where the mayor has the power to name board members. Oakland, however, would join such cities as Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit, whose mayors have been granted broad power over schools.

The mayor could further inject his will into school decisions by recruiting and endorsing a slate of candidates for the spring ballot, when four of the seven seats on the board, as it is currently constituted, are up for grabs.

"I suspect that he will at least be talking to people about running," Ms. Zimny said. "How much he leans on them to run, I can't say."

Mr. Brown, a two-term California governor, former Democratic presidential hopeful, and something of a political gadfly, was elected mayor last year.

'Common Agenda'

Council members also voted 6-2 to place on the spring ballot an advisory measure that lays out five nonbinding policy themes the mayor hopes will guide the education agenda.

That plan would call on the city's school board to come up with a system that: provides safe, modern facilities; requires schools to adopt successful reading programs; allows schools to select and remove teachers and other staff members; sets penalties and rewards for schools based on performance; and creates joint city-county education programs.

In a letter to the City Council, Mr. Brown called the ideas, which came from his education commission, "a democratically endorsed common agenda for Oakland's public schools."

Despite the momentum Mr. Brown appears to have, his initiatives have raised concerns, some of which are likely to fuel an aggressive campaign to see them defeated.

Members of the Oakland school board fear that the mayor's plans could undermine their efforts to pass the school construction bond.

The Oakland Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, is already on the record opposing much of Mr. Brown's agenda.

In a written statement, the union called his plan to appoint three school board members an "undemocratic, illegal, and dangerous precedent."

The group charged that his plan seeks to undermine teachers' unions and "weaken resistance" to "conservative and anti-public-education schemes" such as charter schools.

Teacher groups are also likely to take aim at the advisory measure's call to give local school administrators more latitude in hiring and firing.

"Everybody's concerned about the crisis [in schools], but the question is, will the solution come from the top down or the bottom up?" said Doug Provencio, an executive board member of the Oakland union. "When the commission did its work, they didn't talk to us, and we're the experts."

Vol. 19, Issue 15, Page 3

Published in Print: December 8, 1999, as Oakland To Vote On Giving Mayor School Say
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