School & District Management

Oakland Voters Give Brown Broader Say Over Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — March 15, 2000 3 min read
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In a cluster of decisions expanding Mayor Jerry Brown’s power over the embattled Oakland, Calif., public schools, city voters last week placed at least two of his endorsed candidates on the school board and agreed to let him appoint another three.

A group of questions on the March 7 ballot functioned collectively as a thermometer of support for the Democratic mayor’s controversial attempts to enhance his influence over school district policy. Mr. Brown prevailed on most, though the one on which he had staked the most political capital—Measure D, which allows him to appoint three additional members to the seven-member, elected school board—passed only narrowly.

That measure, which will expire in 2004, makes Oakland the only city in the country to try governing schools with a “hybrid” board of both appointed and elected members. (“Jerry Brown’s Next Project: Oakland Schools,” Feb. 23, 2000.)

Voters in the District of Columbia are scheduled to consider changing to such a system later this year.

Jerry Brown

Measure D expands the Oakland board’s membership to 10, and Mr. Brown had sought a supermajority on the panel by endorsing a slate of four for this year’s open elected seats and using his newly minted power to appoint three more. However, only two of the four candidates he endorsed won: Kerry Hamill, an aide to one of Mr. Brown’s political allies, state Sen. Don Perata, and incumbent Noel Gallo.

Another incumbent endorsed by the mayor, Jason Hodge, faces a November runoff. The fourth, Mr. Brown’s own chief of staff, placed third in a tight race, but could still face a runoff if the absentee vote total changes that result.

Improvement Bond Passes

Measure E, meanwhile, asked voters to agree with Mr. Brown’s five main goals for improving schools: providing safe and modern facilities, adopting a successful reading program, allowing schools to choose and remove teachers and other staff members, rewarding and penalizing schools based on student performance, and initiating city-county collaborations to support education. That passed with 72 percent approval.

Measure D, which was hotly debated as a mayoral power grab, passed with just 52 percent of the vote, even though a political action committee set up by Mr. Brown and Mr. Perata had outspent the initiative’s opponents by a ratio of 15-to-1. Mr. Brown, who once refused to accept contributions of more than $100 when he ran for president of the United States, was criticized for the corporate contributions that powered the campaign for Measure D.

Measure A, which authorizes the issuance of $303 million in bonds for school improvements, passed with 85 percent of the vote. The bond issue was first proposed as $512 million, but was reduced when Mr. Brown refused to support it.

On election night, Mr. Brown trumpeted the results as a demonstration that “the people of Oakland are ready for change.”

Others interpreted them differently. School board member Jean Quan said the overwhelming support for the bond issue shows that city voters strongly favor tangible improvements to the schools.

Measure D’s narrow victory, she added, showed residents’ ambivalence about giving Mr. Brown additional power over the schools.

“I hope that now the mayor takes the same kind of energy that he put into raising money for Measure D and puts it into concrete things for our kids,” Ms. Quan said. “A half-million dollars could buy a lot of textbooks.”

The school board president, Dan Siegel, said that although the election places on the board at least five members with ties to Mr. Brown, the narrow margins of electoral support for most of them and for Measure D should send the mayor the message “that he doesn’t have a huge mandate, that he will have to share decisionmaking.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2000 edition of Education Week as Oakland Voters Give Brown Broader Say Over Schools

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