Education Funding

Civil Rights and Incivility: Trip Sparks Flap in Oakland

By Lisa Fine — March 13, 2002 2 min read
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Even though a group of Oakland, Calif., high school students has returned from its tour of civil rights landmarks, the story of how the trip almost didn’t happen still has the city buzzing.

Thanks to last-minute donations, the students—juniors and seniors at Castlemont High—were able to go on the Feb. 14-23 tour, organized by a school board member, Wilda White.

The drama began just days before they were supposed to depart, when Jeff Steinberg, the executive director of the California-based tour group Sojourn to the Past, wrote a letter to Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown—the former governor of California—pleading for help in pulling off the trip to Washington and sites in the South notable for historic civil rights events. The mayor appointed Ms. White and two others on the 10-member school board.

In his letter, Mr. Steinberg said that though Ms. White wrote an $85,000 check to the tour group, he learned from her bank that the nonprofit organization she had formed only had enough money for less than half the students to go.

“Promises were made that weren’t kept,” Mr. Steinberg said last week. “My focus was on the kids’ going. It’s never been to rip apart this board member.”

Ms. White said that the tour group had asked her for the check before there was a final count of the students going, and that she didn’t expect the tour group to cash it until the number was final. But in a letter to the tour group, she also said fund-raising checks would clear by Feb. 6. Mr. Steinberg waited until that date to check on the money, he said.

Ms. White reviewed the students’ applications, and on Feb. 6, approved just three of the 39 students, Mr. Steinberg wrote.

Not Qualified

Ms. White said the others hadn’t earned the right to go. To qualify, she said, students had to write a fund-raising letter to 20 people, along with thank-you notes.

She rejected students, she said last week, because of poor grammar or incomplete applications. One student even misspelled the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s name, she said.

Local newspapers and television stations picked up on the story, which sparked private donations from community members who saw the students as victims, Ms. White said.

School board President Kerry Hamill sent Ms. White a letter saying she had put the district at risk for liability and acted inappropriately. The letter asks that she meet with the district’s lawyer.

She won’t, Ms. White said, because she’s done nothing wrong. She has, in fact, hired her own lawyer and is considering suing the local newspapers and the board for unfairly turning her “into a villain.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as Civil Rights and Incivility: Trip Sparks Flap in Oakland

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