Flickr photo by HitchsterPiedmont Avenue Elementary School is one of Oakland Unified's 107 public schools.
“Failure seems to follow Jerry everywhere he goes."
Meg Whitman’s well-worn phrase is familiar to those following California's gubernatorial race.
During her primary night victory speech, Whitman claimed that “Oakland schools deteriorated to the point that the state had to intervene” while Brown was mayor.
Just last Thursday, Whitman’s campaign unrolled a website devoted to demonstrating Brown’s failures in jobs, spending, taxes and schools. Her key point on schools insists Brown drove Oakland’s schools to the brink of bankruptcy:
Brown used his political clout to gain control of the school board, but the outcome ended up being one of the biggest failures of his career.
He succeeded in convincing voters to give him the authority to appoint the majority of the school board, but within three years, Oakland schools faced a $100 million deficit.
Although few people would call Brown's attempts at school reform a success story, Whitman’s repeated claims that Brown destroyed the Oakland Unified School District are overstated.
Improving Oakland’s schools was an important part of Brown’s early agenda as mayor from 1999 to 2007. Brown initially suggested having the mayor appoint the entire school board, but quickly nixed that plan, saying “People were yelling democracy ... and I'm not sure I could have gotten [sufficient support on the City Council].”
This idea wasn't another Gov. Moonbeam-style scheme plucked from thin air. Cities like Chicago, Cleveland, Baltimore and Detroit were toying with mayoral-appointed school administrators at the time.
Changing tack, Brown’s alternative was to enlarge the seven-person voter-elected school board by appointing three additional members – a provisional measure voters narrowly approved. The terms of the Brown-appointed board members were designed to expire in 2004.
Brown laid out his reasoning for appointing board members as mayor in a 2001 interview with Tikkun magazine:
Well, I put people on the school board who push the superintendent. We're trying to up the standards for everybody and make it better. But of course, as you up the standards you make it even tougher on the ones who are slower.
Brown even urged the school board to delay picking a superintendent until after the March 7, 2000, election – a move widely seen as an effort to sway the freshly reconfigured board to permanently retain Brown's pick of acting superintendent George Musgrove (who was also an assistant city manager).
That didn't fly. The board ignored Brown's request and instead chose Dennis Chaconas, superintendent of the nearby Alameda city schools.
Moving to Plan C, Brown took a shot at obtaining a supermajority on the board of education by enhancing his three appointments with endorsements of four candidates, including his chief of staff, a close aide to former state Sen. Don Perata, D-Oakland, and two incumbents. However, only two of his endorsements won: Perata's aide Kerry Hamill and incumbent Noel Gallo.
The Whitman campaign uses a San Francisco Chronicle article – "Oakland Gives Brown Control Of School Board" – as the primary nugget of evidence to back up its claim that Brown seized control of the board:
Brown's school-reform Measure D asked voters to change the City Charter to allow him to appoint three school directors and thus create a City Hall-controlled majority over the elected school board. Voters received the proposition ambiguously.
Yes, the article says he created a City Hall-controlled majority over the elected school board. But did that happen in reality? No.
Brown appointed three members of the 10-person board and two of his endorsed candidates won their election. Half (five of 10) does not equate supremacy over Oakland Unified School District.
In fact, a 2001 report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows the other five members of Oakland's school board did all they could to block Brown from influencing school policy:
The final result was a board split 5-5 between Brown's supporters and the older holdovers. In any case, the old board chose a new superintendent, Dennis Chaconas, against Brown's wishes, which severely limited the mayor's ability to control the agenda. … Unable to control board policy, Brown pursued his own agenda, especially the creation of a military charter school.
Whitman's claim that Oakland schools were $100 million in debt within three years of Measure D's passage implies Brown is at fault and her "Lifetime of Politics" ad even says Brown "damaged the school so badly, the state had to take it over," basing its claim on another San Francisco Chronicle article.
One problem: The article never mentions Jerry Brown in connection to Oakland's insolvency. The Whitman campaign quotes this section as its primary piece of evidence that Jerry Brown broke Oakland schools:
The state took control of the beleaguered Oakland public school system and ousted Superintendent Dennis Chaconas on Monday in a drastic attempt to pull the district out of the largest deficit in California school history.
That's true, but it doesn't support a claim of Brown's culpability. As I mentioned earlier, Brown opposed Chaconas as superintendent. The Whitman campaign provides two other articles as proof of Brown's destruction of Oakland schools. Neither mentions Brown – only Chaconas.
Brown himself conceded "his school district reform plans were largely a bust," according to yet another San Francisco Chronicle article the Whitman campaign touts. But the problems plaguing Oakland's public schools far predate Jerry Brown.
From a 1999 Salon.com feature on Jerry Brown:
Nowhere was reform more desperately needed than in Oakland's public schools. Test scores have long been among the lowest of any district in the state – especially among black students – and the incidence of corruption was arguably among the highest. The district reached bottom in 1989, when a grand jury indicted a roster of administrators and employees for corruption.
City schools are a common dipstick for measuring mayoral success, but they aren't technically under the purview of mayor. Brown went on the defensive at a recent graduation ceremony for the Oakland School for the Arts, telling the audience: "I realize every mayor says 'I'm going to be an education mayor' … but it's not your job."
A KGO story even reports the Oakland Unified School "District says he played no part in the financial problems that led to the state takeover."
Brown could not effectively influence hiring, budgeting or curriculum mapping – the critical junctures that could have pulled Oakland schools out of the hole. And in the end, overspending and major accounting errors were the tragic flaws of Oakland Unified.