Oakland Gets Its Schools Back 

Plus, the state is about to start issuing IOUs, sales tax receipts are up in Berkeley, BART workers ask for a raise, and Jerry Brown sues Pleasanton.

After more than six years running Oakland's schools, the state returned the district to local control on Monday. The long-awaited move came nearly seven months after state auditors recommended it. Oakland's school board will now have full authority over nearly all aspects of the district for the first time since June 2003. Yet the state will maintain veto power over financial decisions for years to come, because the district still owes it about $80 million.

The state's legacy was definitely mixed. The first administrator, Randy Ward, instituted several important reforms, including making sure that all schools are funded equally, ending a long tradition of giving schools in the hills more money for teachers than flatlands schools. Ward also launched a lottery system that gives students in lower-income areas a better shot at attending high-performing schools. Previously, those schools served just neighborhood kids and the children of well-connected parents.

But the district also suffered under state control. Administrators were more obsessed with implementing reforms financed by wealthy businessmen Eli Broad and Bill Gates than returning the district to financial stability. In fact, education superintendent Jack O'Connell forced the district farther into debt. When the state took over Oakland schools, the district was about $57 million in the hole, but the debt has ballooned over the past several years.

California Is Almost Broke

In Sacramento, the state proved once again that it can't balance its own budget either. Controller John Chiang said things are so bad that he will have to start issuing IOUs this week. Chiang issued his warning as Democratic leaders continued to waste time pushing a budget with no chance of passing. The plan sought to raise taxes to help bridge the $24 billion budget gap, but Dems couldn't muster enough GOP votes to get it through the Legislature. Even if they had, the governor promised to veto it. Chiang said he would issue the IOUs to local governments, private contractors, state vendors, and to taxpayers awaiting tax refunds. The move could be especially tough for local governments already suffering because of the recession.

What's Up with Berkeley?

One city that might not care much is Berkeley. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, sales tax revenues in Berkeley actually rose this year. City Manager Phil Kamlarz credited the increase to the success of the city's shopping districts, which are full of small, diverse stores that tend to soften the impact of both economic downturns and upturns. By contrast, cities that depend on big-box retailers tend to experience booms and busts. Berkeley's numerous restaurants also helped boost tax receipts.

The increase in revenues has allowed the city to avoid layoffs and steep budget cuts. In fact, the city's budget is increasing next year, which is amazing considering what other cities are going through. So the next time someone in your town clamors for a big-box store, remind them that cities are better off developing shopping districts full of small, independent stores.

Give the IOUs to BART Workers

As employees throughout California started taking pay cuts or were being laid off, BART operators and station agents had the temerity to ask for a 3 percent raise over two years, according to the Chron. Those workers, along with another union, also voted to sanction a strike, although by early this week unions and management brought in mediators and agreed to keep negotiating.

Meanwhile, the Chron also reported that BART cop Anthony Pirone called Oscar Grant a "Bitch-ass Nigger," just before fellow cop Johannes Mehserle shot Grant to death as he lay face down on the ground. Pirone was caught hurling the racial epithet on videotape, and the revelation may further help explain how a routine arrest suddenly turned deadly. Pirone, however, maintains that he was merely repeating what Grant had said to him moments before. But Grant can't be heard on the tapes, while Pirone can. Moreover, the cop has a history of not telling the truth.

Jerry Brown Sues Pleasanton

California Attorney General Jerry Brown made headlines when he sued Pleasanton, alleging that its 1996 law capping the total number of homes in the city violates state law. Pleasanton is on the verge of approving a plan that calls for 45,000 more jobs there but no new housing. Brown says the housing cap forces workers to live elsewhere, thereby adding to sprawl and greenhouse gas emissions.

Brown also was in the news because LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced that will not run for governor next year against the attorney general or San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. According to a poll earlier this week, Brown appears to have benefitted the most from Villaraigosa's decision.

Three-Dot Roundup

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors gutted the county's criminal justice system, laying off 14 prosecutors, 15 public defenders, and 49 probation employees. Supervisors said they will rethink the layoffs if unions agree to pay cuts. ... The Berkeley school district has assembled a task force to deal with drug and alcohol use after 54 percent of eleventh graders reported being drunk or stoned on campus. ... Amazon.com threatened to sever ties with hundreds of state businesses if a bill by Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner of Berkeley forces the online giant to start charging sales tax. ... And Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher won confirmation for a top post in the State Department, setting the stage for an election between Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi and state Senator Mark DeSaulnier.

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