Brown vs. Board of Education 

The mayor promised Oakland voters he would change the way their schools were run, and he has -- for the worse.

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Siegel is one of Brown's most vociferous opponents, and his remarks might fairly be dismissed as partisan bickering. But even many of Brown's onetime allies have abandoned him. Director Kerry Hamill is Perata's former chief of staff; in the spring of 2000, she ran for a seat on the board, accepted thousands of dollars in 3Rs PAC funds, and supported the mayor's plan to appoint three additional board members. But Hamill agrees with Siegel's assessment of the mayor's appointees, calling them reckless and divisive. "I come to the table and I want to do business, but it's very hard with the mayor's people, and I think it's due to prompting from the mayor," she says. "It's the sniping. [The mayor's appointees] don't support any of the superintendent's reforms, they criticize him in meeting after meeting, but I don't have any idea of what they think we should be doing instead." As for Cobb, Hamill sums up her reactions simply: "He just likes to bait people."

City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente is arguably the mayor's closest ally, but even he calls Brown's appointees "the most disruptive members of the mayor's administration." "Watching the school board meetings, you realize that [Cobb and White] are only interested in one thing: to spend their time disrupting meetings and attacking and intimidating other board members," he says. "Everyone makes mistakes, and I'm just hoping that [Brown] will correct it and remove those people. He should just apologize, remove them, and appoint better people." Pete Yasitis, a deputy superintendent who retired in June with a stellar reputation, is now free to talk about the mayor's appointees who, he says, have done nothing but harangue staff and spark pointless, petulant bickering.

Rarely can such a diverse array of Oakland public figures agree so wholeheartedly. Which begs the question: If these allegations are true, why on earth would the mayor allow such an intolerable state of affairs to continue? Some board members have come to actually suspect that the mayor, who has feuded with Chaconas ever since the board hired him, deliberately allows his appointees to wreak havoc in the hope that it will undermine the superintendent's authority. Bruce Kariya, normally a diplomatic man who rarely indulges in hyperbole, is one who has come over to this way of thinking: "Benign neglect seems too charitable to me. I don't know why [Brown] does what he does, but the mayor seems to be happier when the superintendent is taking hits."

Perhaps the notion that the mayor's inaction is a result of simple neglect should not be dismissed so quickly; a tendency to distractibility seems to have characterized the mayor's entire political career. Jerry Brown has rarely dedicated more than three years to any pet project. He's been a presidential candidate, a senatorial candidate, an amateur monk, a radio talk show host, and chair of the state Democratic Party, switching identities far faster than most of us could keep up. By the mayor's own admission, he's often too focused on the vision thing to sweat the details of everyday government. Fine -- Oakland voters knew this when they elected him, and gambled that his stature would finally flash the klieg lights of national renown and venture capital onto Oakland's threadbare stage. If Brown wants to remake himself as a centrist messiah, Oakland voters have been happy to accommodate him.

But sooner or later, Brown's infamous failure to follow through on projects had to rear its head. Seemingly overnight, Brown had assembled a powerful and well-funded political machine, challenged voters to give him the power to stack the school board, and declared that Oakland's educational future was at a crossroad. Since then, with the exception of his insistent support of a military charter school at the former Oakland Army Base, the mayor has removed himself from the affairs of the school district he worked so hard to dominate, creating a vacuum that has been filled with bickering and bad faith. Perhaps he's just been too busy gazing at the horizon to notice the carnage that trails in his wake. At the end of a recent interview with Brown about the school board conflict, the man who appointed Paul Cobb and Wilda White -- and could remove them tomorrow if he wished -- merely sighed and said, "Maybe they should go to group therapy."Things didn't have to work out this way. When Brown came to power in 1998 insisting on the absolute necessity of reforming Oakland's schools, he had some powerful potential allies for the struggle. Incoming director Dan Siegel, for instance, was a zealous reformer who incessantly echoed the mayor's own insistence that the logjam of mediocrity in the schools can, and must, be broken. In 1990, Siegel had served as general counsel for then-superintendent Richard Mesa, who had been forced on a resentful school board in order to stave off a state takeover. Battered by horrific corruption scandals, the board had to agree to let Mesa assume day-to-day management of the district, but fought him every step of the way. Siegel was fired by the board in 1992. An impatient man who doesn't suffer fools gladly and sometimes speaks his mind when he shouldn't, Siegel would run for the board eight years later on one overriding platform: Get rid of Carol Quan, who had, by then, become superintendent.

Siegel wasn't the only public figure with Quan in his crosshairs. The ultimate insider, Quan arrived came to the district in 1963 as a substitute teacher, rising through the ranks, until she was appointed superintendent in September 1997. But history wasn't on her side; after years of enduring district complacency in the face of declining test scores and national ridicule for the ebonics fiasco, a consensus seemed to develop among Oakland's leaders that only an outsider would be able to muster the will to fire entrenched principals and lazy bureaucrats, to shock the district into shape. Even as Siegel was agitating for her head inside district headquarters, Jerry Brown and Don Perata were on the outside threatening another state takeover. The combination proved lethal, and after fighting for a tempestuous month, Quan gave up and, in April 1999, resigned.

Unfortunately, for all their shared reformist zeal, Siegel and Brown don't really like each other. Siegel is not shy when it comes to criticism, and he was quick to denounce Brown's newfound centrist policies as elitist. Brown, meanwhile, has understandably chafed at Siegel's pointed, unrelenting criticism. Conflict between the two broke out when it came to choosing Quan's replacement. Brown wanted to hire interim superintendent (and consiglière to City Manager Robert Bobb) George Musgrove, while Siegel and the rest of the board regarded the mayor's input as an unwelcome, heavy-handed attempt to usurp their authority. Soon, the mayor was drafting the language for Measure D, and the stage was set for a showdown in the spring elections.

Ultimately Brown hoped he would be able to appoint both the superintendent and three new board members, and he asked the board to delay the appointment of the new superintendent until after the election and the passage of Measure D. The board refused, and appointed Dennis Chaconas to the post.

Despite Brown's repeated public assurances that he had nothing but love for Chaconas (in October of 2000, the grassroots group Oakland Community Organizations went so far as to organize a kiss-and-make-up ceremony at Roosevelt Middle School, during which Brown and Chaconas hugged in front of a thousand people), the pissing match surrounded the appointment of Chaconas probably set the tone for future relations between the new superintendent and the mayor. That is a shame, because Chaconas has proved to be exactly the administrator the board hoped he would be: tough, dynamic, and aggressive, with no tolerance for the mediocrity of the past. Within months of his appointment, Chaconas had shocked observers with the speed with which he launched his reforms: He fired 29 of Oakland's 90 principals and put 14 others on notice that they had a year to improve their performance; lured renowned budget expert Pete Yasitis away from Alameda County staff; sent 150 district administrators back to the classroom; and negotiated a historic 23 percent raise for teachers (thereby ending a cycle of teacher strikes that had stretched back to 1977).


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