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.

Page 4 of 8

A blue-collar kid from the flats of East Oakland, Chaconas had worked in the Oakland schools for twenty years as a teacher, principal, and assistant superintendent before taking a job as head of the Alameda school district, where he turned a $4 million deficit into a $4 million surplus. During the first summer of his new job back in Oakland, he worked eighteen-hour days and vowed to resign if he didn't show results. Harvard education professor Pedro Noguera was so impressed with Chaconas that he told the Oakland Tribune, "If anyone can do this, Dennis can. If he can't do it, we should look at dismantling the whole system."

Meanwhile, with Measure D narrowly passed by the voters, Brown exercised his new power, appointing White, Harold Pendergrass, and city manager administrator Gilda Gonzales to the board. At first, the elected directors seemed to snub the mayor's appointees, but gradually got used to the new arrangement, especially as Gonzales proved a responsible, thoughtful decision-maker. So it's perhaps understandable why politicos at both the district and City Hall were livid last November when Brown reportedly forced Gonzales to resign and replaced her with Cobb.

A self-styled "community spokesman," Paul Cobb rose to prominence in the late '70s as director of the grassroots group Oakland Citizens Committee for Urban Renewal (OCCUR), where he worked to promote minority participation in public construction projects and demanded increased police accountability. But his tenure at OCCUR was marred by persistent allegations of financial wrongdoing; eventually, both the City Auditor and the FBI investigated the group's use of government grants, and at one point a government audit was unable to account for $400,000 in federal funds. Although in the end Cobb was personally exonerated by the investigation, and subsequent audits reduced the amount of unaccounted-for money, Cobb resigned.

Still, throughout the '80s and '90s, Cobb displayed an amazing capacity to stay politically relevant, ingratiating himself to then-mayor Lionel Wilson, the Oakland Tribune, and the Oakland Post, where he worked as the paper's religion editor. In 1983, when cult leader and right-wing media mogul Sun Myung Moon was imprisoned for tax fraud, leaders of his Unification Church began spreading a lot of money around the country in an effort to redeem its leader's reputation. They quickly found an ally in Cobb.

By 1985, Cobb was regularly emceeing "religious freedom" rallies organized by the Moonies, but his most prominent contribution was a manifesto defending the Moonies he penned and published in the Post. Titled "Moon Victim of Government Conspiracy," the article accused the feds of conducting a racist persecution against the church. "Was Moon's skin color and religion a crime?" Cobb wrote. "This is worse than being forced to sit in the back of the bus!" The article was subsequently reprinted in newspapers around the country by an organization called the Committee to Defend the US Constitution. That committee's head, Warren Richardson, was a former Reagan administration appointee who fell into disgrace after the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League exposed his connections to the Liberty Lobby, a Holocaust revisionist group whose founder Willis Carto advocated shipping blacks to Africa. (Whenever Cobb was asked if he was a Moonie, he reportedly used to joke, "No, I'm a sunnie.")

None of this mattered to Jerry Brown, who installed Cobb on the board over the objections of every single member of the Oakland City Council. What was the reason for the mayor's stubbornness? Charter schools, insiders speculate. The mayor's central policy goal is to move ten thousand middle-class residents downtown, and he has been quite vocal about his belief that middle-class families won't come anywhere near Oakland as long as the schools remain terrible. Even the most optimistic school leaders project it will take at least a decade to turn the district around -- far too long for Brown, who is widely believed to be planning a run for Barbara Boxer's Senate seat in 2004. Brown's solution: charter schools, which can be organized relatively quickly and which can be presented to middle-class families as an alternative to existing schools. The mayor, whose board-stacking ballot measure was roundly rejected by African-American voters, was told by Cobb that Cobb could deliver the support of the city's black ministers to Brown's charter school plan.

And so it came to pass that the mayor, who ran on a promise to sever Oakland from its history of mediocrity and racial politics, appointed to the school board a man who virtually embodied those qualities. On November 29, accompanied by the Reverend J. Alfred Smith and sixty cheering supporters, Cobb accepted his commission at City Hall. Siegel and De La Fuente were openly furious, but Chaconas greeted him with a hug, perhaps convinced of the political wisdom of keeping one's friends close but enemies closer. During his first school board meeting later that night, Cobb pointedly presented bouquets of roses to former board members Toni Cook, Carol Lee Tolbert, and Darlene Lawson, who in the late '80s presided over the most corrupt and scandal-ridden period in the history of Oakland's schools. As he honored them, Cobb declared his hope that he would be up to the task of following in their footsteps. He even used district money to pay for the flowers.

But according to board members and sources inside the superintendent's office, Cobb's most troubling act that day occurred before he was even sworn in. Sadly, a number of Oakland schools qualify for funds from Gray Davis' Immediate Intervention for Underperforming School Program (IIUSP), which is designed to radically reform schools with seriously low student test scores. In order to qualify for the grants, each school is required to hire an external evaluator to develop a school improvement plan. In the previous year, the district allowed the schools to hire whomever they wanted, but this year, after the IIUSP schools reported uneven improvement, the superintendent's office took a firmer hand and narrowed the list of consultants to a small, select group. Carol Lee Tolbert, one of Cobb's close friends, submitted a bid to be one of those consultants, but was rejected. On the morning of the day he was due to take his seat on the school board, district sources say, Cobb marched into Chaconas' office and demanded that Tolbert be put on the IIUSP consultancy list.

Dan Siegel, who may be Cobb's most passionate detractor, says it is completely improper for a school board member to ever lobby the superintendent, whose job depends on keeping the directors happy. "One of the things that makes my alarm bells go off the loudest is the insider dealing," Siegel says. "Board members don't do this kind of thing. I get calls all the time from people who say, 'Why don't I take you to lunch and show you how good our program is?' I don't even do that." Cobb denies he ever lobbied Chaconas on Tolbert's behalf.


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