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 5 of 8

Soon, Cobb was infuriating his colleagues and provoking controversy in a manner that seemed almost deliberate. Last December, just one month into his term as a director, Cobb proposed that the district abandon its plan to demolish the Fruitvale Montgomery Ward building. For five years, school directors and De La Fuente had fought the city's historic preservationists in a campaign to replace the abandoned eyesore with a new school, and the board was on the verge of going ahead when Cobb threw a monkey wrench into the proceedings. De La Fuente and a host of directors were livid at Cobb's recklessness. Even Noel Gallo, who is Cobb's closest board ally, expressed his displeasure. Cobb seemed amused by the furor. "I am only asking a few questions," he told the Oakland Tribune at the time. "Any little thing I say, people are overreacting to it."

When Cobb isn't grabbing headlines, district sources claim, he is abusing staff and even citizen volunteers behind closed doors. Take the case of Gene Zahas. Zahas, who runs a wholesale air-conditioning equipment company in West Oakland, graduated from Oakland High and sent his three children through the Oakland schools. For the last ten years, he and his organization, Friends of the Oakland Public Schools, have worked to pass bond measures creating parcel taxes to finance capital improvement projects for the district. In May, as the board considered putting another parcel tax on the ballot, Zahas met with directors and offered his advice on how to run the campaign. There, out of the blue, Zahas claims, Cobb called him a racist. "I got up to answer a question, and Cobb took me to task," Zahas says. "He said something like, 'Why is some white guy going to run this campaign?' I know what he was implying. He was implying that if we didn't pick a certain political consultant, we'd be racist. I was a little put out, because I was there strictly as a volunteer and didn't like being treated like that. But I've seen this before; in committee meetings, I've seen him bring staff people to tears."

Cobb denies ever saying this to Zahas. "I don't know anything about that. I never used the word 'racist,'" he says. But district staff member say that Cobb frequently suggests an undercurrent of racism on the part of staff, especially when he is pressuring the district to award contracts to his friends. "It's not the kids -- it's the contracts," says one district staffer.

"It didn't appear to me that [Cobb] had the best interest of the district at heart," says former deputy superintendent Pete Yasitis, who can speak on the record now that he's retired and living in Palm Springs. "He didn't want to take the time to learn about education and where we were going. I was getting ready to retire anyway, but [the mayor's board appointees] were a factor in my deciding to leave in June. Personally, I look to the mayor. If I appoint people, and they're doing things that aren't constructive, you have to look at the man who appointed them. They're trying to create dissension and sabotage, and they won't let education reform go forward."

Cobb wasn't very interested when told of these accusations; in fact, he got off the phone as soon as he could. "Dan Siegel has his style and his agenda, so I guess that's his approach," he said. "I don't utilize the press to attack my colleagues, and I'm surprised they're doing that. I thought we were working together on [the parcel tax] Measure B. I don't understand their approach, but I guess that's their style."

But Yasitis is hardly the only staff person who has a jaundiced view of Cobb. For the better part of a year, they claim, Cobb has lobbied for contracts, attacked district staff, and relentlessly humiliated the superintendent over nickel-and-dime details. Cobb hasn't even been able to deliver on his promise to rally the African-American community around the banner of charter schools; mostly, African-American groups like Oakland Community Organizations have begun to inch toward Chaconas' "small schools" formula. Still, until Brown decides that Cobb's liabilities outweigh whatever purpose he serves on the board, Cobb will stay right where he is.

Fellow Brown appointee Wilda White presents a much more complex case than Cobb but in her own way is no less controversial. White's loft apartment on the Oakland waterfront doubles as the headquarters for the Jack London Neighborhood Association, which she formed; zoning and City Council district maps line the walls of her office, as does an oversized copy of the neighborhood association's greatest triumph, a court ruling that blocked one of the mayor's high-rise housing projects near her home.

A blue-collar army brat from Massachusetts, White managed to secure a scholarship to Cushing Academy, an elite New England prep school. After college, she moved to Berkeley, where she attended Boalt law school. She was in the process of picking up a second postgraduate degree, from the Harvard business school, when the ebonics controversy in Oakland captured national headlines and she found her fellow students ribbing her for hailing from such a loopy part of the country. It was all in fun, but White regarded the ebonics fiasco as a truly shameful moment for Oakland's schools. Nothing irritates her like unprofessional speech, as she would demonstrate time and again while on the school board.

White was spending her time working as a management consultant and fighting Jerry Brown in court and before the Fair Political Practices Commission, when the mayor invited her out for drinks at Jack's Bistro in Jack London Square one night in March 2000. There he dropped a bombshell, inviting her to be one of his appointees to the school board. Since White considered herself no friend of the mayor, and even voted against Measure D, this proposal struck her as truly bizarre.


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