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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"I said, 'I've sued the city and won when you wanted to put a high-rise up, I went to the FPPC and said that you should not be given immunity from conflict of interest, I asked the City Council to censure you for your comments to 60 Minutes that characterized Oakland as a pocket of poverty,'" White says. "'In light of that, I don't understand why you would appoint me to the school board.' He said, 'Well, you're the smartest person I know, you're an activist -- and I think the school board needs activists -- and you're black.' I said, 'I don't like the fact that you're using my skin color to make decisions.'

"I think somebody might have told him that the black community was not happy with him, so I felt he was basically saying I was a sop to black people, that if he were willing to appoint me to the board, he could buy some credibility."

In spite of her reservations, White accepted the appointment -- a move she says she now regrets: "I shouldn't have allowed Jerry to use me as a pawn." She threw herself into the job full-time, devouring the Education Code and even enrolling in a school facilities training program at the Harvard School of Design.

For all her devotion, the same people who are fed up with Cobb are equally exasperated with White, who, they claim, ties up committee and board meetings with a preoccupation with trivial details, grinding the process down to a crawl and almost deliberately humiliating the superintendent's staff. If a grant proposal that is already guaranteed to secure state education funds for the district has some spelling errors, she'll vote against it. If the district, which like most urban schools is struggling with a teacher shortage, tries to issue emergency credentials to unqualified teachers, she'll rail against it. Technically, White is often right, but her critics claim that in the long run, her objections are often far too petty to justify holding funding hostage or sticking students with an endless cycle of substitute teachers.

"For example, [White] voted 'no' on the budget after [she] had been on the board for just a few months," Yasitis says. "And it wasn't, 'I'm voting no because I haven't studied the budget,' or anything like that. It was, 'I'm voting no because test scores are low.' No one wants [low test scores], but how is voting against the budget going to do anything?"

"Paul and Wilda practice the politics of destabilization," Hamill recently wrote. "It's just one weekly attack and emergency after another -- all directed in opposition to the superintendent. It's always about adult politics. Throw out the reading program because it forces teachers to follow a script and to teach reading in an entirely different way. Keep police officers off campus despite the fact that our campuses are violent and dangerous places. Blame the tests and call them racist rather than face the fact that we are offering an educational system seeped in low expectations and excuses. Criticism is cheap and easy. Solutions are harder."

Of course, White rejects all this out of hand. "I see my role as a child advocate," she says. "That's all I do. So I go in there and I do what I do at corporations: I read; I say, 'This doesn't make sense'; I ask a question. And I do it at a public hearing, because this is the people's business, and I thought everyone knew it was the people's business, and that's what a public hearing is for. Now, that was very naive of me, because those hearings are not for doing the people's business. Those hearings are a show, they're political theater. Apparently, my questions make the superintendent look bad. That wasn't my intention, I was just trying to do my due diligence. I thought that when I asked a question there would be an answer on the other end."

Director Jean Quan is particularly incensed about a vote White cast two months ago. A clear majority of the board had already voted to lay off its security staff and have the Oakland Police Department patrol the schools, freeing up money to hire six new high school counselors. But during a meeting of the board's personnel committee, White voted to block the layoffs, because Siegel, an attorney, was conducting a trial and was not at the meeting. White's procedural motion effectively stalled the hiring of the six counselors -- and stymied the express wishes of a majority of the board.

"In most cases, we've agreed not to tie something up in committee when there's clear majority support on the board," Quan says. "Wilda wasn't going to move it forward, because she was opposed to it. That delayed things a month, until Dan could get back for another meeting. This is not a big deal, but when you add it all up, it makes it very difficult to get things done. If this drags on too long, we may not have the money for counselors in the spring."

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