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 7 of 8

"Jean Quan slithered over to me and said, 'I'm never going to come to your committee again, because you won't let us do our work,'" White responds. "I don't feel like I did that. We didn't have a full hearing [on the subject] before the committee [and] I wanted the people who were there to speak on it to have my full attention. Frankly, I wasn't all there. I was sick, had 104-degree fever, the room was spinning. I was dying. I don't know if I made the right decision, but I had no evil intention or political motive."

Later, White agreed to move the item out of committee, but board members claim this isn't the only time she has jeopardized school funding. Recently, White voted against plans that would have secured millions of state education funds for some of the city's poorest schools: $500,000 for Fremont High; $311,757 for Allendale; $318,214 for Havenscourt; $537,802 for Oakland High. She even abstained on the vote to put Measure B, the district's latest parcel tax proposal, on the ballot.

District officials also claim that White habitually hazes staff over bizarre, inconsequential matters. On October 8, one district employee sent a memo to Dennis Chaconas complaining that he had been confronted by White because he had not turned some confidential personnel material over to her as she had asked. "I explained to her that I wasn't trying to be difficult and did not want to get into a beef with her," the staff member wrote, "but I work for the superintendent, and you should take this up with him. She seemed agitated and somewhat aggressive.... If you would like for me to deal with her differently than we deal with all other school board members, just let me know. No other school board member has ever put me in the difficult position that I work for you and not them. I will always treat her professionally and with respect, no matter how goofy she gets."

Finally, White has personally humiliated the superintendent on at least one occasion. Publicly proclaiming her opinion that Chaconas, who has been a respected educator for more than thirty years, is inarticulate and setting a bad example for children, she urged him to take speech therapy classes. Asked about it later, White stood by her recommendation. "Dennis is the education leader of Oakland, and every time I hear Dennis speak in public, he makes grammatical errors, he mispronounces words, he does malapropisms. And I think it sends the wrong example to have the education leader appear as if he is uneducated.

"I think Dennis Chaconas is a very hard-working person. I think he is very good at making people like him. I think he is in over his head; I don't think he knows the first thing about managing a three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollar business. He does not have the resources to do that; he doesn't have the education to do that. He's a wonderful person, and I hope one day he will recognize his limitations and do something about it. Because it's harming young people."

Brown's third appointee, Harold Pendergrass, does not regularly provoke the wrath of his colleagues, but his tenure has not been without controversy. This summer, Pendergrass, who did not return calls, threw the school board into an uproar when he insisted that the district buy untested math instruction software called Riverdeep. Although staff had no chance to review the software's effectiveness and had heard preliminary reports from other districts indicating that the program had significant failings, Pendergrass aggressively pushed the program at the board level and demanded that the program be implemented immediately. Fellow directors were outraged that Pendergrass ignored the district's procedures for curriculum evaluation, and the June 27 board meeting descended into such chaos that one director likened it to the Jerry Springer Show. Not coincidentally, as it turned out, Riverdeep is a brainchild of disgraced former junk-bond king and ex-felon Michael Milken, who happens to be a close friend of the mayor. In fact, the mayor was personally calling directors and lobbying for Riverdeep, but in the end only Pendergrass and Cobb backed the program, which would have cost the district $2.5 million.

While Siegel, Hamill, and the mayor's appointees have been howling for one another's heads, directors Greg Hodge and Jason Hodge have found themselves caught in the middle. Greg Hodge has always offered himself as a mediator and takes upon himself the thankless task of trying to broker a compromise between the two factions; as such, he demurs when pressed to comment. "People tend to overpoliticize these appointees and the mayor," he says, "They tend to neglect the real issues around what it would take to bring adequate resources to the district." Still, he has shown a clear frustration at times; during one recent board meeting, he repeatedly interrupted himself to snap, "You can shake your head all you want, Wilda."

Likewise, board president Jason Hodge is doing what he can to stamp out the brushfires. "We all have to work together, so I don't see the benefit of trashing each other," he says. "We have to work together beyond this story. It doesn't do much good to knock each other and criticize. It may embarrass some city officials, but at the end of the day we all have to work together, and we can't do that if we all hate each other. And after all, we can't fire each other."

But this summer, Dan Siegel tried to do just that, announcing plans to gather signatures for a ballot measure revoking the mayor's power to appoint and singling out Cobb as particularly disruptive. In fact, tensions grew so high that in August most of the board agreed to attend a special retreat in Los Angeles. There, for three days, they locked themselves in a room with a facilitator and tried to figure out how to get along (Paul Cobb and Noel Gallo boycotted the retreat claiming that it violated the Brown Act). While there, the directors even listened to lectures from Holocaust survivors in an attempt to put their squabble in perspective.


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