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 8 of 8

Two months ago, the feud intensified still further during Chaconas' annual performance evaluation. During the year he'd been in office, the superintendent demonstrated solid progress. The proportion of first-grade students reading at grade level rose from 37 percent to 54 percent; seven new schools had opened, mostly in the overcrowded Fruitvale district; and, according to the state's Academic Performance Index, 54 of the 74 Oakland schools with valid scores reported improvement. Despite this good news, Paul Cobb, Wilda White, and Harold Pendergrass all gave Chaconas an unfavorable rating -- which some claim is tantamount to trying to fire him -- after reportedly grilling him on an endless series of trivial details.

Hamill came out of the meeting furious. "I think Dennis was treated like garbage," she says. "He left the room almost breaking down. They were challenging him about how horrible the district was and blaming him, and it was a rapid-fire attack, and he just couldn't listen anymore. It wasn't constructive; it wasn't a dialogue. That was the real break for me. It became clear to me that the goal was not just to criticize, but to really destabilize, and it's clear that we won't have a superintendent here for very long if the mayor's people are constantly badgering him."

As word of the evaluation has spread, there are indications that Mayor Brown may have begun to feel some heat. Once a month, the mayor meets with an organization that has come to be known around town as "the CEO Club." Organized out of the Rockridge headquarters of Dreyers Ice Cream, the CEO Club is a place for the mayor to meet with a group of the city's most important business leaders. Rumors are flying around City Hall that at the last meeting, CEO Club members grilled Brown about Chaconas' evaluation, and conduct of the mayor's board appointees in general.

Brown denies that any such interrogation took place. Still, there's little doubt that of all the mayor's major policy initiatives, his education program has most prominently dashed itself against the rocks. The wreckage is ironic; it could easily have been so different. By the time Carol Quan resigned as superintendent, the school district had been purged of every official apologist for mediocrity, and Brown had a historic opportunity to join with a legion of reformers and reverse the school's epochal slide into disgrace. Now with its superintendent under siege and its board at war with itself, the district is clearly back in big trouble -- even as the mayor just seems content to float above it all.

Asked recently about the conflict on the board, the mayor characteristically began by attributing the bad blood to the combative nature of his old nemesis Dan Siegel: "Dan only gets in the paper by attacking someone in a more responsible position than the one he enjoys. He's not a man who enjoys his current level of publicity." When told that Kerry Hamill felt the same way as Siegel, however, Brown pulled up short. "I can't explain Kerry on this," he said after a long pause.

Taking a different tack, Brown attempted to justify the conflict on the board as nothing more than the kind of vigorous debate that comes with a healthy democracy. "Democratic discourse implies dissent and debate," he said. "We don't have a monolithic society. It's a question of should you have dissent on the board, or should you have an amen chorus? Look at the [City] Council: Larry Reid uses some very strong language, and so does Nancy Nadel. Frankly, I find it refreshing that people will speak with candor instead of the usual forked tongue of political discourse." Then he suggested this was a race thing. "Why do the minority [elected board] members get along with [the mayor's appointees], did you ever ask yourself that? If some of the African-American members feel exercised or really concerned, it's because they are concerned, and they should be frustrated. In a multicultural city, we should have respect for different ways of expressing oneself. Given the problems confronting the schools, there's bound to be a certain element of frustration. If you only have two percent of African-American boys qualifying to Cal State, that's a cause of concern. Maybe it troubles Siegel and the others less."

In the end, however, Brown seemed almost plaintive. "Don't fan the flames," he said. "Try to see the humor in all this."

Indeed, there is a certain gallows humor in this debacle, the same species of amusement that, during the ebonics disaster, made Oakland into a punch line at water coolers around the country. If you put aside the 54,000 students whose education has only just begun to recover from the last twenty years of misrule, there's a lot to laugh about.

But perhaps Oakland is tired of being a joke


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