Eli's Experiment 

Meet Eli Broad, a SoCal billionaire who uses his cash and connections to groom Oakland school administrators and keep the district under state control.

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But public schools may be Broad's true passion. "K-12 education was a big problem becoming a bigger problem, and not too many people were doing anything about it," he told the Washington Post in May, explaining why he and his wife Edythe have poured tens of millions of dollars into education reform nationwide, and why he launched his leadership academy.

One of Broad's hallmarks is recruiting leaders from outside academia to run urban school districts. In 2001, for example, he convinced ex-Colorado Governor Roy Romer to become the superintendent of Los Angeles Unified, even though Romer had zero experience as an educator. Broad's longtime jogging buddy, then-Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, endorsed the idea, and a year later, Broad helped finance Riordan's unsuccessful GOP gubernatorial campaign. Riordan now serves on the Broad Academy's board.

Broad started the Broad Superintendents Academy in 2002. It's a ten-month program that trains educators, business executives, government officials, and military leaders to become urban school district CEOs. Later, Broad added a residency program, which places midlevel executives in school districts around the nation to give them hands-on training. He also sponsors the annual Broad Prize, a $1 million award to high-performing school districts.

"He puts his money where his mouth is," said former Oakland City Manager Robert Bobb, who completed the Broad Superintendents Academy in 2005 and is now president of the school board in Washington, DC. "Professionally, it was a great program. It was intellectually stimulating. They brought in the best minds in urban education. It gave all the participants great insight into the profession."

But Bobb is not a drinker of the Broad Kool-Aid: "Where I disagree with him is at the end of the day, I just don't think that school boards are the problem in terms of improving student achievement," he said.

Of course, Bobb has good reason to disagree with Broad. Earlier this year, the billionaire backed a mayoral takeover of DC schools that rendered Bobb and the rest of the school board essentially powerless.

Randy Ward was attending the Broad Superintendents' Academy in June 2003 when O'Connell tapped him to be the first state administrator of Oakland schools. Ward hadn't needed the training — he had already been a successful state administrator in Compton, leading that city's once-bankrupt school district back to financial solvency and out of state control. Plus, the Broad academy isn't exactly rigorous. During its ten-month program, attendees meet only five times over four long weekends. But in 2003, the Broad name carried plenty of cachet, and Ward knew the academy would help him network.

Ward eventually became a poster boy for the Broad program. He led Oakland schools through three productive years, helping fix the district's finances, closing the shameful funding gap between hills and flatlands schools, and implementing academic reforms begun by former Superintendent Dennis Chaconas. In the 2004 and 2005 school years, Oakland posted the highest test score gains of any large school district in California.

But Ward's tenure also was marred by controversy, and his sometimes-caustic style engendered resentment. He also turned out to be far too independent for his boss, O'Connell. Despite lobbying efforts by Broad, O'Connell refused to extend Ward's contract in the spring of 2006 (see "The Plot to Oust Randy Ward," Feature, 8/16/06). A few months later, Ward became superintendent of San Diego County Schools, a separate entity from San Diego Unified, the district formerly run by Bersin.

Ward speaks well of Broad and the academy, but he acknowledges that the one-size-fits-all paradigm of an omnipotent chief executive and a pliant school board does not always square with reality. "The challenge," he said, "is matching the needs, wants, and desires of an urban school district community with individual candidates." In other words, it matters a great deal who's in charge. Ward's successors in Oakland may be perfect examples of what can happen when that challenge fails.

His immediate replacement was Kim Statham, one of his former classmates at the Broad academy. Ward remembered being impressed with Statham; at the time, she was a rising star in suburban Maryland schools. And later, when she ran into trouble, he quickly hired her.

Back in Maryland, Statham had been tarred by a grade-changing scandal in which teachers accused her of using her position to get her daughter's report card altered. She was demoted in early 2005, but after she contended that she did not demand the grade change and was merely acting as a parent, the Howard County school board exonerated her. The incident, however, left deep scars in the racially divided community. In the summer of 2005, someone burned a twelve-foot-long cross into her front lawn. Statham, who is black, immediately resigned and came to Oakland.

But even after taking over for Ward in August 2006, Statham never fully committed herself to the East Bay. Her husband and daughters remained in Maryland, and she often flew home for long weekends. She also appeared resentful of Ward's other top deputies, firing two of them — Katrina Scott-George, who had been one of the architects of the district's academic reforms, and Javetta Robinson, the district's chief financial officer, who also had worked for Ward in Compton.

Statham never explained why she fired Robinson and Scott-George, but both had previously turned down invitations to apply to the Broad Superintendents Academy. Sources also said Statham often clashed with the two women. Ward liked surrounding himself with people who openly questioned his decisions and each other's.

Whatever the reasons for the firings, the district suffered during Statham's short tenure. Test score gains plummeted in 2006-07, and last month the Express revealed that the district has shortchanged its students out of more than $40 million worth of education this year under Statham's watch ("Oakland Schools' Cash Stash," Full Disclosure, 9/1). Public records show that the district failed to spend all the money allotted it last year by the state and federal governments, and ended the academic year with a surplus of nearly $44 million in five key accounts.

Several knowledgeable sources believe Statham took her eye off the finances and was already thinking last spring about leaving Oakland. If true, that may explain why she overruled Robinson's objections and in May created a new high-paying position — chief of staff — for which she hired Vince Matthews, a 2006 graduate of the Broad Academy.

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