Emery Schools Turn Down Gift from City Hall; Oakland City Budget, Round One 

Will June Jordan run for state Assembly?

When Urban Ore, the much- loved trader of goods from hand-carved doors to kitchen sinks, was evicted from its longtime digs on Gilman Street almost two years ago, not everyone was crying in his beer. Many of Urban Ore's neighbors were yuppie retailers and Silicon Valley start-ups, and some felt the company was too low-rent for the neighborhood's new upscale, microbrews-and-transistor-chips identity. Many hoped that once Urban Ore was out of the picture, a swankier tenant would set up shop on the site and give Gilman Street that certain je ne sais quoi that would bring the yupsters out in droves. Recently, that new tenant was finally announced: the Berkeley Unified School District, which will use the land as a parking lot for its fleet of schoolbuses. How's that for stylish?


It's that time of year again, when the city of Oakland gets ready to crank out the budget, and the various department heads go hat in hand asking for a bigger slice of the pie. City Attorney John Russo, who took office last September after previously serving as the city's District 2 councilmember, faces his first time ever on the pleading side of the bartering process. This time around, the City Attorney's Office is asking for a total of $18.7 million for the fiscal period 2001-2003 that will be used to pay for an additional eleven attorneys and about seventeen support staff. (If this sounds like a lot, Russo points out that this represents a mere 1.1 percent of the overall city budget.)

Why does Russo need to bump up his staff? He says that as government increasingly becomes the target of litigation, the city is swamped with legal work. Rather than hiring pricey outside counsel --who sometimes run as high as $600 an hour--it would be more expedient to build up an in-house army of lawyers who will get the job done at a more reasonable salary. Russo says his staff is overworked; each claims investigator currently handles an average of 327 claims per year (staff in other comparably sized cities handle well under 200 claims), and with an average of 4.65 attorneys per legal secretary (the average is about two), often lawyers get stuck doing their own filing. That means they have less time to serve as advisors to staff in other departments, so more mistakes can happen, and the city becomes still more vulnerable to legal action. (In his short time in office, Russo has already had to deal with several high-profile legal disputes, including the West Oakland Riders case and the sexual harassment claims against arts czar and Jerry Brown crony Jacques Barzaghi.)

Will the council choose to spend its money on building up legal resources in order to prevent future suits, or will it put the money toward short-term projects more likely to bear fruit before (ahem) the November 2002 elections? "There is no department manager more sympathetic to how difficult it is to vote the budget than I am," admits Russo. "It's a hard call for them."


State Assemblymember Dion Aroner has about a year to go before she's termed out of office, and everyone expects her to run for Don Perata's seat in the state Senate in 2004--or sooner if Perata lives up to the rumors and takes a crack at replacing Oakland mayor Jerry Brown. Meanwhile, the vetting of candidates to replace Aroner has already begun. Jane Brunner has emerged as one of the top hopefuls, but many progressives consider her too closely tied to the Perata machine and have been scouring the East Bay in search of someone to give her a run for her money. Contra Costa school board member Charles Ramsey's name has been floated, as have those of John Dalrymple of the West County Labor Council, Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington, and Mark Friedman, the longtime aide to Wilma Chan who ran against Aroner in '96.

But if Worthington has his way, none of these candidates--including himself--will take the top spot on the left side of the ticket. According to Worthington, he and other politicos may have found the perfect formula for the election: UC Berkeley African-American studies prof June Jordan! Jordan, who was on tour for her new memoir and could not respond to requests for comment, has plenty of electable qualities: she's a progressive-minded African-American woman with strong community roots--her Poetry for the People project has garnered much praise for its work at jails and local high schools, and she recently helped in the book drive to replenish the Berkeley High library, which was badly damaged in a fire last year. In addition, Jordan's literary reputation makes her a shoo-in for English majors up and down the East Bay, and she has a well-known propensity for oratory and should prove good on the stump.

"She's very progressive, but she can appeal to relatively moderate people because she's done so much work helping people," Worthington says. "She could be like Paul Wellstone coming in as a professor, jumping into the political mainstream, being more liberal than the mainstream, but being a very literary, eloquent person." Of course, Jordan is pretty green when it comes to legislative strategy, but that's term limits for ya; the only Sacto denizens with institutional memory these days are the aides and the lobbyists.


Looks like the honeymoon is over for Laura Alvarenga, interim superintendent at Emery Unified School District. Alvarenga stepped in last fall when former super J. L. Handy resigned amid accusations of fraud and misuse of funds; she's led the district through a tough year of massive debt and the arrangement of a state loan and takeover. Through most of this, Alvarenga won the approval of many in the school community--a hard thing to do during a period of such upheaval, animosity, and frustration.

Now, though, in one of the strangest twists in the ongoing saga of Emeryville's beleaguered schools, Alvarenga's beginning to feel the heat. Why? 'Cause it appears she's looking a gift horse in the mouth. The mayor and councilmembers, knowing that voters were wondering why a rich city like Emeryville had such poverty-stricken schools, came up with a proposal to help. The city couldn't just hand the district cash, so it offered to buy the district's gym, pool, and athletic fields, then turn around and rent the facilities back to the schools at a nominal fee, while also completing some much-needed repairs and maintenance.

Sounds like a good deal, right? The district would get the cash it needed--up to $1.5 million, the city suggested--so that the schools could pay off the huge state debt (estimated at more than $2.5 million) in a timely fashion, instead of stretching it over twenty long years of state control. Plus, the maintenance money the district saved could be funneled into other desperately needed avenues. As the city saw it, there would be no change in how the the fields, gym, and pool are used--the school would still have priority during school hours, and the city would continue running community programs during off-hours as it does now, when it rents facilities from the district.

But the district said no--and it has its reasons. Legal counsel for the district sent the City Council a rather feisty letter detailing what the district sees as problems with the proposal: First of all, school administrators believe they could not legally sell the facilities and still run an accredited high school, writes attorney Celia Ruiz for the district. Plus which, the letter goes on to tell the city, even if we could sell it, we wouldn't. Ruiz comes close to accusing the city of trying to hoodwink the schools--the city is offering to buy the property for far less than fair market value, she claims. "Asking the District to sell property needed for edcuational purposes for cents on the dollar appears to be no more than an attempt to take advantage of the current financial situation," she writes. Ouch.

Then, to top it all off, the letter argues that the city hasn't been playing fair all along. Rental rates for city programs on school property are "set at far less than fair market value," Ruiz states, and she ends the letter with an insinuation that the city had no intention of helping the schools in the first place: "If the City really wants to 'help the District out' as it maintains, it should be more than happy to use some of the tax dollars flowing into City coffers from new development to fund creative programs sponsored by both the District and City and set a fair price for the use of its District facilities."

Double ouch. The district's letter came as a shocker to city leaders and grass-roots community groups alike, and unfortunately, the validity of Ruiz's points is likely to be lost in the outcry. Mayor Nora Davis is a key supporter of the movement to recall the school board, and the reform group Save Our Schools has recently finished a sucessful signature-gathering drive that ensures a recall election will take place. It's easy to imagine that school board members wouldn't welcome a gift from the same city officials who have publicly criticized their record, and it's also no surprise that Davis interprets this latest spat as further evidence of school board incompetence. "I don't know whether the board didn't understand, or if this is just a knee-jerk reaction, but it falls into the pattern of what's been happening over the last few years," Davis says. "It appears like Dr. Alvarenga is making these decisions and the board is just following along, just like they followed along with Dr. Handy." Now them's fighting words.

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