Err Jordan 

As Alameda County's schools endured record financial woes, Sheila Jordan seemed more interested in punishing employees who questioned her judgment or her alleged illegal behavior.

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Jordan's ex-husband was the brains behind her four successful political campaigns. Larry Cooperman developed a talent for bare-knuckled politicking after talking the woman who would soon become his wife into running for the Oakland Unified school board in 1988. The two were ambitious. After one four-year term on the school board, Jordan won a seat on the city council in 1992, representing North Oakland and Rockridge.

Jordan began as a progressive, but over time she allied herself with the moderate Perata, who was building his power base from his spot on the county board of supervisors. Former Oakland Tribune columnist William Wong dubbed Jordan and her fellow councilmembers Ignacio De La Fuente and Nate Miley the original "Peratistas."

In her 1998 campaign for county schools superintendent, Jordan took a page from her mentor's populist playbook. She railed against the county Office of Education, claiming that it was top-heavy with bureaucrats unanswerable to the public. In a campaign mailer, she promised to save the county money by closing its public relations office.

Nearly eight years later, the county's PR department is still churning out press releases touting Jordan's almost every move. This year, her office has budgeted $720,000 on communications and public relations. When asked what happened to her 1998 promise to voters, Jordan at first maintained that she had downsized the public relations office when she reorganized it under a new department, Communications and Publications. But when it was pointed out that her employees have inundated the local media with hundreds of press releases over the past seven years, Jordan grudgingly acknowledged that she had not fulfilled her pledge.

Once she became county superintendent in early 1999, Jordan immediately began quarreling with the liberal and progressive members of the county Board of Education — Gay Plair Cobb of Oakland, Ernest Avellar of Hayward, and Jerome Wiggins of Berkeley. All three had supported her opponent Hightower, and Jordan's worst fights with them centered on the county budget and who controlled it. In 2002, the grand jury criticized what it called a "lack of civility and decorum" at the board meetings, although it didn't assign blame. But others did. "When Sheila got elected, the dynamics changed incredibly," said Wiggins, who had gotten along well with Scornaienchi and Hightower. "It went from a collaborative relationship to a my-way-or-the-highway relationship."

Jordan, in turn, blamed the three boardmembers for the strife. At one point, she arrived at meetings with an armed escort from the Hayward Police Department. She claimed that she feared for her life because Wiggins allegedly threatened her. He denied it, and Jordan's top lieutenant, R. Michael Lenahan, said later that he believed Wiggins had actually threatened to bash county computers — not Jordan. But Jordan filed a police complaint against Wiggins, although police never charged him.

The superintendent then took another lesson from Perata, who had built his Democratic political machine by backing candidates allied with him. She helped finance Berkeley educator Jacki Fox Ruby's campaign against Wiggins in the 2002 election. Jordan pumped $25,000 into Ruby's campaign — an extraordinary amount of money for a normally sleepy county board of education race in which her incumbent opponent raised less than $5,000. The donations to Ruby included a $10,000 contribution, a $7,200 loan, and a $7,800 mailer that Jordan and Cooperman engineered on Ruby's behalf, campaign records show.

The mailer sealed the deal. It was a letter signed by Jordan that featured a photo of her and was titled "An urgent message from the Alameda County Superintendent of Schools." A bolded paragraph read: "Wiggins' history of actual and threatened violence makes him unfit to serve on the board of education."

After the election, Wiggins sued Jordan and Cooperman for libel. Jordan was represented by lawyers for the county's insurance carrier; her husband's lawyer was her longtime friend Dan Siegel. Jordan's effort to evade responsibility for the mailer resembled her later efforts to evade the blame for the financial crises her office failed to prevent. She argued in court papers that she wasn't responsible for the mailer even though she had signed it. She said it was produced by the campaign committee Friends of Sheila Jordan, for which her husband was treasurer but of which she claimed to not be a member. In any case, the lawsuit was a complete failure for Wiggins. Siegel and the insurance company lawyers got it dismissed on First Amendment grounds.

Flush with Jordan's campaign cash, Ruby crushed Wiggins at the polls. Her election, along with that of Yvonne Cerrato, another Jordan-backed candidate, gave the superintendent a board majority. The new members immediately overturned the previous board's budget and installed Jordan's. Then they awarded her a 66 percent pay raise over four years.

The grand jury called the timing of the raise "unseemly," but in a recent interview, Ruby reiterated past denials that there was a quid pro quo with Jordan. She maintained that a board study showed that Jordan's $115,000 salary at the time was at the bottom of the pay scale for superintendents of similar-size counties. "The idea that there was some payback for the election is demeaning to me," Ruby said. Jordan now makes $175,000 annually, according to public records.

In recent weeks, it has become clear that Jordan did far more for Ruby than merely financing her campaign and signing attack ads. A former principal at a county-run continuation school for troubled teens alleged in an interview that Jordan coerced him and other principals to campaign on Ruby's behalf. Adeyinka Fashokun, then-principal at Rock LaFleche School in Oakland, said Jordan asked all the principals under her command to do phone banking. They were taken to a private home in Oakland, he said, where they called prospective voters and urged them to cast ballots for Ruby.

Fashokun, who is now a vice principal at Clayton Valley High School in Concord, acknowledged that Jordan never overtly threatened to fire principals who refused to campaign for Ruby. But he maintained that such a threat was implied. "When a superintendent asks a principal to do something and you don't do it — you're gone," he said.


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