Is It Really Local Control if They Don't Control Anything? 

The Oakland school board still has no power. Plus, Nancy Nadel supporter helps throw Greg Hodge off the ballot.

It should have been a momentous occasion. Finally, after nearly five years of state control, Oakland's democratically elected school board was going to retake some authority over the school district. Yet almost no one showed up last week to witness the historic decision. And it's no wonder, because the board's newly restored powers are in name only — at least until it hires its own superintendent.

Last week's decision almost didn't happen. In early December, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell announced at an Oakland press conference that he was ready to turn over authority to the school board in the areas of facilities and personnel management. But during the next three-plus months, it became clear that he wasn't anxious to live up to his vow. According to school board President David Kakishiba, O'Connell kept refusing to hand over the reins of power unless the board promised to protect Expect Success, a controversial program backed by billionaire philanthropists Eli Broad and Bill Gates.

Broad, a staunch opponent of elected school boards, is one of O'Connell's biggest campaign contributors and has wielded substantial influence over Oakland schools since the state takeover in June 2003 (see "Eli's Experiment," 10/10/2007). He's also a high-ranking member of a nonprofit that ran a secret lobbying campaign last year, helping kill Assemblyman Sandré Swanson's bill to hasten the return of local control. All three state administrators who have run Oakland schools in the past five years also are graduates of Broad's education foundation.

But Kakishiba said he and school board Vice President Alice Spearman, who led the negotiations with O'Connell's office, refused to make Expect Success a precondition. Kakishiba argued that the law by state Senator Don Perata that resulted in the state takeover didn't allow it. So then, two weeks ago, O'Connell relented and agreed to a memorandum of understanding with the school board that didn't include a promise to keep Broad's pet program.

The agreement also included a provision that allows the school board to hire its own independent internal auditor, so it can get a better sense of the district's true financial condition and its overall performance. Yet even with these concessions, plus Kakishiba and Spearman's endorsement, the rest of the seven-member school board nearly rejected the deal.

At last week's sparsely attended meeting, several board members were unhappy with a provision that would let O'Connell retake control of facilities and personnel if he felt the board was mismanaging them. The debate became so heated that at one point, it appeared that only Kakishiba, Spearman, and board member Gary Yee were going to vote for the agreement.

But then Kakishiba called a recess, and Spearman showed the rest of the board members that the objectionable provision was actually mandated by Perata's takeover law. Consequently, if the board had demanded the provision be removed, it would have required new legislation to change the senator's law — an extreme unlikelihood. Kakishiba was frustrated by the whole matter. "My God, after all this time, my colleagues still don't understand?" he asked.

After the recess, board members Kerry Hamill and Chris Dobbins changed their votes and the board approved the deal 5-2, thereby returning some local control to the district. The state still holds authority over academics and the district's finances. Board members Noel Gallo and Greg Hodge voted against the deal.

Yet even with the MOU, the board still has no real power until it hires its own superintendent. As it stands, Vince Matthews will act both as the state administrator, overseeing academics and finances, and the interim superintendent, reporting to the board on facilities and personnel. It's a setup that may prove to be unworkable, because Matthews' real boss is O'Connell, not the school board. As a result, he's free to ignore or reject the board's direction and the board has no recourse. It certainly can't fire him.

Nonetheless, Hamill said last week that she believes Matthews will be able to handle both jobs effectively. "He's easy to work with," she said. "He's reasonable." As for Matthews, district spokesman Troy Flint said: "Admittedly there is a gray area here" with respect to the agreement. "The way we're going to resolve this is a collaborative effort between Vince and the school board."

Early last week, Kakishiba appeared to agree with Hamill, but by week's end he had joined Spearman in declaring that they will push to hire a superintendent who reports directly to the board and will carry out its wishes. "If we were not to hire a superintendent, that means we don't want power — that we're completely abdicating to the state," the board president said.

Nadel supporter helps disqualify Hodge

It turns out that Greg Hodge's stunning failure to qualify for the June ballot was not entirely his doing. In fact, a supporter of Oakland Councilwoman Nancy Nadel played an instrumental role in short-circuiting Hodge's city council campaign.

The news broke last week that Hodge had fallen one short of the needed fifty valid signatures required to qualify for the June election. Hodge actually had submitted 74 signatures, but 25 of them were ultimately ruled invalid, said Deputy City Clerk Marjo Keller. It was a huge surprise because Hodge is a political veteran who won both the 2000 and 2004 Oakland school board elections. He's popular in West Oakland and was expected to give Nadel her toughest race in years.

Rumors about Hodge's qualification for the ballot had been swirling for weeks. Keller told Full Disclosure that the Alameda County Registrar of Voters' original examination of Hodge's signature list determined that he had come up short. But then Hodge went to the registrar's office and argued that he had collected fifty valid signatures. The registrar agreed, so Keller sent him a March 12 letter saying he had qualified.

But then James Vann, a community activist and Nadel supporter, began raising questions at the City Clerk's Office about Hodge's signature list. Vann enlisted the help of attorney Stuart Flashman, an elections expert. Of particular interest was the question of whether the address of one voter who signed Hodge's election papers had been filled out by someone else, which is illegal under state law, Flashman said. Keller subsequently disqualified Hodge after reviewing the papers herself. Flashman said he believes Hodge would be on the ballot if he and Vann had not intervened.

When contacted by Full Disclosure, Hodge said he was not aware of the Nadel supporter's involvement. "I was trying to figure out how Nancy knew I was disqualified before I knew," he said. "She called me and said, 'Marjo Keller told me you didn't have enough signatures and I was wondering if you would endorse me.'" Nadel did not return a phone call seeking comment. On Monday, Hodge filed suit against the City Clerk for reinstatement on the ballot.

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