Letters for the week of May 25-31, 2005 

A throng of anonymous teachers responds to Robert Gammon's recent cover story on Randolph Ward's efforts to reform Oakland's schools.

"The Caustic Reformer," Feature, 4/27

Randolph Ward is like a small-time mafia boss
I was on my way to eat lunch when I picked up a copy of the Express and saw Randolph Ward's face on the front cover. I was nearly floored. I felt anger, fear, and then I started laughing remembering my experiences teaching for Oakland Unified. This is what I saw when I was there: classrooms in disrepair, chaos, stressed-out teachers, unruly administrators, threatening letters, out-of-control students, uncaring parents. As a teacher in one of those flatland schools, I put up with this and much more up until they adopted the Open Court Reading Program. That about did it for me.

Last year, I tried leaving Oakland when I was confronted with an alarming letter from Ward. He threatened teachers who wanted to quit before the beginning of the school year with revoking their credentials. At that point I realized that the Oakland Unified School District was an institutional mafia. Ward was the mafia boss. Thanks to counterthreats from the teachers' union, I was able to get out of my contract a month into the school year. This cost me many job opportunities even though I finally found a teaching job working in yet another dysfunctional public school district. The funny thing is that next school year I think I'm going back to Oakland -- hopefully at a small independent charter school. You have to be a little crazy to teach -- and probably really insane to teach in Oakland.

The question I ask myself is: Should I be afraid of the most hated man in Oakland, or should I feel sorry for him?
Former Oakland teacher, Berkeley

A conspiratorial scream to oust a corrupt leader
Randolph Ward is simply a union buster. His big reforms are part of the long repertoire of teacher-demoralizing, union-busting tools. Other techniques are cutting salary, closing schools, firing teachers, and involuntary transfers. He is using site-based budgeting because it discourages teachers from striking.

Ward has already been involved in corporate cronyism. One key crony is Kevin Wooldridge. This piece of work was in charge of many of the thirteen schools on the list to be turned into internal charters. Then this same guy takes an "unpaid leave of absence" to become the head of the agency that runs the same schools as charters. If this doesn't smell of corruption, it is only because living in the Bush age has desensitized us to it.

Now, as for the urban superintendents' program: Why would CEOs and business bigwigs want to take pay cuts to work for public education? They care about education, or they see it as an opportunity to make money? I think it is safe to make an assumption here. A lot of urban public school property sits on some valuable real estate.

Maybe I'm just a conspiratorial union teacher, but I do believe that screaming for corporations to pay more for public schools is not the best use of our energy. Our best use of energy is to get this opportunist out of Oakland. Randolph Ward is no reformer. He is a corrupt leader with a lot of powerful friends. His only vision is money and power for him and his friends. He deserves his status as Oakland's most hated man.
An Oakland teacher, Richmond

If we can afford war, we should fund schools
Like most of my colleagues, I am a passionate, qualified teacher who chose to work in a flatland Oakland school. I also voted against the proposed contract. Here's why: Ward wanted to eliminate art, music, and library classes for elementary students. These classes are all Oakland kids have left of enrichment classes taken for granted in richer districts.

The contract would reduce the number of counselors. It's no secret how great a need Oakland children have for access to social services, behavioral support, and interventions when they are failing academically. We need MORE, not fewer guidance counselors.

Under the proposed contract, many teachers with families would face an immediate pay cut of up to $2,000-$3,000 a year because the district would not continue to cover the full cost of health insurance, resulting in an increased pay cut each year as the costs rise.

In addition, what parents don't realize is that the district is suggesting middle schools CUT social studies and science classes in order to provide four periods a day of math and language arts as a way to raise test scores. Teachers and administrators are scrambling to find ways to change our schedules so our children don't lose these basics.

It was flat-out bizarre that you portrayed results-based budgeting as an attempt to remedy the inequity between hills and flatland schools. A veteran hills-school teacher is far more likely to accept a position in Orinda or Walnut Creek than step foot in the flatland schools. Besides, the budgets for flatland schools do not provide enough money to be able to afford veterans either, because the allocation is based on an average that's low. Finally, parents of upper-middle-class children have ALWAYS raised the money to protect the quality of THEIR children's education, either through property taxes, bonds, or outright donations. They will not stand by and lose highly qualified teachers to the flats.

Teachers and parents are on the same side. Since our school board has been taken from us, we must stand together to demand better for our children. If we have money for war, we have money for our schools.
A.F., San Francisco

Tyranny and propaganda have infuriated teachers
The letter that arrived in the mailboxes of the teachers of Oakland contained the glib, slick tone of speciousness we've come to expect from Randy Ward. Is it possible to insult us more? Everyone on the receiving end of his "reforms" knows his actions belie those hollow words. How can he say "we all know that the relationships among students, parents, and teachers are at the heart of good schools" when every decision is made without input from any students, parents, or teachers, and every "effort to find solutions" is riddled with callous disregard for those very relationships?

Some of the changes being promoted aren't necessarily bad ideas. In fact, many of them were already being put into motion before the hostile state takeover. Many of the proposed changes contain elements of ideas that teachers in this district have been talking about for yours. Before the conspiracy of Don Perata, Jerry Brown, and Jack O'Connell to vilify and remove Dennis Chaconas, under his leadership we were already working on smaller schools, decentralizing management, site-based leadership, and so forth. Sadly, Ward and his backers fail to realize it doesn't work to leap a twenty-foot chasm in two ten-foot jumps. It's even harder when you've first sucker-punched those you expect to do the jumping.

Chaconas may have had his failings, but everyone felt in their bones that he really cared about the kids of Oakland and the Oakland community. He didn't need to hide behind a bodyguard. I initially resented him for taking the $300K some odd severance package, but now that I see the way they did him, I don't blame him for a minute.


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