Oakland: An Alternate Universe 

Left is right and up is down in this election, as a liberal mayor takes on the role of a crime fighter and the teachers' union says no to a pay raise.

When was the last time a leading law-and-order politician came out against a plan to put more cops on the streets? Or how about a progressive mayor who wants to hire more police officers after he just finished hiring a bunch of them? Better yet, what about a teachers' union fighting a plan to boost teachers' salaries significantly? Well, Full Disclosure can't recall an election like the current one in Oakland, a city that has become a sort of alternate political universe where left is right and up is down.

At least that's true for two closely watched ballot measures — Measure N, a parcel tax that would raise teachers' salaries, and Measure NN, a parcel tax that would allow the city to hire 180 new police personnel over the next three years. Measure NN is backed by Oakland's famously liberal mayor, Ron Dellums, and opposed by City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, a tough-on-crime politician who ran for mayor on an anti-crime platform against Dellums two years ago. Meanwhile, Measure N, the teacher salary measure, is supported by state schools Superintendent Jack O'Connell, a moderate who has often clashed with the California teachers' union, and it's opposed by the ultra-leftist Oakland Education Association, the city's largest teachers' union. The measure's opponents also include most of the Oakland school board, a group of liberals and progressives.

So how did Oakland politics suddenly turn upside down? It took a while. For Measure NN, the cops hiring proposal, it began more than a year ago when critics started haranguing Dellums for being slow to address the city's out-of-control crime problem.

Responding to the criticism, the mayor announced earlier this year an ambitious plan to hire more than 70 cops, finally bringing the police department up to its full staffing level of 803. But critics again attacked him for allegedly overreaching. They were wrong; it looks as if he will achieve the goal — something ex-Mayor Jerry Brown repeatedly failed to do — by next month.

But as Dellums went on his hiring binge, anti-crime activists weren't satisfied. A group of business leaders earlier this year began circulating a petition to put a measure on the November ballot to hire 300 police officers. Dellums criticized the proposal because it had no mechanism to pay for the all the new officers. So, the mayor and other city leaders developed Measure NN. "I think there was a belief a few months ago that we could add more police officers on our existing budget, but I think people now realize that we can't do that; we have a $42 million deficit," said Councilwoman Jane Brunner, who represents North Oakland and Rockridge.

Brunner, another liberal, is one of the leading advocates of Measure NN, which would allow the city to hire 105 new police officers and 75 new service technicians over the next three years. The measure would cost single-family homeowners an extra $113 next year, $185 the following year, and $276 annually thereafter, provided that the city actually hires the new officers. Brunner also noted that the measure will pay for a comprehensive crime-data tracking system known as Compstat, which is used in large city police forces across the nation. Compstat would be a welcome addition, because Oakland has one of the worst crime-tracking and records systems anywhere.

So why is De La Fuente opposing it? The city council president said he believes the police department needs to be overhauled before adding money to it. He noted that no top managers lost their jobs when crime spiked dramatically in 2006, and has remained high ever since. "The problem is that in management, nobody is held accountable, nobody pays the price," he said. He also argued that crime remains unacceptably high even with the new officers. "If you look at the number of cops we have today, it's more than we've had in the past ten to twenty years, and we're still not doing a good job," he said.

De La Fuente makes good points. Measure NN also faces an uphill battle in the current economic crisis. Moreover, the measure's backers were woefully slow in getting their campaign off the ground and didn't start raising money until earlier this month. Nonetheless, there is no denying that Oakland desperately needs more cops, especially detectives and investigators who solve crimes. Right now, the department has one of the worst records for solving violent crimes in the state, which means the city's most hardened criminals are free to keep committing more heinous acts. Last year, for example, the department solved just 25 percent of the city's 119 homicides, according to statistics from the California Department of Justice. In other words, murderers got away with three out of four killings in Oakland last year. That can't be allowed to stand.

The shortage of good teachers in Oakland may be no less serious. That's why it's surprising that the Oakland teachers' union would oppose Measure N, a parcel tax that would generate up to $15 million a year to finance teacher raises. Oakland teachers are among the lowest paid in Alameda County and the district continually struggles to attract and keep quality instructors, particularly since the 2003 bankruptcy. But a closer look at the measure reveals some backroom dealings that shed light on why the union is taking a hard-line stance against it.

Measure N was born late last year. At the time, the district had decided to put another parcel tax on the 2008 February ballot. Measure G sought to extend indefinitely the district's existing $195 parcel tax. But charter school backers threatened to oppose Measure G because it included no money for charter schools. Charter schools are quasi-independent public schools that typically don't reap the benefit of parcel taxes or school construction bond measures. As a result, they also often struggle financially, because they usually have to spend a significant portion of their funds on rent. By contrast, school districts can construct their own buildings with bond measure funds.

According to interviews with several school board members, state Superintendent O'Connell feared that the charter school backers would sink Measure G. Oakland has experienced an explosion in charter schools over the past decade. Currently, there are 34 in the city and about 15 percent of all public school children attend them. In short, they have clout. So O'Connell made a private deal with the charter school backers, promising to sponsor a future ballot measure that would include funding for charter schools if they tabled their opposition to Measure G. The charter school backers agreed, and Measure G cruised to victory with 79 percent of the vote.

Measure N represents the fulfillment of O'Connell's promise. The parcel tax, which will cost homeowners $120 a year, sets aside 15 percent of revenues for charter schools. And that's one of the main reasons for why the Oakland teachers' union is against it. The union objects to the backroom deal O'Connell struck and to charter schools in general, mainly because they do not employee union workers. "We have never taken a position against a parcel tax that benefits education," said Betty Olson-Jones, president of the teachers' union. "But this opens the door for more charter schools in Oakland. We already have 34 of them."

Six out of the seven members of the Oakland school board also oppose Measure N. The only board member who backs the measure is Noel Gallo, a longtime charter school supporter. Gallo said that O'Connell originally wanted to award 25 percent of the measure's revenues to charter schools, but he said he was able to convince the superintendent to lower it to 15 percent to match the percentage of Oakland public schoolchildren enrolled in charter schools. But Gallo, who has been on the school board since 1992, said he primarily supports the measure because Oakland teachers are drastically underpaid. "I think it's the right thing to do," he said. "I've witnessed the number of teachers that have left us every year due to our low compensation."

Gallo is right; Oakland school teachers are woefully underpaid. But O'Connell's private deal with the charter schools supporters is unfortunate. The state superintendent should not have succumbed to threats. Nonetheless, the city needs to attract and retain good teachers just as much as it needs to hire more cops. To do that, the school district needs to start paying competitive salaries. According to Oakland state Administrator Vince Matthews, a starting teacher's pay in San Francisco Unified is $53,000 compared to $39,000 in Oakland. That too can't be allowed to stand.

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