The Caustic Reformer 

Randolph Ward has proposed the boldest school reforms in America. But can Oakland's most hated man sell his vision?

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Yet because of Oakland Unified's financial woes, less money for hillside schools won't necessarily mean a large infusion of cash in the flatlands. The district still has to cut expenses because of its large debt and declining enrollment; according to district figures, Oakland Unified has lost 9,500 students since 2001, costing it roughly $57 million. "What we're looking at is an equitable way to take less from the have-nots than the haves," Ben-Gal said.

How will it really work? It's still too early to tell exactly how principals will exercise their new authority, but a glimpse at two similarly sized schools with very dissimilar academic records may offer some insight. Thornhill Elementary in Montclair, with 342 students last year, was the top-ranked public school in Oakland and is consistently one of the highest performing public schools in California. Its rating on the state's Academic Performance Index was a ten, the highest possible. By contrast, Lazear Elementary in East Oakland, with 380 students, received a ranking of two. According to data provided by Ben-Gal, Thornhill's average teacher salary this year is nearly $53,000, while Lazear's just exceeds $45,000.

Sallyann Tomlin, principal of Thornhill, said in an interview that she wants to do whatever she can to maintain a first-rate staff. "My priority is to have the best person I can in each position," she said. But she acknowledged that she may not be able to afford both well-paid teachers and all the other people and programs that have made her school excellent. She and her teachers will have to be "pretty frugal," she said, and may turn to parents for more funds. "Our parents are really supportive," Tomlin said. "Our PTA funds a librarian, a P.E. teacher, tech support, a music teacher, and classroom aides."

Lazear Principal Maria Dehghanfard, on the other hand, is less sure about what results-based budgeting will mean for her school. "Our decision-making right now is a shot in the dark," she said. Dehghanfard said she too wants to hire "the best people possible for our site," but admits that it has often been difficult for schools in low-income areas to attract top-notch teachers. And although she will have vacancies next year, she's not sure how much control she will have over whom she can hire. That's because Ward and his staff must find spots for about 200 teachers who are being transferred out of six schools that are failing the rigid requirements of No Child Left Behind. If those incoming teachers are highly paid, it could bust Dehghanfard's budget. If they're not, she may have enough money to spare to spend on further training for her existing teachers. "It's pretty difficult to predict right now," she said.

Luckily for Tomlin, Thornhill will have at least two more years before she has to start making the really tough decisions. Language in the teachers' contract governing seniority and transfers effectively prohibited Ward from fully implementing results-based budgeting this year. So he is phasing it in over three years, hoping that voluntary transfers, resignations, and retirements will transform the teaching staffs of affluent schools. In the meantime, Oakland Unified is using proceeds from Measure E, a property tax approved by voters in March 2004, to subsidize salaries at Thornhill and other schools with too many well-paid teachers.

But contract restrictions aren't the only threat to the reforms. Ward's often-caustic personality is seen as an impediment by many of his critics. And the self-image of Oakland's principals and teachers may also keep them from ever buying into the changes.

Although Randy Ward has embraced many reforms originally launched by his predecessor, the 48-year-old state administrator has yet to win over the hearts and minds of Oakland educators. Ward's sometimes-gruff style has won him few friends, and he polarized the community with his 2003 decision to close five schools. His decision was understandable; those schools were all experiencing dramatic enrollment declines and had endured years of dismal test scores. But nonetheless, he angered teachers and parents who felt he simply ignored them. "He can be toxic," said one principal, who asked not to be identified.

Ward is known in some circles as the most-hated man in Oakland. He's the only local official to use a bodyguard (Ward said he asked for the $140,000-a-year Highway Patrol officer after he felt threatened by a local parent). Ward readily acknowledges that he is viewed as a stern taskmaster. "That's the perceived persona -- but that's also what gets people to pay attention," he said. "I've been put in the position of trying to advocate for the advancement of large amounts of students, and often that means pointing out what's wrong, and that's sometimes perceived as being negative.

"But what I also find in Oakland is that there's a silent majority -- people who talk to me at the supermarket or roll down their car windows at a stoplight and say: 'Thanks for telling the truth.'"

Scott-George believes Ward is simply misunderstood. "He's one of the funniest persons I know," she said. Indeed, Ward acknowledged that he needed to get out in the community more often and sell his plan more effectively. It's not as if he's completely void of charm. At times he flashes an infectious smile and exhibits an almost jovial demeanor. But at other times, he can make people shake their heads in disbelief and wonder if he's just plain mean.


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