The October 10 meeting of the Oakland Board of Education was ugly and painful. The subject at hand was a delicate, unpleasant matter that plagues most urban schools every year, a process called “consolidation.” Each fall, the school district must estimate how many children will be attending each of its schools in order to assign its teachers. Each fall the district is wrong and, one month into the term, finds that it must transfer teachers to different schools, breaking up the tenuous community of the classroom in the process, and throwing the education of hundreds of students into disarray. It’s an awful annual trauma for teachers and students, one that the board and the superintendent’s office must handle with maturity, sensitivity, and caution. Instead, this year’s board discussion was a perfect example of why so many people say that Paul Cobb, one of Mayor Jerry Brown’s appointees to the school board, should never have anything to do with education again.
The school board chambers were packed with angry students, teachers, and parents who had come to decry the impending shake-up. As board members listened and winced, a line of children took the podium, one after another, and begged the board not to break up their classes. Sheila Quintana, the president of the 3,800-member teachers’ union, the Oakland Education Association, urged the board to find some way of ensuring that this never happens again. “As a classroom teacher, the kids bond with you immediately,” she pleaded. “And we know about the tragedy that happened on September 11. These kids need to be affirmed that they are going to be safe, that they are going to be secure, that they are going to be protected. But their psyches are suffering, because they are moved around like a deck of cards.”
When the board finally got down to discussing how the district could fine-tune next year’s process, director Greg Hodge spoke first. The endless chain of disruptions each October is unacceptable, Hodge said; the district must find a way to improve its projections. Then he made it clear that the board would get nowhere if small-minded politics poisoned this discussion. “The question is, ‘How can we work this out together?'” he concluded. “We don’t want to have a lot of rhetoric tonight.” Fellow director Bruce Kariya echoed Hodge’s concern and he warned against any “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Although neither mentioned Cobb by name, the message was clear: “Please, Paul — don’t turn this meeting into a zoo again.”
Finally it was time for the Paul Cobb Show. With more than twenty years of community activism under his belt, Cobb, the self-styled “mayor of West Oakland,” has accumulated a sizable arsenal of community goodwill and moral authority, but his critics claim that along the way, he has honed race-baiting and grandstanding to a fine art. Rumbling with a preacher’s cadence, Cobb began by admitting that he hadn’t done his homework and knew nothing about the topic under discussion: “This has been quite a learning experience — I’m trying to consolidate some of these issues, so I can keep up with what’s going on,”
Then he proceeded to arbitrarily insult both Superintendent Dennis Chaconas and director Jean Quan. A few minutes earlier, in an attempt to explain why she thought it a bad idea for the the board to dip into the district’s emergency reserves to fund a less painful way out of its staffing crisis, Quan had cited a number of looming expenses that the board had to be prepared to pay. One of the items on this list was teacher salaries. Seizing upon Quan’s almost offhand remark about the board’s obligation to honor the increased salaries it had approved for teachers, Cobb embarked upon a bizarre and irrelevant diatribe, in which he accused Quan of asserting it was greedy teachers who are responsible for the consolidation mess. “Now, I missed part of that so-called Shakespearean quote about sound and fury signifying nothing. But I know what what’s-her-name said and that dog ain’t gonna hunt! Okay now, I don’t know whether or not we are posturing for some kind of labor union negotiations, [but]… I heard a subtle dig by saying, ‘Well, we paid our teachers all that money, and now it’s coming back to haunt us.’ You know, I think there’s another way to say it. We didn’t pay the teachers enough!”
The crowd cheered, and Cobb was on a roll, but other board members were quietly seething. They’d seen Cobb pull this stunt countless times before; whenever a disgruntled group storms the public comment period, claim surprising numbers of his fellow directors, Cobb leaps to play the righteous populist. Meanwhile, the less glamorous work of actually solving complex problems falls to his colleagues.
This time, Quan wasn’t going to take it. Furious, she leaned away from her microphone and snarled angrily at Cobb from her position three seats away.
“Okay, okay!” cried director Kerry Hamill, who was chairing the meeting. “Just proceed, Mr. Cobb.”
Far from proceeding, Cobb silently leveled his gaze at Quan for ten long seconds, a look of pained indignation on his face. “You…”
“Just proceed, Mr. Cobb. Stay on point, now.”
“You made a comment that she didn’t interrupt anybody while they were speaking,” Cobb incoherently pouted.
“You know what?” Hamill retorted. “You know what? It doesn’t matter. Please, let’s just keep to the issue — “
“Oh yeah, it does matter!” Cobb said.
By then, the crowd had the taste of blood. The louder they screamed, the more pleased Cobb seemed to be with his performance.
Finally, Hamill had had enough. “Mr. Cobb,” she asked in a tone worthy of Joe Welch addressing Joe McCarthy, “why are you being like that?”
Jerry Brown spent an enormous amount of political capital to be able to put Paul Cobb on the school board. Forging an alliance with state Senator Don Perata and assembling a political action committee — the so-called “3Rs PAC,” with a war chest of more than $350,000 — Brown doggedly pushed Measure D, a March 2000 ballot measure that would empower him to appoint three additional directors to the seven-member school board and thus give the mayor unprecedented influence over the schools. Obviously enraged at a school board that had dared to defy his pick for a new superintendent, the mayor was moving to bring the schools under direct control of the most potent political machine that Oakland had seen in more than a generation. For months, the city watched in fascination as Brown not only announced his intention to remake the schools from top to bottom, but also gathered the raw power to do so.
When Brown narrowly won his new authority, he promised to use it wisely, appointing financial and curriculum experts who would elevate school policy above its traditional parochial pork-barrel squabbling and craft a reform agenda. Now, twenty months after his triumph, nothing resembling an agenda has emerged from the mayor’s office, and even Brown’s closest allies have joined a rising chorus of city and district officials who are repudiating the conduct of his appointees. In fact, critics claim, Brown appointees Paul Cobb and Wilda White have essentially paralyzed the district with their bizarre theatrics, abusive behavior toward district staff, and relentless campaign of trivial criticism of Superintendent Chaconas — a campaign that seems designed to belittle him and hound him out of office.
“[Cobb] has been at various times extremely rude to district staff, particularly in committee meetings, where he berates people and has literally driven some of them to tears,” says director Dan Siegel. “He tends to take off on points without having any information to back him up, and constructs a polemic based on little bits of information — or misinformation. Frequently, he resorts to racial arguments, he wraps himself in concern for African-American students or employees, and accuses staff of being insensitive.” Siegel has no love for Wilda White either. “Wilda doesn’t seem at all calm right now — she’s really on the warpath about everything,” he says. “Wilda is fanning the flames [around consolidation], telling everyone it’s a major crime against humanity. She tells teachers who complain not to worry; that they won’t be moved. We [the board] can’t go along with it, but it’s the kind of thing she likes to do, because she can get on the moral high ground and try to make the rest of us look like idiots.”
Siegel is one of Brown’s most vociferous opponents, and his remarks might fairly be dismissed as partisan bickering. But even many of Brown’s onetime allies have abandoned him. Director Kerry Hamill is Perata’s former chief of staff; in the spring of 2000, she ran for a seat on the board, accepted thousands of dollars in 3Rs PAC funds, and supported the mayor’s plan to appoint three additional board members. But Hamill agrees with Siegel’s assessment of the mayor’s appointees, calling them reckless and divisive. “I come to the table and I want to do business, but it’s very hard with the mayor’s people, and I think it’s due to prompting from the mayor,” she says. “It’s the sniping. [The mayor’s appointees] don’t support any of the superintendent’s reforms, they criticize him in meeting after meeting, but I don’t have any idea of what they think we should be doing instead.” As for Cobb, Hamill sums up her reactions simply: “He just likes to bait people.”
City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente is arguably the mayor’s closest ally, but even he calls Brown’s appointees “the most disruptive members of the mayor’s administration.” “Watching the school board meetings, you realize that [Cobb and White] are only interested in one thing: to spend their time disrupting meetings and attacking and intimidating other board members,” he says. “Everyone makes mistakes, and I’m just hoping that [Brown] will correct it and remove those people. He should just apologize, remove them, and appoint better people.” Pete Yasitis, a deputy superintendent who retired in June with a stellar reputation, is now free to talk about the mayor’s appointees who, he says, have done nothing but harangue staff and spark pointless, petulant bickering.
Rarely can such a diverse array of Oakland public figures agree so wholeheartedly. Which begs the question: If these allegations are true, why on earth would the mayor allow such an intolerable state of affairs to continue? Some board members have come to actually suspect that the mayor, who has feuded with Chaconas ever since the board hired him, deliberately allows his appointees to wreak havoc in the hope that it will undermine the superintendent’s authority. Bruce Kariya, normally a diplomatic man who rarely indulges in hyperbole, is one who has come over to this way of thinking: “Benign neglect seems too charitable to me. I don’t know why [Brown] does what he does, but the mayor seems to be happier when the superintendent is taking hits.”
Perhaps the notion that the mayor’s inaction is a result of simple neglect should not be dismissed so quickly; a tendency to distractibility seems to have characterized the mayor’s entire political career. Jerry Brown has rarely dedicated more than three years to any pet project. He’s been a presidential candidate, a senatorial candidate, an amateur monk, a radio talk show host, and chair of the state Democratic Party, switching identities far faster than most of us could keep up. By the mayor’s own admission, he’s often too focused on the vision thing to sweat the details of everyday government. Fine — Oakland voters knew this when they elected him, and gambled that his stature would finally flash the klieg lights of national renown and venture capital onto Oakland’s threadbare stage. If Brown wants to remake himself as a centrist messiah, Oakland voters have been happy to accommodate him.
But sooner or later, Brown’s infamous failure to follow through on projects had to rear its head. Seemingly overnight, Brown had assembled a powerful and well-funded political machine, challenged voters to give him the power to stack the school board, and declared that Oakland’s educational future was at a crossroad. Since then, with the exception of his insistent support of a military charter school at the former Oakland Army Base, the mayor has removed himself from the affairs of the school district he worked so hard to dominate, creating a vacuum that has been filled with bickering and bad faith. Perhaps he’s just been too busy gazing at the horizon to notice the carnage that trails in his wake. At the end of a recent interview with Brown about the school board conflict, the man who appointed Paul Cobb and Wilda White — and could remove them tomorrow if he wished — merely sighed and said, “Maybe they should go to group therapy.”Things didn’t have to work out this way. When Brown came to power in 1998 insisting on the absolute necessity of reforming Oakland’s schools, he had some powerful potential allies for the struggle. Incoming director Dan Siegel, for instance, was a zealous reformer who incessantly echoed the mayor’s own insistence that the logjam of mediocrity in the schools can, and must, be broken. In 1990, Siegel had served as general counsel for then-superintendent Richard Mesa, who had been forced on a resentful school board in order to stave off a state takeover. Battered by horrific corruption scandals, the board had to agree to let Mesa assume day-to-day management of the district, but fought him every step of the way. Siegel was fired by the board in 1992. An impatient man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly and sometimes speaks his mind when he shouldn’t, Siegel would run for the board eight years later on one overriding platform: Get rid of Carol Quan, who had, by then, become superintendent.
Siegel wasn’t the only public figure with Quan in his crosshairs. The ultimate insider, Quan arrived came to the district in 1963 as a substitute teacher, rising through the ranks, until she was appointed superintendent in September 1997. But history wasn’t on her side; after years of enduring district complacency in the face of declining test scores and national ridicule for the ebonics fiasco, a consensus seemed to develop among Oakland’s leaders that only an outsider would be able to muster the will to fire entrenched principals and lazy bureaucrats, to shock the district into shape. Even as Siegel was agitating for her head inside district headquarters, Jerry Brown and Don Perata were on the outside threatening another state takeover. The combination proved lethal, and after fighting for a tempestuous month, Quan gave up and, in April 1999, resigned.
Unfortunately, for all their shared reformist zeal, Siegel and Brown don’t really like each other. Siegel is not shy when it comes to criticism, and he was quick to denounce Brown’s newfound centrist policies as elitist. Brown, meanwhile, has understandably chafed at Siegel’s pointed, unrelenting criticism. Conflict between the two broke out when it came to choosing Quan’s replacement. Brown wanted to hire interim superintendent (and consiglière to City Manager Robert Bobb) George Musgrove, while Siegel and the rest of the board regarded the mayor’s input as an unwelcome, heavy-handed attempt to usurp their authority. Soon, the mayor was drafting the language for Measure D, and the stage was set for a showdown in the spring elections.
Ultimately Brown hoped he would be able to appoint both the superintendent and three new board members, and he asked the board to delay the appointment of the new superintendent until after the election and the passage of Measure D. The board refused, and appointed Dennis Chaconas to the post.
Despite Brown’s repeated public assurances that he had nothing but love for Chaconas (in October of 2000, the grassroots group Oakland Community Organizations went so far as to organize a kiss-and-make-up ceremony at Roosevelt Middle School, during which Brown and Chaconas hugged in front of a thousand people), the pissing match surrounded the appointment of Chaconas probably set the tone for future relations between the new superintendent and the mayor. That is a shame, because Chaconas has proved to be exactly the administrator the board hoped he would be: tough, dynamic, and aggressive, with no tolerance for the mediocrity of the past. Within months of his appointment, Chaconas had shocked observers with the speed with which he launched his reforms: He fired 29 of Oakland’s 90 principals and put 14 others on notice that they had a year to improve their performance; lured renowned budget expert Pete Yasitis away from Alameda County staff; sent 150 district administrators back to the classroom; and negotiated a historic 23 percent raise for teachers (thereby ending a cycle of teacher strikes that had stretched back to 1977).
A blue-collar kid from the flats of East Oakland, Chaconas had worked in the Oakland schools for twenty years as a teacher, principal, and assistant superintendent before taking a job as head of the Alameda school district, where he turned a $4 million deficit into a $4 million surplus. During the first summer of his new job back in Oakland, he worked eighteen-hour days and vowed to resign if he didn’t show results. Harvard education professor Pedro Noguera was so impressed with Chaconas that he told the Oakland Tribune, “If anyone can do this, Dennis can. If he can’t do it, we should look at dismantling the whole system.”
Meanwhile, with Measure D narrowly passed by the voters, Brown exercised his new power, appointing White, Harold Pendergrass, and city manager administrator Gilda Gonzales to the board. At first, the elected directors seemed to snub the mayor’s appointees, but gradually got used to the new arrangement, especially as Gonzales proved a responsible, thoughtful decision-maker. So it’s perhaps understandable why politicos at both the district and City Hall were livid last November when Brown reportedly forced Gonzales to resign and replaced her with Cobb.
A self-styled “community spokesman,” Paul Cobb rose to prominence in the late ’70s as director of the grassroots group Oakland Citizens Committee for Urban Renewal (OCCUR), where he worked to promote minority participation in public construction projects and demanded increased police accountability. But his tenure at OCCUR was marred by persistent allegations of financial wrongdoing; eventually, both the City Auditor and the FBI investigated the group’s use of government grants, and at one point a government audit was unable to account for $400,000 in federal funds. Although in the end Cobb was personally exonerated by the investigation, and subsequent audits reduced the amount of unaccounted-for money, Cobb resigned.
Still, throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Cobb displayed an amazing capacity to stay politically relevant, ingratiating himself to then-mayor Lionel Wilson, the Oakland Tribune, and the Oakland Post, where he worked as the paper’s religion editor. In 1983, when cult leader and right-wing media mogul Sun Myung Moon was imprisoned for tax fraud, leaders of his Unification Church began spreading a lot of money around the country in an effort to redeem its leader’s reputation. They quickly found an ally in Cobb.
By 1985, Cobb was regularly emceeing “religious freedom” rallies organized by the Moonies, but his most prominent contribution was a manifesto defending the Moonies he penned and published in the Post. Titled “Moon Victim of Government Conspiracy,” the article accused the feds of conducting a racist persecution against the church. “Was Moon’s skin color and religion a crime?” Cobb wrote. “This is worse than being forced to sit in the back of the bus!” The article was subsequently reprinted in newspapers around the country by an organization called the Committee to Defend the US Constitution. That committee’s head, Warren Richardson, was a former Reagan administration appointee who fell into disgrace after the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League exposed his connections to the Liberty Lobby, a Holocaust revisionist group whose founder Willis Carto advocated shipping blacks to Africa. (Whenever Cobb was asked if he was a Moonie, he reportedly used to joke, “No, I’m a sunnie.”)
None of this mattered to Jerry Brown, who installed Cobb on the board over the objections of every single member of the Oakland City Council. What was the reason for the mayor’s stubbornness? Charter schools, insiders speculate. The mayor’s central policy goal is to move ten thousand middle-class residents downtown, and he has been quite vocal about his belief that middle-class families won’t come anywhere near Oakland as long as the schools remain terrible. Even the most optimistic school leaders project it will take at least a decade to turn the district around — far too long for Brown, who is widely believed to be planning a run for Barbara Boxer’s Senate seat in 2004. Brown’s solution: charter schools, which can be organized relatively quickly and which can be presented to middle-class families as an alternative to existing schools. The mayor, whose board-stacking ballot measure was roundly rejected by African-American voters, was told by Cobb that Cobb could deliver the support of the city’s black ministers to Brown’s charter school plan.
And so it came to pass that the mayor, who ran on a promise to sever Oakland from its history of mediocrity and racial politics, appointed to the school board a man who virtually embodied those qualities. On November 29, accompanied by the Reverend J. Alfred Smith and sixty cheering supporters, Cobb accepted his commission at City Hall. Siegel and De La Fuente were openly furious, but Chaconas greeted him with a hug, perhaps convinced of the political wisdom of keeping one’s friends close but enemies closer. During his first school board meeting later that night, Cobb pointedly presented bouquets of roses to former board members Toni Cook, Carol Lee Tolbert, and Darlene Lawson, who in the late ’80s presided over the most corrupt and scandal-ridden period in the history of Oakland’s schools. As he honored them, Cobb declared his hope that he would be up to the task of following in their footsteps. He even used district money to pay for the flowers.
But according to board members and sources inside the superintendent’s office, Cobb’s most troubling act that day occurred before he was even sworn in. Sadly, a number of Oakland schools qualify for funds from Gray Davis’ Immediate Intervention for Underperforming School Program (IIUSP), which is designed to radically reform schools with seriously low student test scores. In order to qualify for the grants, each school is required to hire an external evaluator to develop a school improvement plan. In the previous year, the district allowed the schools to hire whomever they wanted, but this year, after the IIUSP schools reported uneven improvement, the superintendent’s office took a firmer hand and narrowed the list of consultants to a small, select group. Carol Lee Tolbert, one of Cobb’s close friends, submitted a bid to be one of those consultants, but was rejected. On the morning of the day he was due to take his seat on the school board, district sources say, Cobb marched into Chaconas’ office and demanded that Tolbert be put on the IIUSP consultancy list.
Dan Siegel, who may be Cobb’s most passionate detractor, says it is completely improper for a school board member to ever lobby the superintendent, whose job depends on keeping the directors happy. “One of the things that makes my alarm bells go off the loudest is the insider dealing,” Siegel says. “Board members don’t do this kind of thing. I get calls all the time from people who say, ‘Why don’t I take you to lunch and show you how good our program is?’ I don’t even do that.” Cobb denies he ever lobbied Chaconas on Tolbert’s behalf.
Soon, Cobb was infuriating his colleagues and provoking controversy in a manner that seemed almost deliberate. Last December, just one month into his term as a director, Cobb proposed that the district abandon its plan to demolish the Fruitvale Montgomery Ward building. For five years, school directors and De La Fuente had fought the city’s historic preservationists in a campaign to replace the abandoned eyesore with a new school, and the board was on the verge of going ahead when Cobb threw a monkey wrench into the proceedings. De La Fuente and a host of directors were livid at Cobb’s recklessness. Even Noel Gallo, who is Cobb’s closest board ally, expressed his displeasure. Cobb seemed amused by the furor. “I am only asking a few questions,” he told the Oakland Tribune at the time. “Any little thing I say, people are overreacting to it.”
When Cobb isn’t grabbing headlines, district sources claim, he is abusing staff and even citizen volunteers behind closed doors. Take the case of Gene Zahas. Zahas, who runs a wholesale air-conditioning equipment company in West Oakland, graduated from Oakland High and sent his three children through the Oakland schools. For the last ten years, he and his organization, Friends of the Oakland Public Schools, have worked to pass bond measures creating parcel taxes to finance capital improvement projects for the district. In May, as the board considered putting another parcel tax on the ballot, Zahas met with directors and offered his advice on how to run the campaign. There, out of the blue, Zahas claims, Cobb called him a racist. “I got up to answer a question, and Cobb took me to task,” Zahas says. “He said something like, ‘Why is some white guy going to run this campaign?’ I know what he was implying. He was implying that if we didn’t pick a certain political consultant, we’d be racist. I was a little put out, because I was there strictly as a volunteer and didn’t like being treated like that. But I’ve seen this before; in committee meetings, I’ve seen him bring staff people to tears.”
Cobb denies ever saying this to Zahas. “I don’t know anything about that. I never used the word ‘racist,'” he says. But district staff member say that Cobb frequently suggests an undercurrent of racism on the part of staff, especially when he is pressuring the district to award contracts to his friends. “It’s not the kids — it’s the contracts,” says one district staffer.
“It didn’t appear to me that [Cobb] had the best interest of the district at heart,” says former deputy superintendent Pete Yasitis, who can speak on the record now that he’s retired and living in Palm Springs. “He didn’t want to take the time to learn about education and where we were going. I was getting ready to retire anyway, but [the mayor’s board appointees] were a factor in my deciding to leave in June. Personally, I look to the mayor. If I appoint people, and they’re doing things that aren’t constructive, you have to look at the man who appointed them. They’re trying to create dissension and sabotage, and they won’t let education reform go forward.”
Cobb wasn’t very interested when told of these accusations; in fact, he got off the phone as soon as he could. “Dan Siegel has his style and his agenda, so I guess that’s his approach,” he said. “I don’t utilize the press to attack my colleagues, and I’m surprised they’re doing that. I thought we were working together on [the parcel tax] Measure B. I don’t understand their approach, but I guess that’s their style.”
But Yasitis is hardly the only staff person who has a jaundiced view of Cobb. For the better part of a year, they claim, Cobb has lobbied for contracts, attacked district staff, and relentlessly humiliated the superintendent over nickel-and-dime details. Cobb hasn’t even been able to deliver on his promise to rally the African-American community around the banner of charter schools; mostly, African-American groups like Oakland Community Organizations have begun to inch toward Chaconas’ “small schools” formula. Still, until Brown decides that Cobb’s liabilities outweigh whatever purpose he serves on the board, Cobb will stay right where he is.
Fellow Brown appointee Wilda White presents a much more complex case than Cobb but in her own way is no less controversial. White’s loft apartment on the Oakland waterfront doubles as the headquarters for the Jack London Neighborhood Association, which she formed; zoning and City Council district maps line the walls of her office, as does an oversized copy of the neighborhood association’s greatest triumph, a court ruling that blocked one of the mayor’s high-rise housing projects near her home.
A blue-collar army brat from Massachusetts, White managed to secure a scholarship to Cushing Academy, an elite New England prep school. After college, she moved to Berkeley, where she attended Boalt law school. She was in the process of picking up a second postgraduate degree, from the Harvard business school, when the ebonics controversy in Oakland captured national headlines and she found her fellow students ribbing her for hailing from such a loopy part of the country. It was all in fun, but White regarded the ebonics fiasco as a truly shameful moment for Oakland’s schools. Nothing irritates her like unprofessional speech, as she would demonstrate time and again while on the school board.
White was spending her time working as a management consultant and fighting Jerry Brown in court and before the Fair Political Practices Commission, when the mayor invited her out for drinks at Jack’s Bistro in Jack London Square one night in March 2000. There he dropped a bombshell, inviting her to be one of his appointees to the school board. Since White considered herself no friend of the mayor, and even voted against Measure D, this proposal struck her as truly bizarre.
“I said, ‘I’ve sued the city and won when you wanted to put a high-rise up, I went to the FPPC and said that you should not be given immunity from conflict of interest, I asked the City Council to censure you for your comments to 60 Minutes that characterized Oakland as a pocket of poverty,'” White says. “‘In light of that, I don’t understand why you would appoint me to the school board.’ He said, ‘Well, you’re the smartest person I know, you’re an activist — and I think the school board needs activists — and you’re black.’ I said, ‘I don’t like the fact that you’re using my skin color to make decisions.’
“I think somebody might have told him that the black community was not happy with him, so I felt he was basically saying I was a sop to black people, that if he were willing to appoint me to the board, he could buy some credibility.”
In spite of her reservations, White accepted the appointment — a move she says she now regrets: “I shouldn’t have allowed Jerry to use me as a pawn.” She threw herself into the job full-time, devouring the Education Code and even enrolling in a school facilities training program at the Harvard School of Design.
For all her devotion, the same people who are fed up with Cobb are equally exasperated with White, who, they claim, ties up committee and board meetings with a preoccupation with trivial details, grinding the process down to a crawl and almost deliberately humiliating the superintendent’s staff. If a grant proposal that is already guaranteed to secure state education funds for the district has some spelling errors, she’ll vote against it. If the district, which like most urban schools is struggling with a teacher shortage, tries to issue emergency credentials to unqualified teachers, she’ll rail against it. Technically, White is often right, but her critics claim that in the long run, her objections are often far too petty to justify holding funding hostage or sticking students with an endless cycle of substitute teachers.
“For example, [White] voted ‘no’ on the budget after [she] had been on the board for just a few months,” Yasitis says. “And it wasn’t, ‘I’m voting no because I haven’t studied the budget,’ or anything like that. It was, ‘I’m voting no because test scores are low.’ No one wants [low test scores], but how is voting against the budget going to do anything?”
“Paul and Wilda practice the politics of destabilization,” Hamill recently wrote. “It’s just one weekly attack and emergency after another — all directed in opposition to the superintendent. It’s always about adult politics. Throw out the reading program because it forces teachers to follow a script and to teach reading in an entirely different way. Keep police officers off campus despite the fact that our campuses are violent and dangerous places. Blame the tests and call them racist rather than face the fact that we are offering an educational system seeped in low expectations and excuses. Criticism is cheap and easy. Solutions are harder.”
Of course, White rejects all this out of hand. “I see my role as a child advocate,” she says. “That’s all I do. So I go in there and I do what I do at corporations: I read; I say, ‘This doesn’t make sense’; I ask a question. And I do it at a public hearing, because this is the people’s business, and I thought everyone knew it was the people’s business, and that’s what a public hearing is for. Now, that was very naive of me, because those hearings are not for doing the people’s business. Those hearings are a show, they’re political theater. Apparently, my questions make the superintendent look bad. That wasn’t my intention, I was just trying to do my due diligence. I thought that when I asked a question there would be an answer on the other end.”
Director Jean Quan is particularly incensed about a vote White cast two months ago. A clear majority of the board had already voted to lay off its security staff and have the Oakland Police Department patrol the schools, freeing up money to hire six new high school counselors. But during a meeting of the board’s personnel committee, White voted to block the layoffs, because Siegel, an attorney, was conducting a trial and was not at the meeting. White’s procedural motion effectively stalled the hiring of the six counselors — and stymied the express wishes of a majority of the board.
“In most cases, we’ve agreed not to tie something up in committee when there’s clear majority support on the board,” Quan says. “Wilda wasn’t going to move it forward, because she was opposed to it. That delayed things a month, until Dan could get back for another meeting. This is not a big deal, but when you add it all up, it makes it very difficult to get things done. If this drags on too long, we may not have the money for counselors in the spring.”
“Jean Quan slithered over to me and said, ‘I’m never going to come to your committee again, because you won’t let us do our work,'” White responds. “I don’t feel like I did that. We didn’t have a full hearing [on the subject] before the committee [and] I wanted the people who were there to speak on it to have my full attention. Frankly, I wasn’t all there. I was sick, had 104-degree fever, the room was spinning. I was dying. I don’t know if I made the right decision, but I had no evil intention or political motive.”
Later, White agreed to move the item out of committee, but board members claim this isn’t the only time she has jeopardized school funding. Recently, White voted against plans that would have secured millions of state education funds for some of the city’s poorest schools: $500,000 for Fremont High; $311,757 for Allendale; $318,214 for Havenscourt; $537,802 for Oakland High. She even abstained on the vote to put Measure B, the district’s latest parcel tax proposal, on the ballot.
District officials also claim that White habitually hazes staff over bizarre, inconsequential matters. On October 8, one district employee sent a memo to Dennis Chaconas complaining that he had been confronted by White because he had not turned some confidential personnel material over to her as she had asked. “I explained to her that I wasn’t trying to be difficult and did not want to get into a beef with her,” the staff member wrote, “but I work for the superintendent, and you should take this up with him. She seemed agitated and somewhat aggressive…. If you would like for me to deal with her differently than we deal with all other school board members, just let me know. No other school board member has ever put me in the difficult position that I work for you and not them. I will always treat her professionally and with respect, no matter how goofy she gets.”
Finally, White has personally humiliated the superintendent on at least one occasion. Publicly proclaiming her opinion that Chaconas, who has been a respected educator for more than thirty years, is inarticulate and setting a bad example for children, she urged him to take speech therapy classes. Asked about it later, White stood by her recommendation. “Dennis is the education leader of Oakland, and every time I hear Dennis speak in public, he makes grammatical errors, he mispronounces words, he does malapropisms. And I think it sends the wrong example to have the education leader appear as if he is uneducated.
“I think Dennis Chaconas is a very hard-working person. I think he is very good at making people like him. I think he is in over his head; I don’t think he knows the first thing about managing a three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollar business. He does not have the resources to do that; he doesn’t have the education to do that. He’s a wonderful person, and I hope one day he will recognize his limitations and do something about it. Because it’s harming young people.”
Brown’s third appointee, Harold Pendergrass, does not regularly provoke the wrath of his colleagues, but his tenure has not been without controversy. This summer, Pendergrass, who did not return calls, threw the school board into an uproar when he insisted that the district buy untested math instruction software called Riverdeep. Although staff had no chance to review the software’s effectiveness and had heard preliminary reports from other districts indicating that the program had significant failings, Pendergrass aggressively pushed the program at the board level and demanded that the program be implemented immediately. Fellow directors were outraged that Pendergrass ignored the district’s procedures for curriculum evaluation, and the June 27 board meeting descended into such chaos that one director likened it to the Jerry Springer Show. Not coincidentally, as it turned out, Riverdeep is a brainchild of disgraced former junk-bond king and ex-felon Michael Milken, who happens to be a close friend of the mayor. In fact, the mayor was personally calling directors and lobbying for Riverdeep, but in the end only Pendergrass and Cobb backed the program, which would have cost the district $2.5 million.
While Siegel, Hamill, and the mayor’s appointees have been howling for one another’s heads, directors Greg Hodge and Jason Hodge have found themselves caught in the middle. Greg Hodge has always offered himself as a mediator and takes upon himself the thankless task of trying to broker a compromise between the two factions; as such, he demurs when pressed to comment. “People tend to overpoliticize these appointees and the mayor,” he says, “They tend to neglect the real issues around what it would take to bring adequate resources to the district.” Still, he has shown a clear frustration at times; during one recent board meeting, he repeatedly interrupted himself to snap, “You can shake your head all you want, Wilda.”
Likewise, board president Jason Hodge is doing what he can to stamp out the brushfires. “We all have to work together, so I don’t see the benefit of trashing each other,” he says. “We have to work together beyond this story. It doesn’t do much good to knock each other and criticize. It may embarrass some city officials, but at the end of the day we all have to work together, and we can’t do that if we all hate each other. And after all, we can’t fire each other.”
But this summer, Dan Siegel tried to do just that, announcing plans to gather signatures for a ballot measure revoking the mayor’s power to appoint and singling out Cobb as particularly disruptive. In fact, tensions grew so high that in August most of the board agreed to attend a special retreat in Los Angeles. There, for three days, they locked themselves in a room with a facilitator and tried to figure out how to get along (Paul Cobb and Noel Gallo boycotted the retreat claiming that it violated the Brown Act). While there, the directors even listened to lectures from Holocaust survivors in an attempt to put their squabble in perspective.
Two months ago, the feud intensified still further during Chaconas’ annual performance evaluation. During the year he’d been in office, the superintendent demonstrated solid progress. The proportion of first-grade students reading at grade level rose from 37 percent to 54 percent; seven new schools had opened, mostly in the overcrowded Fruitvale district; and, according to the state’s Academic Performance Index, 54 of the 74 Oakland schools with valid scores reported improvement. Despite this good news, Paul Cobb, Wilda White, and Harold Pendergrass all gave Chaconas an unfavorable rating — which some claim is tantamount to trying to fire him — after reportedly grilling him on an endless series of trivial details.
Hamill came out of the meeting furious. “I think Dennis was treated like garbage,” she says. “He left the room almost breaking down. They were challenging him about how horrible the district was and blaming him, and it was a rapid-fire attack, and he just couldn’t listen anymore. It wasn’t constructive; it wasn’t a dialogue. That was the real break for me. It became clear to me that the goal was not just to criticize, but to really destabilize, and it’s clear that we won’t have a superintendent here for very long if the mayor’s people are constantly badgering him.”
As word of the evaluation has spread, there are indications that Mayor Brown may have begun to feel some heat. Once a month, the mayor meets with an organization that has come to be known around town as “the CEO Club.” Organized out of the Rockridge headquarters of Dreyers Ice Cream, the CEO Club is a place for the mayor to meet with a group of the city’s most important business leaders. Rumors are flying around City Hall that at the last meeting, CEO Club members grilled Brown about Chaconas’ evaluation, and conduct of the mayor’s board appointees in general.
Brown denies that any such interrogation took place. Still, there’s little doubt that of all the mayor’s major policy initiatives, his education program has most prominently dashed itself against the rocks. The wreckage is ironic; it could easily have been so different. By the time Carol Quan resigned as superintendent, the school district had been purged of every official apologist for mediocrity, and Brown had a historic opportunity to join with a legion of reformers and reverse the school’s epochal slide into disgrace. Now with its superintendent under siege and its board at war with itself, the district is clearly back in big trouble — even as the mayor just seems content to float above it all.
Asked recently about the conflict on the board, the mayor characteristically began by attributing the bad blood to the combative nature of his old nemesis Dan Siegel: “Dan only gets in the paper by attacking someone in a more responsible position than the one he enjoys. He’s not a man who enjoys his current level of publicity.” When told that Kerry Hamill felt the same way as Siegel, however, Brown pulled up short. “I can’t explain Kerry on this,” he said after a long pause.
Taking a different tack, Brown attempted to justify the conflict on the board as nothing more than the kind of vigorous debate that comes with a healthy democracy. “Democratic discourse implies dissent and debate,” he said. “We don’t have a monolithic society. It’s a question of should you have dissent on the board, or should you have an amen chorus? Look at the [City] Council: Larry Reid uses some very strong language, and so does Nancy Nadel. Frankly, I find it refreshing that people will speak with candor instead of the usual forked tongue of political discourse.” Then he suggested this was a race thing. “Why do the minority [elected board] members get along with [the mayor’s appointees], did you ever ask yourself that? If some of the African-American members feel exercised or really concerned, it’s because they are concerned, and they should be frustrated. In a multicultural city, we should have respect for different ways of expressing oneself. Given the problems confronting the schools, there’s bound to be a certain element of frustration. If you only have two percent of African-American boys qualifying to Cal State, that’s a cause of concern. Maybe it troubles Siegel and the others less.”
In the end, however, Brown seemed almost plaintive. “Don’t fan the flames,” he said. “Try to see the humor in all this.”
Indeed, there is a certain gallows humor in this debacle, the same species of amusement that, during the ebonics disaster, made Oakland into a punch line at water coolers around the country. If you put aside the 54,000 students whose education has only just begun to recover from the last twenty years of misrule, there’s a lot to laugh about.
But perhaps Oakland is tired of being a joke