Sheila Jordan was about to be fired. It was 1997 and Jordan’s boss believed she was mismanaging a program for pregnant teens in East Oakland. Augie Scornaienchi, Alameda County’s superintendent of schools, called her in for a meeting. But Jordan is nothing if not tough. Once Scornaienchi told her he was terminating her contract, she told him that she planned to run for his job.
Jordan had landed the teen-pregnancy position less than a year earlier — allegedly with the help of her mentor. Scornaienchi said Don Perata, who had just won a seat in the state Assembly, had called and asked him to hire Jordan — even promising to locate the public funds to pay for her job. The then-superintendent said he reluctantly agreed.
So when Jordan told Scornaienchi that she planned to become the next superintendent, he told her that she wasn’t competent to run the Alameda County Office of Education. The office not only educates some of the East Bay’s poorest and neediest students through programs like the one Jordan was running, it oversees the budgets of every school district in the county.
There was no denying that Jordan lacked the most relevant qualifications; she had never been a principal and didn’t possess the administrative credentials required by state law. Her experience did include teaching special education in Contra Costa County, and then serving four years on the Oakland school board, and four more on the Oakland City Council. But Scornaienchi said Jordan didn’t share his concern that she was unqualified. “I know how to win elections,” he recalled her saying.
Jordan rejects Scornaienchi’s entire account of how she obtained and managed the teen-pregnancy job. During a recent one-hour interview at her Hayward office, she called it “a complete fabrication” and said that Scornaienchi is still bitter that she decided to oppose his handpicked successor, Cheryl Hightower.
What’s beyond dispute is that Jordan is a tenacious politician who does indeed know how to win elections, schmooze with voters, and put together an impressive list of endorsements. With the help of Perata’s stable of campaign contributors, she bested Hightower by 2.5 percentage points in the November 1998 election.
Once Jordan took office, she managed to escape scrutiny. The County Office of Education operates in relative obscurity. Bay Area newspapers, including this one, are largely to blame for this, given their spotty track record of covering the agency. This is unfortunate, because the office and its leader hold one of the most important responsibilities in local government — making sure that scarce public education funding is spent properly and responsibly.
After almost eight years in office, Jordan’s record suggests that Scornaienchi was wise to question whether she possessed the skills to serve as county schools superintendent. Under her stewardship, one-third of Alameda County’s eighteen school districts have encountered serious financial troubles that required county or state intervention. Of the seven school bankruptcies in California since 1990, two occurred on Jordan’s watch — in Emeryville and Oakland. No other superintendent or county has weathered more than one such crisis. On this score, Jordan’s record is worse than that of any other county superintendent in the state.
Under state law, county superintendents are the last line of defense to prevent such catastrophes. Yet each time financial trouble surfaced in Alameda County, Jordan refused to accept responsibility. However, the Alameda County Civil Grand Jury, a group of residents appointed each year to investigate allegations of wrongdoing at public agencies, has often repeatedly blamed her for failing to anticipate and not doing enough to prevent these looming crises.
In fact, there have been so many financial problems during Jordan’s two terms in office that in each of the past five years the grand jury has launched full or partial investigations into her office and issued reports criticizing her. It has described her approach as being both insufficient and late. The panel also has praised Jordan for decisive actions once financial problems fully emerge, but repeatedly scolded her — often sharply — for failing to anticipate the disasters in the first place.
Two former county employees said recently that they have been interviewed by the current county grand jury, which is once again investigating Jordan’s office. Yet as the June 6 election approaches, the 61-year-old appears headed for her third term as county superintendent. She has gathered another long list of endorsements and has many prominent friends, most notably Perata, who is president of the state Senate. Even her political enemies acknowledge that she is a formidable campaigner. She can be alternately charming and hard-nosed, and like many successful politicians, she knows how to work a room full of deep-pocket donors.
But interviews with more than a dozen ex-employees, fellow educators, and former friends, and a review of hundreds of pages of public documents, reveal a darker picture of Jordan — a public servant whose office has botched its major responsibility while she at times seems preoccupied with politics or exacting revenge against employees who dared to question her judgment or her alleged illegal behavior.
Jordan’s ex-husband was the brains behind her four successful political campaigns. Larry Cooperman developed a talent for bare-knuckled politicking after talking the woman who would soon become his wife into running for the Oakland Unified school board in 1988. The two were ambitious. After one four-year term on the school board, Jordan won a seat on the city council in 1992, representing North Oakland and Rockridge.
Jordan began as a progressive, but over time she allied herself with the moderate Perata, who was building his power base from his spot on the county board of supervisors. Former Oakland Tribune columnist William Wong dubbed Jordan and her fellow councilmembers Ignacio De La Fuente and Nate Miley the original “Peratistas.”
In her 1998 campaign for county schools superintendent, Jordan took a page from her mentor’s populist playbook. She railed against the county Office of Education, claiming that it was top-heavy with bureaucrats unanswerable to the public. In a campaign mailer, she promised to save the county money by closing its public relations office.
Nearly eight years later, the county’s PR department is still churning out press releases touting Jordan’s almost every move. This year, her office has budgeted $720,000 on communications and public relations. When asked what happened to her 1998 promise to voters, Jordan at first maintained that she had downsized the public relations office when she reorganized it under a new department, Communications and Publications. But when it was pointed out that her employees have inundated the local media with hundreds of press releases over the past seven years, Jordan grudgingly acknowledged that she had not fulfilled her pledge.
Once she became county superintendent in early 1999, Jordan immediately began quarreling with the liberal and progressive members of the county Board of Education — Gay Plair Cobb of Oakland, Ernest Avellar of Hayward, and Jerome Wiggins of Berkeley. All three had supported her opponent Hightower, and Jordan’s worst fights with them centered on the county budget and who controlled it. In 2002, the grand jury criticized what it called a “lack of civility and decorum” at the board meetings, although it didn’t assign blame. But others did. “When Sheila got elected, the dynamics changed incredibly,” said Wiggins, who had gotten along well with Scornaienchi and Hightower. “It went from a collaborative relationship to a my-way-or-the-highway relationship.”
Jordan, in turn, blamed the three boardmembers for the strife. At one point, she arrived at meetings with an armed escort from the Hayward Police Department. She claimed that she feared for her life because Wiggins allegedly threatened her. He denied it, and Jordan’s top lieutenant, R. Michael Lenahan, said later that he believed Wiggins had actually threatened to bash county computers — not Jordan. But Jordan filed a police complaint against Wiggins, although police never charged him.
The superintendent then took another lesson from Perata, who had built his Democratic political machine by backing candidates allied with him. She helped finance Berkeley educator Jacki Fox Ruby’s campaign against Wiggins in the 2002 election. Jordan pumped $25,000 into Ruby’s campaign — an extraordinary amount of money for a normally sleepy county board of education race in which her incumbent opponent raised less than $5,000. The donations to Ruby included a $10,000 contribution, a $7,200 loan, and a $7,800 mailer that Jordan and Cooperman engineered on Ruby’s behalf, campaign records show.
The mailer sealed the deal. It was a letter signed by Jordan that featured a photo of her and was titled “An urgent message from the Alameda County Superintendent of Schools.” A bolded paragraph read: “Wiggins’ history of actual and threatened violence makes him unfit to serve on the board of education.”
After the election, Wiggins sued Jordan and Cooperman for libel. Jordan was represented by lawyers for the county’s insurance carrier; her husband’s lawyer was her longtime friend Dan Siegel. Jordan’s effort to evade responsibility for the mailer resembled her later efforts to evade the blame for the financial crises her office failed to prevent. She argued in court papers that she wasn’t responsible for the mailer even though she had signed it. She said it was produced by the campaign committee Friends of Sheila Jordan, for which her husband was treasurer but of which she claimed to not be a member. In any case, the lawsuit was a complete failure for Wiggins. Siegel and the insurance company lawyers got it dismissed on First Amendment grounds.
Flush with Jordan’s campaign cash, Ruby crushed Wiggins at the polls. Her election, along with that of Yvonne Cerrato, another Jordan-backed candidate, gave the superintendent a board majority. The new members immediately overturned the previous board’s budget and installed Jordan’s. Then they awarded her a 66 percent pay raise over four years.
The grand jury called the timing of the raise “unseemly,” but in a recent interview, Ruby reiterated past denials that there was a quid pro quo with Jordan. She maintained that a board study showed that Jordan’s $115,000 salary at the time was at the bottom of the pay scale for superintendents of similar-size counties. “The idea that there was some payback for the election is demeaning to me,” Ruby said. Jordan now makes $175,000 annually, according to public records.
In recent weeks, it has become clear that Jordan did far more for Ruby than merely financing her campaign and signing attack ads. A former principal at a county-run continuation school for troubled teens alleged in an interview that Jordan coerced him and other principals to campaign on Ruby’s behalf. Adeyinka Fashokun, then-principal at Rock LaFleche School in Oakland, said Jordan asked all the principals under her command to do phone banking. They were taken to a private home in Oakland, he said, where they called prospective voters and urged them to cast ballots for Ruby.
Fashokun, who is now a vice principal at Clayton Valley High School in Concord, acknowledged that Jordan never overtly threatened to fire principals who refused to campaign for Ruby. But he maintained that such a threat was implied. “When a superintendent asks a principal to do something and you don’t do it — you’re gone,” he said.
“I felt like a fool,” he added. “I felt like I was being used — exploited is a better word.”
Ruby insisted she was unaware of any coerced campaigning by principals and questioned Fashokun’s truthfulness. Jordan admitted that some of her principals, including Fashokun, did do phone banking for Ruby, but said they had volunteered. When asked why Fashokun would lie, Jordan said he was disgruntled because he had been fired for poor performance. Once it was pointed out that Fashokun left voluntarily when she eliminated the full-time principal’s job at Rock LaFleche, Jordan retracted this assertion.
If Fashokun’s allegations are true, then Jordan violated California labor law. It is illegal for an employer “to coerce or influence or attempt to coerce or influence” her employees into engaging in political activity, under state labor code section 1102. Stewart Weinberg, an Alameda-based labor attorney, who has no ax to grind with Jordan, explained that under case law the standard for “coercion” and “influence” is low. Jordan would not have had to overtly threaten Fashokun with his job for her to have violated the statute and be guilty of a misdemeanor. “If you tell somebody that depends on the livelihood you control that you want them to do something, that’s coercive,” Weinberg said.
The first big financial crisis on Jordan’s watch occurred in 2000, about a year after she took office. She and her staff were fooled by a con artist.
In retrospect, there were plenty of signs that the Emeryville schools warranted scrutiny. The tiny three-school district eventually required a $2.3 million state bailout, and Superintendent J.L. Handy went to jail for spending district funds on personal trips and elaborate gifts for himself and others. Jordan’s office should have known to watch Handy closely. He had already driven the schools in Compton into bankruptcy in 1993, but Jordan and her staff repeatedly believed his assurances that the Emeryville district was solvent.
Even after the district’s problems first came to light, and a county auditor was appointed and a spending freeze imposed, Jordan’s employees knew that Handy was still charging personal expenses on his district credit card, and yet they shared “little information” with Emeryville’s elected school board, according to a grand jury report. His thievery was finally exposed not by Jordan’s office but by San Francisco Chronicle reporter Meredith May. The 2000-2001 grand jury noted bluntly in its report that Jordan “had no experience with financial oversight at the level of a county office of education” and was slow to ensure that her office possessed such skills.
But it was in Oakland where Jordan and her staff failed to anticipate the largest public-school meltdown in California history. In October 2002, Oakland schools Superintendent Dennis Chaconas disclosed that his district was losing $30 million a year and was well on its way to a $60 million deficit.
Jordan almost immediately sought to oust Chaconas, blocking his attempts to stave off a state takeover, and ordering a series of audits of Oakland schools. She also repeatedly implied that Oakland’s accounting had been fraudulent, even though state auditors continually responded that they had found no evidence of it.
Chaconas has since accepted responsibility for the debacle and was fired, but Jordan has steadfastly refused to shoulder any blame — despite the fact that her staff had approved the district’s budgets and declared it to be solvent on at least eight occasions during the prior thirty months.
Jordan said there was no way her office could have predicted the crisis because district officials repeatedly gave the “wrong numbers.” But the 2002-2003 grand jury found that argument unconvincing, stating, “The task of fiscal oversight by [the Alameda County Office of Education] is meaningless if its only function is to ask questions and to hope the local districts are complying with basic reporting requirements.”
The meltdown in Oakland also led to the end of Jordan’s long friendship with Siegel, who had become a member of the Oakland School Board in 1998. At a large public meeting at Allen Temple Baptist Church in early 2003, just a few months after he had won the Wiggins libel case for Jordan’s husband, Siegel strongly criticized Jordan, Perata, and Mayor Jerry Brown, saying they weren’t doing enough to save Oakland schools. At the end of the meeting, Jordan buttonholed Siegel, who had recently announced his plans to run for mayor in 2006. “If you think you are going to build your political career by attacking me,” she allegedly told him, “I will destroy you.”
Jordan adamantly denies making the comment, but county board member Gay Plair Cobb said she witnessed the scene and validated Siegel’s version of it. When confronted with this, Jordan alleged that Cobb, Siegel, and Chaconas were “all working together” and that they had “come up with a set of untruths.”
Handy and Chaconas deserve most of the blame for what happened to their districts. But Oakland and Emeryville were not the only school districts to have financial trouble while Jordan was minding the store. Albany, Berkeley, Hayward, and Livermore also ran up a combined $20 million of debt during her watch. Shoddy record-keeping led to a $7 million shortfall in Berkeley in early 2002, while Albany’s $700,000 in overspending came to light in early 2002. The $12 million mess in Hayward originally made headlines in late September of 2002. Livermore, meanwhile, found itself $650,000 in the hole in the summer of 2003. With the possible exception of Livermore, Jordan’s office saw none of these crises coming, and she reacted by appointing fiscal advisers to take over each district’s finances.
Last year, the 2004-2005 grand jury argued that one of Jordan’s primary shortcomings is that she hasn’t allocated enough staff for financial oversight. The grand jury noted that just five of Jordan’s 620 employees were assigned to examine school district budgets. It also criticized her for not being as proactive as other county superintendents.
For example, Monterey County, which has less than one third the population of Alameda County, has a four-person strike team whose sole responsibility is to swoop into districts at the first hint of financial trouble; it also assigns five more staffers to financial oversight. Since Monterey launched its strike team, the county has had no bankruptcies, even in districts serving cash-poor farm communities such as Salinas and King City. The team is now led by Scornaienchi, who was known for working cooperatively with individual school districts, and who had none go belly up during his six years in charge of Alameda County.
One year ago, Jordan unwittingly provided some personal insight into her attitude toward financial matters and her habit of blaming others when she dislikes the outcome. In her divorce with Cooperman, she told the court that she had left it up to her husband to handle “all of the finances” in their marriage. Then she accused him of bullying her and coercing her into signing financial documents that she claimed she didn’t understand.
Upon inspection, the documents appear to be straightforward. The one she was angriest about is a two-page property deed — the very same document that homeowners sign when they buy a house. In the deed, Jordan assigned Cooperman 17 percent of her stake in their former Rockridge home.
Cooperman did not return a phone message left with his attorney, seeking comment for this story. But in a sworn response in court, he said his ex-wife “is a strong person with an assertive personality. I have felt very much pushed around by her and find her claims of ‘coercion’ on my part completely unrelated to reality.”
Aside from overseeing the books of every school district in the county, the county superintendent’s other primary responsibility is helping troubled, low-income kids who desperately need a good public education. The county operates five such schools, including three continuation schools for students who have been expelled from their regular campuses, and two court schools for kids who have been charged with or convicted of a crime, including the school inside Juvenile Hall.
Camp Sweeney, located in the hills above San Leandro, is for kids convicted of crimes not serious enough to land them in the California Youth Authority. County schools such as this represent the last chance for kids to turn their lives around. Most of the students at Camp Sweeney are black and Latino kids from the toughest neighborhoods in Oakland.
Jordan has bragged during the current election campaign about her successes at the county schools, especially the arts program. She crowed about securing a $250,000 art grant the county recently received. And while some former county teachers agree that the arts have flourished in county schools, four former educators, including three teachers who worked at Camp Sweeney, complain that Jordan and her staff routinely starved the school of money. “That’s the thing that’s frosted me the most,” said Donna Martin, who now teaches at the adult school in Fremont. “It’s all been at the expense of the incarcerated youth.”
Martin said she was forced to resign from Camp Sweeney when she asked too many questions about what happened to state Digital High School grant money. The funds were to purchase tech supplies that had been approved for Camp Sweeney, but never showed up, she said. “All of the software we ordered never came, but our budget was charged for them,” she said. Martin said she eventually became fed up and quit after she said she was hounded by the new principal, Steve Karass: “He wrote me up every chance he got.”
Valerie Abad said she too lost her job as a technology coordinator when she inquired about technology grant money that was supposed to be earmarked for the classroom. Abad said that she began asking questions about the federal E-Rate program, which provides technology funds for schools and libraries, shortly after Jordan recruited her in 1999. Abad said she was told that the county had applied for and had received the E-Rate grants but that the funds were not available for classroom technology, which, if true, may have been an illegal misuse of federal funds. “I was informed that my job would be eliminated,” she said, “effective in June .”
Marc Roth, a math teacher at Camp Sweeney for 25 years, believes Jordan harassed him into quitting because he had the temerity to openly question her management reorganization plan. At a staff meeting not long after Jordan took office, she explained to teachers how she would save money by eliminating an associate superintendent’s position. But Roth said he embarrassed Jordan when he pointed out that her plan called for replacing the associate superintendent with two highly paid directors.
Over the next two years, Roth said, Jordan got revenge by twice visiting his classroom and openly questioning his teaching methods in front of the class. “Sheila proved to hold grudges,” he said. “It was Nixonian, almost.” After the second time that Jordan riled up his class — at Rock LaFleche, where he had transferred — one student tossed a pint of milk at Roth while he stood at the blackboard with his back turned. He resigned shortly thereafter and now teaches at Juvenile Hall in San Francisco.
Jordan basically asserted that Martin, Abad, and Roth were all lying. She denied that Martin was harassed into resigning, and said she terminated Abad’s job in part because she “didn’t feel that office was operating the way it should.” Jordan said she could not remember Roth speaking out at her reorganization meeting, but she admitted that she took the side of a student in his classroom on at least one occasion. “I dealt with Marc in a very respectful way,” she said.
Asked why so many people would lie about her, she responded angrily: “They’re all disgruntled former employees. … You’re going down the wrong road if you’re questioning my ethics.”
Tony Aweeka said he first met Jordan while volunteering on her 1988 campaign for the Oakland school board. Like her, he was a progressive, and one day he just showed up and asked to help out. He also worked on her city council campaign race and her 1998 race for county superintendent. Over time, they became friends.
Aweeka was a science teacher at Irvington High School in Fremont when Jordan recruited him in 1999 to become the head of Camp Sweeney’s new Cisco Academy, which was part of a larger plan by Cisco Systems to train disadvantaged youths to become familiar with networking. “Most of the youth there are barely literate — if that,” Aweeka said during a recent interview in Montclair. “But some students are very competent. The idea was to take them and provide them with more than just a very basic education.” Jordan’s PR department inundated local reporters with press releases about the new technology classroom. Aweeka was one of the rising stars of Jordan’s new administration.
However, Cisco Academy ran into financial problems almost immediately. Kids can be tough on computers, and there was no money in Jordan’s $30 million budget for repairs. By 2001, the shine had completely worn off the academy, Aweeka said. Following the dot-com bust, Cisco lost interest, and Jordan decided to turn the academy into a computer repair center where students could learn how to fix computers. But Aweeka said there was still no money for supplies, and he had to scrounge around for spare parts.
Aweeka said he became frustrated when Jordan’s office purchased a new computer system and sent the old computers home with employees instead of donating them to his class. By early 2003, he was sending e-mails and letters, sometimes directly to Jordan, questioning what had happened to state and federal technology grants, which would have greatly improved his program. “I was complaining that money supposed to go to the classroom was going elsewhere,” he said.
A few weeks later, on March 4, 2003, Aweeka’s career crashed. He left school early — about 2:30 p.m. — for an eye appointment. He’d had LASIK surgery about a month before and was going in for a routine check-up. His absence was excused, but instead of getting a substitute, Principal Steve Karass took over his class.
When Aweeka pulled into the school parking lot the following morning, he immediately was met by Karass and one of Jordan’s top aides, county human resources director Rick Minnis. The two stepped out of a van and approached him. “Minnis told me to not have contact with anyone at Camp Sweeney,” Aweeka said. “He said they had found all this child pornography on my computer, and he said, ‘You’re going to lose your credential and I’m taking the case to the district attorney.'”
Inside Camp Sweeney, Aweeka’s classroom was cordoned off as if it were a crime scene. There were six thousand images of young African-American and Latino girls on his computer. Minnis immediately placed Aweeka on administrative leave, and Jordan recused herself from the case because of her long prior relationship with him.
Aweeka maintained his innocence and demanded a hearing. As a computer teacher, he believed it would be easy to prove that he wasn’t responsible for the porn. He turned out to be right. The county’s own computer forensic expert exonerated him, Aweeka said: The pornography did not appear to have been downloaded from the Internet. Instead, it seemed to have been uploaded onto his computer in two mass copying sessions. Although Aweeka said the date of these sessions could not be ascertained, the time stamp from one session was 11:30 p.m. Aweeka said he never worked that late, and that the official record backed him up. A key code is required to enter the school after hours, he said, and there was no evidence that his key code had ever been used to enter the building that late.
Although the county never again accused Aweeka of being responsible for the pornography — the origin of which was never determined — his ordeal had just begun. Minnis, the HR director, quickly reinstated him, but then closed down the computer classroom and ordered all the equipment put in storage. Minnis reassigned Aweeka to teach social studies, a subject he was not qualified to teach, and Aweeka said he also did not have sufficient classroom supplies or textbooks. Nonetheless, Karass launched weekly audits of his new classroom, in violation of the teachers’ contract, which Aweeka said prohibited formal evaluations of teachers immediately after they are reassigned. “I was under a lot of pressure,” he said. “It was obvious that they didn’t care about the rules. They were out to get me.”
The pressure proved to be too much for him. On May 26 of that year, Aweeka suffered a minor stroke and was hospitalized. Although he said he still suffers some effects from the stroke, such as occasional disorientation, he recovered quickly and felt ready to return to work after a few weeks. His wife, however, was concerned, and e-mailed Principal Karass requesting that Camp Sweeney officials accommodate her husband’s new disability by calling 911 if he appeared to be suffering another stroke.
Karass forwarded the e-mail to human resources director Minnis, who swiftly replied refusing the request. As a result, Aweeka did not return for the last few weeks of that school year. When Minnis continued to refuse to honor the request when school resumed in the fall, Aweeka filed a complaint with the state, saying he had been forced to leave Camp Sweeney. The next summer he filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Minnis, Karass, Jordan, and the county Office of Education, alleging that everything that had happened to him stemmed from his original complaints that “federal and state funds for the computer academy were being misappropriated and/or not being spent on appropriate computer and technical equipment.”
Aweeka’s attorneys argued that the defendants clearly broke California law when they refused to accommodate his new disability. Last September, Judge Steven Brick agreed that there was no question as to whether the county had violated Aweeka’s rights. But the judge stopped short of granting the teacher an immediate verdict, saying that he still had to answer the question of precisely how much money the county should pay him.
In January of this year, the 63-year-old decided to settle the case with the district’s insurance carrier. The stress of litigation wasn’t worth it, he said. He signed a nondisclosure agreement that prohibits him and the insurance carrier from revealing the amount of the settlement.
Minnis refused to comment on the case or the settlement. Karass, who Aweeka said wept during his deposition in the case, no longer works for the county and could not be reached. Jordan, when asked about it last month, maintained that a legal opinion from the county’s attorneys also prohibited her from talking about it. But when it was subsequently pointed out that the opinion actually said the nondisclosure agreement does not apply to her, she blurted: “I have no idea what the settlement is.” Asked whether she was curious, or felt responsible for keeping tabs on a potentially significant financial matter, Jordan added: “I’m not that curious; it doesn’t impact my budget. I really have other things to do. I feel very comfortable not knowing.”
Jordan correctly notes that Aweeka, Roth, Martin, and Abad are all disgruntled former employees resentful about being forced out of their jobs by her or her aides. The same can be said for Chaconas and Siegel, who saw their reputations tarnished after the state took over the Oakland schools. Chaconas lost his job and Siegel lost his political power base when the school board was stripped of its authority. Wiggins, meanwhile, lost his political influence when Jordan’s candidate defeated him, and Fashokun lost his county job when Jordan eliminated his position. Jordan argued that Cobb and Scornaienchi are still sore about her beating Hightower in 1998.
But until now, most of these people have been reluctant to speak out against Jordan because of her reputation for exacting revenge. They’ve decided to go public, they said, because they simply can’t stand the idea of her winning a third term on June 6.
Still, there’s no denying that Jordan has accumulated plenty of supporters over the years. Her list of endorsers is a who’s who of the East Bay’s political elite. Besides Perata, the state’s most powerful Democrat, Jordan’s supporters include Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher, outgoing Assemblywoman Wilma Chan, current Assemblyman Alberto Torrico, and former Assemblymembers Dion Aroner and John Dutra.
The current majority of the county Board of Education also is in her corner. One of those boardmembers, her reliable supporter Ruby, bristles at the notion that the board is just a rubber stamp for Jordan. “I sometimes get along with Sheila and sometimes I don’t,” she said. “I do as long as she does things for the good of the students.”
The past few years, however, have not been without political setbacks for Jordan. This is the first time she will appear on a ballot without Cooperman running her campaign. Earlier this year, she lost a major endorsement — the Metropolitan Greater Oakland Democratic Club. The club is one of the most sought-after supporters in Oakland because it represents influential voters in the Grand Lake area, North Oakland, and the Oakland Hills. This year it endorsed Jordan’s opponent John Bernard, superintendent of Newark schools. “I think people thought that Sheila was definitely part of the problem for why the Oakland school district was taken over by the state,” club member Pamela Drake explained.
Another endorsement Jordan will not receive, of course, is from Chaconas. He spars with her twice a month at county Board of Education meetings. He was elected to the board in 2004, easily defeating a Jordan-backed incumbent — but not before he had another run-in with her. Chaconas said Jordan called him before he announced his candidacy and warned him that if he ran, “things will get ugly,” adding that she would see to it that there was a third fraud audit of Oakland schools. Sure enough, after he ran, the district was audited again — but no fraud was found.
Bernard, Jordan’s June 6 opponent and a longtime friend of Chaconas, said Jordan has also played political hardball with him. The first time was when he announced his endorsement of Chaconas two years ago. He said Jordan threatened to block an early retirement program that Newark educators had sought.
Then, earlier this year, when Bernard planned to launch his campaign against Jordan, who ran unopposed in 2002, she tried to derail it. Bernard, who grew up in Oakland and lives there, wanted his official kick-off to be at one of his alma maters — Maxwell Park Elementary School in East Oakland. But Jordan called the school’s principal to say that such an event would be illegal.
She was wrong. Candidates make announcements at schools all the time — as long as they’re not during regular school hours. Oakland City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, for instance, held a campaign event earlier this year at Oakland’s Montera Middle School. Yet Jordan’s call worried the principal, and Bernard’s event had to be delayed two weeks.
For her part, Jordan denied threatening either Chaconas or Bernard. She said the last audit of Oakland schools had been planned before Chaconas ran for the board, and she said she would never take retribution against Newark schools for Bernard’s decision to back Chaconas. “We do not insert politics into this office,” she said.
But Jordan admitted to calling the Maxwell Park principal. When asked why the county superintendent would involve herself in an issue that was inside Oakland schools and thus outside her jurisdiction, she said she was merely acting on a complaint from a local resident. She then blamed her mistake on bad legal advice.
Following the Money
Alameda County school finances have been shaky during Jordan’s tenure.
Jordan defeats county Superintendent Cheryl Hightower and takes office in January 1999.
The tiny Emeryville school district faces a deficit of at least $500,000. In September, Emeryville Superintendent J.L. Handy resigns, but not before Jordan’s office fails to stop him from charging more personal items on his district credit card. By then, the deficit had grown to $650,000. After state auditors arrive, they determine that the actual debt is $1.3 million. The district goes bankrupt, requires a $2.3 million line of credit, and is taken over by the state. Handy is arrested and convicted of theft.
The small Albany school district finds itself $750,000 in the red. Jordan’s office failed to anticipate the deficit. She appoints a fiscal adviser to oversee Albany’s finances. At about the same time, a $7 million deficit comes to light in Berkeley. It’s blamed on shoddy record-keeping, but Jordan’s office did not see the problem coming. She calls in state auditors.
Jordan and her top staff are taken completely by surprise when Hayward schools alert them about management and financial problems. Eleven months later, the district is $12 million in the hole and she appoints a fiscal adviser to manage the district’s finances.
Oakland schools Superintendent Dennis Chaconas tells Jordan’s office that his district has overspent by $30 million and appears to be on the way toward a $60 million deficit. Her staff had repeatedly approved Oakland’s budget in the prior thirty months and had declared the district to be solvent. By June 2003, Oakland’s total deficit tops out at $57 million. The district goes bankrupt, it requires a $100 million line of credit from the state, and Chaconas is fired. It’s the largest schools bailout in state history. Jordan refuses to shoulder any blame.
Livermore schools report a $650,000 deficit. Jordan disapproves the district’s budget and appoints a fiscal adviser.
John Bernard plans to focus on financial oversight.
During John Bernard’s long career as a public schools administrator, he has developed a reputation as a superintendent that school boards turn to when they’re facing extreme public turmoil. Healing the wounds of racism and intolerance has become his specialty.
In the late 1990s, the Novato school district was roiled by a series of ugly racist incidents that made headlines throughout the Bay Area. During a basketball game in 1998, students from the mostly white San Marin High School donned Afro wigs, face paint, and masks and chanted “Nigger, nigger, nigger” at black players from Tamalpais High. It was the third time that San Marin students had hurled epithets at opposing black athletes during sporting events. The following year, San Marin students beat up the same openly gay student twice.
In early 1999, the Novato school board hired Bernard away from Bakersfield, where he was serving as superintendent of the state’s largest elementary school district following a job as a top manager in the Mount Diablo Unified School District. He also had been a teacher and principal in San Francisco public schools. Bernard immediately made several management changes. He also developed a Human Relations and Respect mission statement and adopted the gay-friendly documentary That’s a Family! as part of the district’s curriculum. His moves sparked a backlash among some community members and school officials, but the racist and antigay episodes subsided.
Four years later, Newark Unified School District in southern Alameda County recruited Bernard after three of its students bludgeoned a transgender teen to death. The killing of Gwen Araujo became a national story, and local political leaders were heavily criticized by gay and transgender groups for not being more sensitive. After arriving in Newark, Bernard worked with the local chapter of Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, and helped craft a community creed about respecting diversity that all city residents are asked to sign. “Dr. Bernard’s support and guidance was not just felt at our schools but extended into the entire Newark community,” said Newark teacher Virginia Williamson, who was named an Alameda County Teacher of the Year in 2003 by Sheila Jordan’s office. Williamson is supporting Bernard in the June 6 election.
If Bernard defeats Jordan, he plans to shore up the county’s oversight of local school district finances and improve academics at county-run schools. “My main emphasis is going to be fiscal oversight and checking to make sure that the numbers the county gets are accurate,” said Bernard, who was born and raised in Oakland and has a doctorate in multicultural studies from the University of San Francisco. He plans to model Alameda County after the financial-oversight successes in Orange, Kern, and Marin counties.