Katrina Scott-George worried that Oakland’s grand educational experiment would fail before it even started. It was the spring of 2003, and the state of California was about to take over the school district and fire the man who hired her. Superintendent Dennis Chaconas had recruited Scott-George to help run Oakland’s groundbreaking small-schools initiative. But she also had been working on righting a decades-old wrong.
On paper, all the city’s public schools belong to the same district. But in reality, the Oakland Unified School District has long operated two distinct systems: one for rich and primarily white kids in the hills, and another for poor black and Latino kids in the flatlands. The shiny hillside schools stood out for their top-notch test scores and savvy veteran teachers. The flatlands schools stood out for their broken toilets, uncredentialed instructors, and rock-bottom test results. These disparities were all the more scandalous given that Oakland Unified also spent more of its discretionary funds on schools in affluent neighborhoods. The difference was caused primarily by teacher salaries: The veteran teachers who gravitated toward the hills cost more than their rookie flatlands colleagues. As a result, Oakland spent millions of dollars more each year to educate the kids who needed it the least, while cheating the kids who most depended on public schools.
When Chaconas took office in February 2000, he and the school board essentially threw money at the long-struggling district. The flatlands schoolkids deserved better, they reasoned, so they gave all teachers a 24 percent raise over three years, and Chaconas launched a campaign to put credentialed instructors in every classroom.
At first, the plan seemed to work. Test scores began climbing. But Chaconas and his advisers failed to realize the disastrous side effects of the pay raises. They so successfully stanched the flow of quality teachers out of Oakland that they left the district with too many well-paid veterans. As enrollment plummeted, classrooms of twelve or fifteen students became commonplace. An early 2003 study showed that Oakland Unified employed 400 to 500 more teachers than it could afford. But by then, it was too late; the district had overspent its budget by $57 million. In June 2003, the state Legislature extended Oakland a $100 million line of credit — the largest in state history — and stripped the school board of all its powers.
When state Superintendent of Schools Jack O’Connell handed Chaconas a pink slip, Scott-George figured any hope for wholesale reform had ended. After all, student achievement did not notably improve under previous state takeovers, and financial inequities were not addressed. “I was expecting some bean-counting administrator,” Scott-George said. “I thought I was going to last about five seconds.”
At first, her fears seemed well-founded. Chaconas’ replacement, state Administrator Randolph Ward, arrived under a cloud of suspicion. There was evidence that the state financial experts hired to help Chaconas had instead worked behind the scenes to replace him with Ward, who had developed a reputation as an aloof manager in his previous job as the state administrator of Compton’s schools. He also looked like the classic bean counter: Ward made sure that Compton repaid its state loan in full, but the district’s academic record was still dismal after ten years of state control.
Yet Ward surprised Scott-George. Not only is she still with the school district, she’s helping him lead the country’s most extensive and controversial transformation of a large school district. If successful, Oakland Unified could become a national blueprint for urban school-district reform. “I was shocked,” Scott-George said of her new boss. “One of the incredible things about Randy is that I’ve never heard him say anything bad about Dennis. Instead, he came in and looked at what we were developing and said: ‘This looks great on paper. Let’s do it. Let’s talk less and do more.'”
Using the public schools of the Canadian city of Edmonton as a model, Ward, Scott-George, and their colleagues are completely revamping how Oakland schools operate. They’re transferring decision-making power from bureaucrats in the central offices and handing it to school principals. And they plan to equalize funding among hillside and flatland schools by instituting a sort of school-wide salary cap. “There were already good elements in place,” Ward said in a recent interview. “I certainly wasn’t going to throw that all away and say, ‘I now have the Randy Ward plan.'”
Other large urban school districts — including those in Boston, Cincinnati, Houston, St. Paul, San Francisco, and Seattle — also are copying aspects of the Edmonton model. But none is doing it as extensively as Oakland Unified, says author William Ouchi, a UCLA management studies professor who has studied Edmonton and other urban districts. By decentralizing power and turning principals into entrepreneurs, Oakland also is emulating American industry. Not surprisingly, the reforms have received the blessing of business leaders interested in educational reform, including Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and Eli Broad, cofounder of housing giant KB Homes.
But Ward’s ability to pull it off is in doubt. Although his absolute control over Oakland schools is allowing him to implement much of the overhaul right away, his entrepreneurial vision, my-way-or-the-highway leadership style, and fondness for hiring young business experts with little or no experience in public schools have engendered a strong backlash. Thus far, he has failed to achieve substantial buy-in from the people his new system most depends upon — school principals. And while he’s expecting a multi-million dollar infusion of private capital to help institute his plans, he’s also facing a militant teachers’ union leadership that distrusts his motives and opposes his latest contract proposal, setting the stage for a possible teachers’ strike — which could cripple the district’s reforms.
When Randy Ward arrived in Oakland in 2003, all he really had to do was make some tough cuts, balance the budget, and move on. But Ward, who was viewed in education circles as somewhat one-dimensional, had something more to prove. By the time he left Compton, the once-bankrupt district south of Los Angeles had repaid all of its original $20 million loan from the state. Yet Ward had made little progress in improving student achievement.
Former state superintendent of schools Delaine Eastin had tapped Ward to run Compton because he had turned around a struggling elementary school as a principal with the Long Beach Unified School District. Yet Ward could never repeat that success on a larger scale in Compton — which had been underperforming long before his arrival. Although Compton’s test scores inched up slightly during his tenure, they still were among the worst in California.
Ward’s Compton critics blamed his authoritarian management style and a lack of follow-through for the district’s poor academic record. One of Compton’s most glaring failures was the district’s consistent inability to attract and retain good teachers. When Ward left, more than half the teaching force was not fully credentialed. “Providing qualified teachers was his responsibility, and he didn’t make that happen,” said Compton teachers’ union president Thomas Hollister. Veteran educators also resented Ward’s penchant for hiring young and relatively inexperienced professionals to be school principals. The group became known as the “kid principals,” and most of them didn’t last long, Hollister said.
The administrator argues he simply couldn’t convince qualified candidates to come work in Compton, a city that remains mired in poverty, drug dealing, and violence. “Compton did not have the capacity Oakland has,” he said. “We did have people who wanted to help us, but it was few and far between.”
Ward also hadn’t yet embraced the vision that emerged from Edmonton, Alberta in the early 1970s. The dramatic changes begun there were brought about not by a financial meltdown but by a sweeping demographic shift. Families were fleeing to the suburbs and abandoning inner-city schools. Instead of closing older schools, as was happening across North America, Edmonton Public Schools Superintendent Mike Strembitsky created competition. His open-boundaries plan, which subsequently has been copied elsewhere, allowed students to attend any school they wanted, as long as there was space available. And to provide real choices for parents and attract students back to inner-city schools, the district launched an array of alternative programs. Today, Edmonton operates 31 alternative programs in the district’s 200-plus schools.
Yet by the late 1970s, Edmonton still suffered many of the same problems that plague urban districts such as Oakland. Academic achievement lagged, while an us-versus-them mindset permeated the system. Teachers and principals were expected to boost student test scores, but had no real control over their schools. Instead, that power rested in the hands of a byzantine bureaucracy. So Strembitsky turned the power structure on its head.
The district developed a new system called school-based budgeting. Strembitsky took financial control away from the central office and handed it directly to principals. As a result, with input from teachers and parents, they started deciding how many instructors, custodians, secretaries, or security officers they needed. Principals and teachers took ownership of their schools like never before, said Angus McBeath, who succeeded Strembitsky as the superintendent of Edmonton Public. “Staffs give up in schools when they don’t have enough control,” he said.
Edmonton transformed its central office into a group of separate operations that sell goods and services to principals. Again, the idea was to upgrade the system through competition. If principals were unhappy with services provided by the district, they had the authority to buy from outside vendors, McBeath said. “Initially, they thought it would be awful,” McBeath said of principals and teachers. “Now, they love it.”
Parents apparently love it too. Private school enrollment in Edmonton declined during the 1990s, according to the Edmonton Journal. Consequently, Edmonton has become an education mecca. Nearly every month, school district leaders, city council members, and state legislators from around the United States journey over the border to observe the hottest new trend in school reform. In October 2003, Time dubbed Edmonton “the most imitated and admired public school system in North America.”
One zealous proponent of the Edmonton model is Eli Broad. Broad, who along with his wife has poured $400 million into his Broad Education Foundation, is exerting considerable influence in Oakland schools these days. He is helping fund the redesign of Oakland schools and has supplied some of its new leaders, including Barak Ben-Gal, the district’s new acting director of fiscal services, and Troy Christmas, the district’s new acting director of human resources. Both are young graduates of the Broad Foundation’s urban education residency program.
Ward learned the details of the Edmonton model during his 2003 tenure at the Broad Foundation’s school for superintendents, which trains CEOs and business leaders to run school districts. His instructor was William Ouchi, who wrote a book in 2003, Making Schools Work: A Revolutionary Plan to Get Your Children the Education They Need. (California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger reportedly handed out the book as a Christmas present that year.) Ouchi champions the Edmonton model because it borrows from the lessons learned in corporate America. “The research on large businesses is when you get large, you become centralized, autocratic,” said Ouchi, who made a name for himself in the 1980s as a best-selling author of books about corporate teamwork. “The answer is decentralization. In a large business, if you don’t do that, you will be out of business. School districts don’t go out of business. But by now people realize these districts are failing.”
Ouchi has been a fan of the Edmonton model for more than a decade. In the mid-1990s, he teamed up with former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan to convince that city’s school district to adopt schools-based budgeting. Although they were rebuffed by a reluctant school board and teachers’ union, Riordan continues to embrace the Edmonton model in his current job as California’s secretary of education under Schwarzenegger. Riordan was so impressed by Edmonton that he began talking about remaking California schools in their image and hired Strembitsky as a consultant after taking office. Those ideas have since taken a back seat to other issues on Schwarzenegger’s agenda, but in a recent interview, Riordan called Ward “one of my superheroes” for adopting key aspects of the Edmonton model. Riordan said the governor also is keeping tabs on “what’s going on in Oakland.”
Even before Ward’s arrival, Scott-George had been examining similar reforms. But her boss, Chaconas, was convinced that the local educational community would never embrace the radical changes of Edmonton without proof of success. So the reforms moved slowly, particularly once he became preoccupied by the fiscal meltdown of the district. “Dennis was about creating hope,” said Scott-George, who is now a special assistant to Ward.
Chaconas’ strategy had been to open new small elementary schools while dividing the city’s large high schools into smaller learning environments. Research shows that small schools boost student attendance — an important element in a city where enrollment, and thus revenue, has declined rapidly. And like the Edmonton reforms, the small-schools initiative was decentralized. Each principal had more authority than the traditional Oakland principal.
Shortly after Ward arrived in Oakland, he decided both to open more small schools and to quietly embrace the Edmonton model. The first step was school-based budgeting, although Ward called it results-based budgeting. Throughout the 2003-04 school year, Scott-George hammered out the details, and then in late 2004, Broad and Gates donated $1.3 million in seed money to help her and a design team create a new blueprint for Oakland schools.
Yet simply copying Edmonton was not enough. Although the design team, which included the small school backers at the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools, believed that giving principals control over their budgets would instill pride of ownership, they also worried that Edmonton’s model would not adequately address the funding gap between rich and poor schools. So they went one step further.
Principals in Edmonton don’t really control teacher salaries — the costliest item in any budget. Instead, each budget is based upon the average teacher salary for the entire school district. That way, when a principal is choosing which teacher to hire, salary plays no role in the decision. “We don’t want price to dictate these decisions,” Superintendent McBeath explained.
Edmonton teachers’ union chief Karen Beaton said that her union never would have supported school-based budgeting if principals had to base hiring decisions upon whether their school had enough money to pay a particular instructor. “If a school needs a teacher, they should be able to pick the best person for that school,” said Beaton, who has worked as both a teacher and a principal. “Otherwise, decisions would be made without the best interests of the students at heart.” It’s not that financial matters aren’t considered, but rather that managing teacher salaries remains a central-office responsibility in Edmonton.
But Scott-George and her colleagues concluded that Edmonton’s system wouldn’t lessen Oakland’s funding gap between rich and poor schools. “You would never achieve equity doing it that way,” explained Ben-Gal, who now runs the district’s budgeting program. So Oakland Unified’s new system, which Ward rolled out at the beginning of the 2004-05 school year, goes beyond the Edmonton model.
Under Oakland’s old system — the one still employed by every other school district in California — salaries had nothing to do with where teachers worked. For example, if two Oakland schools each had 400 students, both schools would have been allotted, say, twenty teachers. All twenty could be well-paid veterans or low-paid rookies; the old system didn’t care. The result was that veteran teachers tended to flock to the hills after paying their dues in the flatlands, where teaching is more difficult. Flatlands schools then tended to be left with higher turnover and a seemingly endless string of new instructors, who were asked to do the tougher job of working with kids in poverty.
Under Ward’s new plan, schools that educate the same number of students will receive the same amount of discretionary funds to spend. Consequently, the veteran staffs of hillside schools will have to be broken up and replaced with a mix of veterans and rookies — unless well-heeled hillside parents are willing to donate more money to help those schools keep their veterans.
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.
One middle-school principal felt that way after a recent school board meeting. During the meeting, JoAnna Lougin of Madison Middle School had given a presentation on the steps she and her staff were taking to improve test scores after they had declined following several years of steady growth. But she explained that her school, which is in the deepest part of East Oakland and is surrounded by boarded-up houses that squat behind chain-link fences, had difficulty attracting teachers, and had to get by with a series of substitutes in several classrooms earlier this year.
Ward would hear none of it. His voice rising, he snapped at Lougin: “As a principal in a school, you have to prepare for that. These things happen every year.” The exchange made both audience and school board members cringe.
“I think he was so unfair and rude to me,” Lougin said during an interview the following week at her school, which serves some of the city’s poorest students. “This school used to have one of the lowest attendance rates in Oakland. I brought it up to 95 percent. You can’t mistreat people like that. You can’t continuously talk down to people who are on the front lines.” Lougin had no qualms speaking frankly because she’s retiring in June after more than thirty years in Oakland schools.
Even strong supporters of Ward’s reforms acknowledge he has yet to generate excitement about the dramatic changes he’s launching. “Dr. Ward has been cordial, but I don’t feel he’s been as accessible as Dennis,” Denise Saddler, principal of Chabot Elementary School in North Oakland, said politely. Nonetheless, Saddler said she’s “very excited” about the new reforms and enjoys controlling her own finances. “I was born in Oakland and I really want our kids to succeed,” said Saddler, once an aide to former Mayor Elihu Harris.
Still, Ward’s failure so far to forge strong relationships with principals and create enthusiasm for his reforms could prolong or even derail them. That’s because the job of principals is about to become much more time-consuming. Principals will now be expected to be not only instructional leaders, but also small business owners who must master budgets and be comfortable about deciding whether to hire a reading specialist or lay off a janitor.
In a series of interviews in the past month with twelve principals from elementary, middle, and high schools, most expressed trepidation about hiring teachers based on whether you can afford them. “Let’s say I interview you and you’re a 15-year veteran and you look like you will be great for my school,” said Amy Hansen, the well-respected principal of Oakland’s Skyline High School. “But I may not be able to afford you. Now, I’ll have to stop and think, ‘How much better are you than the person who will cost me half as much?'”
The lesson of the Chaconas years is that someone has to consider the budget. But Oakland’s principals aren’t yet willing to agree that they are that someone. Some principals said that if they had wanted to run a small business, they would not have become educators. And while some of them said they do not necessarily oppose the reforms, they wonder if there are enough hours in the day — most principals already put in more than seventy hours a week. “We’re expected to be the fund-raisers, entrepreneurs, bookkeepers, and accountants,” explained Lynn Dodd, principal of McClymonds High School in West Oakland, while she was working through spring break. “And we’re expected to provide a safe haven for students, and we’re expected to provide a culturally enriching environment. And we’re expected to respond to the district’s educational mandates, and we’re expected to average 95 percent daily attendance — which means immediate contact with parents to make sure students come to school. And we’re expected to help students pass the high school exit exam, and state tests, and we’re expected to meet the rules of No Child Left Behind.
“I don’t know how long people will be able to maintain the stamina.”
Ward said candidly that he does not believe all of the hundred-plus Oakland school principals will survive the changes. “We found that some of our principals didn’t even know how use spreadsheets, let alone budgets,” he confided. But he and Scott-George said they believe they can attract new blood to Oakland and raise sufficient private funding to help principals complete the overhaul of the district. Scott-George pegged the total cost of breaking up the central office into service operations at $40 million to $45 million. She and Ward say most of that would be paid by private investors. Ward says he hopes to make announcements about those incoming funds soon.
But as welcome as those millions will be, and as capable as Ward is of firing and replacing those principals who don’t buy in to his vision, the single strongest group of employees in Oakland could still throw a wrench into his entire plan.
When Ward first came to Oakland, the Oakland Education Association appeared to be one of his few allies. The teachers’ union had been angry with Chaconas about his overspending, and refused to support his efforts to avoid the state takeover, arguing that teachers should not have to pay for his mistakes. Yet within months of Ward’s arrival, they gave some ground. Although the union had adamantly turned down Chaconas’ plan to cut pay by 6 percent to balance the 2003-04 budget, the union acquiesced to Ward’s proposed 4 percent salary cut.
Nearly two years later, however, the union’s goodwill toward Ward has evaporated. It’s safe to say that union leaders now dislike Ward as much as or more than they did Chaconas. The beginning of the end of the relationship occurred when Ward started closing schools, and worsened last year when the union voted in a new president, Ben Visnick, who had opposed the 4 percent pay cut and immediately struck a militant stance against Ward and his plans. Ward further added to the growing discord when he threatened to shut down adult education earlier this year.
Still, Visnick and his fellow union leaders seem to prefer arguing about larger education issues, such as the lack of funding in California schools and the unfairness of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, to focusing on realistic plans for fixing Oakland schools. As a result, the union and Ward at times appear to be talking past each other. While Ward wants to discuss his school-district overhaul, the union leaders have been pushing an idea unlikely to ever see the light of day — raising taxes on corporations to generate additional education funding. “We want to go after the fat cats,” Visnick says.
Some union leaders now routinely shower Ward with boos and hisses at public meetings and chant “Ward must go.” They also have grown almost conspiratorial about his ties to Broad, who is a major charter school supporter. The union views charter schools as a threat to its existence, because charter schools typically do not employ union teachers. The leadership’s repulsion to charter schools runs so deep that, earlier this year, the union chose to make life harder for its members and Oakland students at several schools instead of working toward a compromise.
The schools in question were being penalized under No Child Left Behind, the federal law that requires schools receiving federal antipoverty funds to make “adequate yearly progress” on test scores. Those that fail to show enough improvement for six consecutive years must become charter schools; contract with outside managers; replace the principal and most or all teachers; or engage in similar restructuring. Not surprisingly, given its Bush Administration heritage, the law is set up to favor the options that resemble privatization. Whenever a school embraces one of those options, it gets six more years to show adequate progress. By contrast, merely reorganizing or restructuring only buys a school a single extra year to prove itself. If it fails again, it’s in the same spot.
Thirteen Oakland elementary schools failed to show adequate progress for six years in a row. Three were already scheduled to become new small schools, and two of the others were making enough progress that restructuring was an option. Ward and his staff decided to transform the other eight into charter schools, having rejected the strategy of shuffling teachers and principals as too disruptive for students and teachers. But as a concession to the union, they proposed to create a charter school entity that would attempt to honor the teachers’ contract and continue to use standard Oakland curricula. The one major hitch was that the district demanded that the union give up tenure rights for teachers at those schools. Kevin Wooldridge, the former Oakland Unified executive director in charge of the effort, said administrators felt they needed to ensure that the failing schools would not be bogged down by burned-out veteran instructors.
Union leaders rejected the proposal. “They made it clear they weren’t interested in sitting down with us,” said Wooldridge, a Chaconas hire. Instead the union urged teachers not to approve the proposal. In essence, the union argued that the district should disregard the edicts of No Child Left Behind. The campaign worked. In the end, teachers at only two of the eight schools voted to approve the charter schools.
Visnick said he is proud of the outcome, characterizing it as a victory over charter schools. But for the six remaining schools — Highland, Jefferson, Lockwood, Horace Mann, Webster, and Whittier — the outcome will be anything but pretty. Since each of those schools failed to show substantial improvement, Ward and Scott-George believe restructuring offers them little chance of success. Instead, those schools will now be “reconstituted”; all 200 teachers will be transferred to other schools, and replaced with teachers from elsewhere. “Unfortunately, people have very strong feelings about charters,” Scott-George said of the union’s campaign. “But charters are part of the law and our approach was to stop burying our heads in the sand and be proactive. We thought we had a great idea.”
Ward said he plans to remain in Oakland from one to three more years. He intends to be the only state administrator of the district, meaning that local control would return when he leaves Oakland. But that’s assuming he can complete his overhaul before then. At this point, that looks like a tall order, considering his inability to win over principals, coupled with the combative opposition of teachers’ union leaders who view him as some sort of villain.
The administrator sidestepped questions about what he plans to do with principals who reject or are unable to adapt to his reforms. But based on his track record, it’s safe to assume he will simply replace them or they will retire, move on to another district, or return to teaching. He has already partnered with a Baltimore-based nonprofit group that is funded by Gates and Broad and is helping train principals for the district. Nonetheless, major turnover among principals could seriously hamper Ward’s ability to institute his reforms and raise student achievement.
But more significant, and more pressing, is the hardened position Visnick and other union leaders are taking against Ward’s latest contract proposal. Even though the union’s own bargaining team reached a tentative agreement on that proposal late last month, Visnick and the union’s leadership voted overwhelmingly against it and are urging Oakland’s nearly 3,000 rank and file teachers to do the same.
The main sticking point is Ward’s plan for passing some of the district’s rising healthcare costs on to the teachers. Visnick argues that teachers should not have to endure any more cuts, considering the 4 percent salary reduction of two years ago. Instead, Visnick and other union leaders say Ward should borrow more money from the state’s $100 million line of credit. So far, Ward has spent $65 million — $57 million to cover the debt Chaconas created and $8 million more to cover cost overruns he’s had since. “Rather than make more of these cuts in education, we think he should use this money,” Visnick said of Ward.
But Ward said he has no plans to borrow more for Oakland. Additional borrowing would just mean that the district would have less to spend on education in the future, he noted. In fact, he said he also has changed his mind about borrowing $11 million to create a reserve fund. “You’re creating more of structural deficit by not making cuts,” he said of Visnick’s plan, shaking his head. “You’re creating for the next generation a horror story.”
The teachers are scheduled to vote on the contract on the evening of Wednesday, April 27 at Oakland Technical High School. If they follow their leaders and reject it, Ward could end up implementing his last offer unilaterally. And if that happens, a teachers’ strike may not be far away. It would be bad news for everyone in Oakland, but especially for Ward and his reforms. Striking Oakland teachers have a history of getting what they want. Over the years, Oakland parents often have sided with their kids’ teachers, particularly when those parents start panicking about their children being taught by substitutes for long periods of time. When that happens, parents usually make life miserable for their elected officials, demanding that they get the teachers off the picket line and back in the classroom by giving them what they’re asking for. Teachers might vote to strike in the hope that it will be a one-way ticket out of town for Randy Ward.