Battle Lines Drawn on State Control of Oakland Schools

Battle lines are drawn over a plan to give the state unprecedented control in Oakland's scandal-plagued and financially strapped public schools.

On one side are state Supt. of Instruction Bill Honig, Assemblyman Elihu M. Harris (D-Oakland) and many school principals. They say the appointment of a state overseer is the best way to cure California's fifth-largest school district of theft, alleged nepotism, irresponsible budgeting and academic failure.

"You've got a disintegrating school district, and the kids are suffering," Honig said. "Somebody's got to prick the boil."

On the other side are some parents, a majority of school board members and a potent political machine. They charge that Harris is sponsoring legislation for state intervention to boost his name recognition as he prepares to run for mayor. They also allege racial bias in criminal investigations of the school board.

"It seems to me it's a power trip for the downtown business interests, who are mainly white," Darlene Lawson, considered the most influential school board member, said of the widening probes. Lawson is among four blacks on the seven-member board.

There is plenty to debate. Even after sharp cuts in music, art and vocational classes, Oakland schools need at least an extra $10 million this year. Eight current or former school employees have been arrested on charges of theft or embezzlement from the district, and as many as 50 more arrests are expected. All seven members of the school board have been subpoenaed to testify before the Alameda County Grand Jury.

The Oakland Tribune last week ran a much-discussed series of articles alleging that acting Supt. Edna Washington, Lawson and some other board members run the schools as an "iron grip" patronage system that has allowed corruption to flourish.

Two of Lawson's daughters are school custodians, but in an interview with The Times she denied any nepotism. Washington, whose brother, sister and cousin are employed in the schools, could not be reached for comment.

"We are having some really serious problems on the business service side, and there are no excuses for employees who steal," school board President Alfreda Abbott said in an interview last week. "But we do have 6,000 employees, and the majority are honest, hard-working and effective. To say everybody is corrupt and dishonest is just not fair."

Meanwhile, the state Senate this week is expected to pass Harris' bill, which won overwhelming Assembly approval last month. Under its provisions, Oakland schools could receive a $10-million loan in exchange for a state trustee with veto power over many school board actions for five years. If the school district refuses the loan, as it says it will, a state trustee with advisory powers will be appointed at first and could get stronger controls if Honig thinks the situation is getting worse.

In the past, half a dozen California school districts facing severe money problems have agreed to be placed under trusteeships, according to Honig. The Oakland district will probably be the first to get a trustee against its will. In business terms, the state is plotting a hostile takeover.

The Oakland school board recently voted 5 to 2 to reject the state loan--and thus the trusteeship--and to issue its own $10-million worth of certificates of participation. District officials insist interest on those bonds will be $450,000 less than interest on the state loan. Honig and Alameda County schools chief William Burke pledge to block the sale of those Oakland certificates.

Education experts say the Harris plan is part of a new trend to help troubled inner-city schools. For example, New Jersey has begun to take control of schools in Jersey City, an old waterfront town that has many of the same troubles as Oakland. Last week, Boston University took over schools in impoverished Chelsea, Mass. Illinois legislators this summer voted to break up the central board of education in Chicago.

Harris acknowledges that he will run for mayor next year but insists his legislation has a wider goal than just boosting his career. Harris, who is black, also dismisses charges that his bill would serve the interests of the white establishment.

"I'm concerned about the children, not the school board," he said. "If the children are well served, then there is no question that the state's role is proper."

Everyone agrees that Oakland's 50,000 schoolchildren need help.

Nearly half of them come from families on welfare, and many face daily struggles against drugs and crime. About a quarter of the students speak limited English. About 60% are black, 17% Asian, 14% Latino and 9% Anglo.

The dropout rate over three years for the high school class of 1988 was 23.5%, slightly higher than the state average but well below the 39% in Los Angeles and 30.4% in San Francisco.

State tests in reading and mathematics ranked Oakland's 12th graders last year in the bottom 5% statewide and the bottom third when compared to similar urban districts.

Still, there has been encouraging improvement in elementary and middle school test scores, according to Honig, and some Oakland schools in the more affluent hilly neighborhoods score extremely well.

"It's not that they don't have the talent there. They just need the leadership," the state superintendent said. "That's what frustrates some of us. They are squandering their potential."

UC Berkeley education professor James Guthrie led a highly critical study of Oakland schools four years ago and says that things appear to have worsened since.

"There are some pockets of educational excellence in the hills, and there are some schools in the flats that are doing pretty well also, where the teachers and principals, almost despite all odds, are doing a good job. They are working their fannies off," Guthrie said.

However, according to Guthrie, the overall situation is so bad that he is breaking with his usual commitment to local control and supporting the Harris bill. "There are too many children at risk to sacrifice for an abstract principle, which isn't working in this instance anyway," he said.

Diane Raulston, education official for Oakland's NAACP, agrees. She scoffs at protests by some school board members that outside white forces are making a much-desired power grab at Oakland schools.

'Comfortably on Bottom'

"Why would anybody want our schools?" asked Raulston, who ran unsuccessfully for the school board in 1987. "It would be different if we were mid-range academically. But we are sitting comfortably on the bottom, and it's going to take a crane or forklift to lift us up."

In rebuttal, school board member Sylvester Hodges stresses that a state trustee may force sharper program cuts, ultimately hurting students. "I'm saying we are not doing as well as we want to do, but we are doing better than a lot of other urban school districts, and we are planning to do better."

Kitty Kelly Epstein, an education professor at Holy Names College in Oakland, also opposes state intervention. "It's horrendous. People need more local control, not less," she said. She questioned how Honig could promise improvement in Oakland when so many minority students nationwide are doing poorly.

Teachers complain that recent budget cuts have exacerbated years of mismanagement and say they are concerned that the district has not been able to find a permanent superintendent since last year. The instructors tell stories of children crying because music classes have been axed and musical instruments are locked away in closets. Principals talk about recurring thefts of school supplies and their suspicions that most of the thieves are school employees.

"I like to say they took our milk one night and came back for the milk cooler," said Principal Michael Hopkins about successive break-ins last year at his Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in a crack-plagued West Oakland neighborhood.

Yet, despite the recent scandalous publicity about their school system, teachers and principals say they are carrying on as best as they can. Some, in fact, say they are encouraged by the investigations and are hoping for improvements. Said one administrator: "When you hit bottom or what is perceived as bottom, there is no way to go but up."

Said Sherry Cadnum, an English teacher at Oakland High who has worked in the district for 21 years: "People are finally seeing the emperor not only has no clothes but also has stolen everybody else's."

Her principal, Joanne Grimm, said: "Whatever goes on at the district office goes on at the district office. You just try not to let it affect what goes on at this school."

Of course, some effect is inevitable. Her high school, which has a heavily Asian student body, lost six of its 76 teachers in recent cuts, eliminating the electronics and orchestra programs. Auto shop survived only with the help of a community college instructor.

$3.3 Million Trimmed

Originally, the cutbacks were to be sharper. But, after much political debate and some restoration of jobs, $3.3 million ultimately was trimmed from what is a $220-million budget for Oakland schools, according to interim business manager John Hills. He said the district is on the road to fiscal health.

"The people who say we are in a grave situation are just misreading things, wittingly or unwittingly," Hills said. "This is trashing time for Oakland."

Even so, many people in Oakland are girding for state intervention.

According to Raulston, the local civil rights official, a state trustee would bring at least one big advantage. "It will mean a different person to blame," she said.

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