The Oakland Tribune informs us that the Oakland School For The Arts (which it helpfully identifies as “Mayor Jerry Brown’s performing arts charter school,” so we’ll remember to whom it belongs) is planning on moving out of its present location at the Alice Arts Center and into tents and portables on the parking lots surrounding the Fox Oakland, sometime thereafter to move into the Fox building itself. The proposal is for OSA to pay the city (meaning us) a thousand dollars a month in rent, which is a good deal for them if they can get it, since Oakland brings in considerably more a month for parking revenue for that space. Oakland’s civic leaders, we learn, are willing to make the sacrifice. “Anything we can do to provide additional educational opportunities in Oakland we have to do,” the Tribune quotes Oakland City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente. It’s a good sound byte for a man who would be Oakland’s mayor, if we’d let him, and Don Perata don’t run. But as in all such cases, context—and a little history lesson—is all important.
In passing the law that authorized charter schools, the California Legislature wrote that “it is the intent of the Legislature, in enacting this part, to provide opportunities for teachers, parents, pupils, and community members to establish and maintain schools that operate independently from the existing school district structure, as a method to accomplish [among other things] vigorous competition within the public school system to stimulate continual improvements in all public schools.”
It’s doubtful that anybody really took that “vigorous competition” thing seriously for most charter schools, because a local church or community group going head to head with the public school behemoth would be something like a pickup basketball team joining the NBA. But then again, nobody envisioned that a city mayor would take up the task.
Elected to run our city, Jerry Brown decided that he’d rather organize schools, instead. One of them was the nonprofit corporation Oakland School For The Arts, of which he serves as board chairperson. That there was already an existing magnet arts school program at Skyline High School that could have used the mayor’s attention and help seemed to have been somewhere outside Mr. Brown’s line of sight. In any event, OSA was approved by the Oakland School Board as an authorized charter school—with a one-year delay, however, because school board members were concerned that the school’s finances were on shaky grounds. And, in fact, the OSA has only been able to survive because of creative city financing made possible by Mayor Brown’s political clout.
First the mayor discovered—Columbus-like—that there was a nice, city-owned building (the Alice Arts Center) with a theater and rehearsal space where the arts school could be housed, with only the little messy detail that some natives—in the form of a long-running and highly successful community dance program with nationally known resident companies and packed classes—were already in occupation. OSA took up residence in unused side office and basement space, using a million dollars or so in city money for renovation (if I’m vague on the figures, it’s because there’s no actual line item in the city budget for “Subsidies Of The Oakland School For The Arts”). Thereafter, OSA benefited from city staffing, care and attention in a way available to no other Oakland-based charter school (with the exception of that other mayor-initiated charter, the military institute out on the old U.S. Army base). Some competition.
What seemed inevitable was that the politically connected Arts School would eventually muscle the dance classes and the resident dance companies out of the Alice. And, in fact, at one point Mayor Brown so declared that to be an accomplished fact, meeting with the community dance folk and upstairs residents and telling them that the school was staying, and they would have to go (the dilapidated and long-unoccupied Fox Oakland, he suggested, would be a nice new home for the dancers and renters). The Alice-folk-who-was-already-there thought otherwise, organized and brought their case to the City Council, which showed some spine against the mayor and agreed that an existing community arts and recreation program benefiting thousands of Oakland citizens was a bit more important than a mayor-sponsored school housing less than 200 students, many (if not most of them) from outside of Oakland. Then came the Saturday Night Massacre (or whatever day it happened on) when the mayor fired City Manager Robert Bobb who, unlike the mayor, actually knew how things in a city get done. With Bobb gone, stiff opposition from the Alice dance folk, and the council against him, Mr. Brown really had no choice. And so it was the arts school that had to make the move to the Fox.
But not without more and considerable subsidy from the City of Oakland. The potential loss of revenue from the parking lots is only the beginning. Brown is now proposing—through developer Phil Tagami—a full renovation of the Fox Theater, at the cost of millions in Oakland tax dollars, and all for the benefit of his little arts school. “This is my legacy,” Mayor Brown told the Tribune last year. But if it’s his legacy, how come it’s us who’s got to pay for it?
Now, back to where we got into this. “Anything we can do to provide additional educational opportunities in Oakland we have to do,” says Council President De La Fuente, in agreeing to continued public subsidy of the arts school. If this is so, one wonders where my friend Mr. De La Fuente—and the rest of the City Council—stood a year ago when the Oakland Unified School District was being seized, en toto, by the state. Coulda used some help back then, guys.