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Oakland School Takeover Investigation Gets Key Support

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Tuesday December 19, 2006

Oakland’s newly elected state assemblymember, Sandré Swanson, has proposed setting up a Select Assembly Committee to investigate state takeovers of California schools, and the idea has already gotten support from key legislators from the affected districts. 

Swanson made the announcement at the same meeting two weeks ago at the Oakland Unified School District headquarters where he explained his newly introduced bill to return most aspects of local control to OUSD. 

Oakland’s schools have been run by the state since 2003. 

Swanson said that “the issue of education has been lost while we’re losing a generation of our children” and that the Fiscal Crisis Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) “must be held accountable.” 

FCMAT is the Bakersfield-based, semi-private organization created by the legislature to monitor school districts in the state and intervene in schools that are experiencing fiscal or other problems. 

Swanson said he has requested that California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez appoint a select committee—with Swanson as chair—“to hold hearings in every city where there has been a takeover of the schools, to see if there has been a pattern of neglect and decline under state takeover.” 

Swanson said the first hearing would be held in Oakland. 

A spokesperson for Swanson said late last week that the Assembly Speaker is not expected to act on any select committees until after the beginning of the year. 

There have been seven school districts that have been taken over by the state in recent years and have come under the authority of AB1200, the state legislation that create FCMAT and governs current state school takeovers. 

According to a 2005 FCMAT report, three districts—Oakland Unified, Vallejo City Unified, and West Fresno Elementary District—remain under complete state control, with a state-appointed administrator running the schools instead of an elected school board and a hired superintendent. 

Two districts—Emery Unified and West Contra Costa Unified—were originally run by a state-appointed administrator, but have since resumed most local control, with a state-appointed trustee who has the power to veto board or superintendent actions on fiscal grounds. 

Two districts — Compton Unified and Coachella Valley Unified-went through periods of a state — appointed administrator and then a trustee, and have since returned to complete local control. 

As of 2005, five of those districts had outstanding debt to the state, with corresponding annual payment responsibilities. 

Assemblymembers representing two of the affected districts—Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley), who represents the West Contra Costa County area, and fellow Democrat Mervyn Dymally, who represents Compton—say they are in support of Swanson’s proposal for a select investigative committee. 

Warren Quann, Dymally’s policy director, said by telephone that “we’re aware of it and we are supportive of it, particularly in light of our experience here in Compton.” Quann said that Dymally’s office has “participated in sharing information [about the Compton takeover] with Swanson’s office.” 

Hans Hemann, Hancock’s chief of staff, called Swanson’s proposal “a good idea. There really is a need to take a look at what’s happening in the districts that have been the subject of state takeovers. They are bleeding from two places. Many of them are still paying back state loans. In addition, many of them are seeing a decline in enrollment. This is particularly true in Oakland. So they’re unable to right their ships because they’re losing Average Daily Attendance money from the state on the one hand, and they have to pay money back to the state out of their budgets to meet the loan payments.” 

Hemann says that while enrollment decline preceded the state takeovers in some instances, such as in Oakland, “the problem is exacerbated following the takeover. Public confidence in the districts is lost when the local school board is unable to respond to the needs of the community. They have to take their grievances to the state administrator, and in a district the size of Oakland, that can be daunting. There’s a level of frustration that grows,” Hemann concluded, which can lead to more parents withdrawing their children from the district. 

Another problem with state takeovers, Hemann said, is that repayment of the state loans become the district’s fiscal priority under the state administrator. “That obligation is put before such things as teacher pay raises, or money for the children, or other instructional needs. There is continued frustration in the West Contra Costa Unified School District because of the burden of the state loan.” 

Hemann said that “Loni and I have talked with Sandré about the problem. We have to deal with it.” 

Representatives in the offices of assemblymembers representing areas covered by two of the other takeover districts—District 31 Assemblymember Juan Arambula (West Fresno Unified) and District 7 Assemblymember Noreen Evans (Vallejo City Unified)—said they were aware of Swanson’s proposal for a select committee and investigation, but did not have a comment on it.