Property Sale Plans Dominated Oakland School District News

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday January 05, 2007

One of the biggest East Bay political stories of 2006—the proposed sale of the Oakland Unified School District downtown properties—was reported first in the Berkeley Daily Planet. 

“The California Superintendent for Public Instruction is close to a decision concerning the disposal of 9.47 acres of midtown properties owned by the Oakland Unified School District,” the Planet reported on May 15. 

“The properties include the Paul Robeson Administration Building, La Escuelita Elementary, Dewey High School, Met West High School, and the Yuk Yau Child Development Center. The OUSD administration midtown property is in the middle of some of the hottest pieces of publicly owned real estate in Oakland. It sits next to Lake Merritt Channel, the waterway that connects Lake Merritt with the estuary, which Oakland voters granted money to open up as public land in the 2002 Measure DD bond vote. An announcement could be made by the OUSD administrator to trustees as early as this week. Sale or long-term lease of the properties could set off a political firestorm in Oakland, if true.” 

The Planet reports set off a political firestorm in Oakland that lasted through much of the year.  

In mid-June, the Planet reported the OUSD state administrator Randy Ward said that a letter of intent could be signed as early as Monday, June 12, and that Ward’s office would then schedule “public hearings to review options, receive input and discuss the possibility of selling property at fair market value.” 

Three days later, the Planet reported that after months of secret negotiations, State Superintendent Jack O’Connell had signed a letter of intent to negotiate the sale of the downtown properties with an east coast development partnership that included black-owned real estate company UrbanAmerica and TerraMark, a company owned by old school, deep pockets New York real estate and investment firm Fisher Brothers. 

In the next week, the Planet had reported that OUSD Administrator Randy Ward was now proposing borrowing $35 million from the state—the remainder of the district’s $100 million line of credit that had originally led to the state takeover in 2003—to finance the move of the district’s administrative headquarters from the Paul Robeson Building to Carter Middle School in North Oakland, remedying problems in the district’s financial software, and re-establishing a 2 percent reserve fund. 

Members of the district’s advisory board of trustees reported their opposition to borrowing the remainder of the funds, objecting that this would put the district further in debt and make it more difficult to keep the district solvent once local control was re-established. 

The proposed sale of the OUSD properties, coupled with Ward’s announced intention to put OUSD deeper in debt, put a sudden spark into the long-simmering movement to return local control to the Oakland schools. 

In late June, Randy Ward announced his decision to quit his post at Oakland Unified, taking on the position of San Diego County Superintendent. The Planet later reported a story first broken in the East Bay Express that Ward’s resignation grew directly out of his opposition to the proposed land sale. 

Meanwhile, the week before Ward’s surprise resignation announcement, the district advisory board began to mount public pressure for a return to local control of the Oakland schools, unanimously passing a resolution requesting the state superintendent to “direct the State Administrator to immediately work with the Oakland Board of Education to develop and execute an orderly governance transition process, including, but not limited to the Board of Education’s search for a Superintendent, beginning January 30, 2007, and its selection of a Superintendent by July 1, 2007.” 

A month later, the Planet reported that a coalition of district education and political leaders had met that at OUSD headquarters to plot strategies for a return to local control, as well as to try to delay the proposed sale of the OUSD properties. In the same story, OUSD announced a plan for three public hearings on the proposed land sale. 

At the first public hearing in July, the Planet reported that TerraMark/ UrbanAmerica officials unveiled their plan for five high-rise luxury towers for the OUSD properties in a mixed residential-commercial development, including a proposal for an artificial waterfall coming off one of the buildings. The proposal was almost universally opposed by a packed audience at the hearing. OUSD facilities staff analysis showed that the district could net as little as $25 million on the land sale, a figure considerably lower than had been advertised. 

In late July, the Planet published a news analysis of the TerraMark/ UrbanAmerica proposal, concluding that the proposal had not met several requirements which had been originally advertised in the district’s request for proposals, including provisions for affordable housing for teachers and construction of a multi-grade school complex to replace the five schools currently on the property site. 

Shortly afterwards, political pressure against the proposed land sale began to mount, with six members of the Oakland City Council signing a proclamation calling on the state superintendent to delay the sale until the terms could be renegotiated and the deal received school board approval. The Planet later reported that the two remaining City Councilmembers joined to make Council opposition to the immediate sale unanimous. 

In August, the Planet completed an investigation of the events in the state legislature that led to the 2003 takeover of the Oakland schools. A key revelation was that provisions allowing the sale of the OUSD properties was taken out and put back in several times during the time the OUSD takeover legislation went through the Assembly and Senate, indicating that the sale of the property may have been an important reason for the takeover. 

In August, the district held the second of its three public hearings on the proposed sale, with opposition centering around the schools which would be displaced by the sale. State Assemblymember Wilma Chan, who co-sponsored the original state takeover legislation that included the land sale provisions, called for a delay in the proposed sale negotiations until more information about the proposed sale was made public. 

In September, the Planet reported that the OUSD board of trustees proposed that instead of selling the downtown property, the district build a “new, permanent, state of the art education center” on the site. 

Also in September, representatives of the state superintendent’s office and the TerraMark/UrbanAmerica development team said they had agreed to extend negotiations on the sale past the original Sept. 15 deadline. Neither party has issued any further statements about the proposed land deal since that time. 

A month later, however, incoming Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums announced his opposition to the proposed OUSD property sale, confirming that he had earlier met privately with Superintendent O’Connell to voice that opposition. And in December, newly-elected State Assemblymember Sandré Swanson announced the introduction of a bill to immediately return most levels of local control to the Oakland schools, as well as his request for a select committee to investigate state takeovers of local school districts in California.