In a quandary over schools

OAKLAND, Calif. - Dan Siegel led anti-Vietnam War protests while student government president at Berkeley in the 1960s and was twice charged with inciting a riot after confrontations between students and police turned violent.

Now he's 58 years old, a lawyer and school board president, and again leading protests. This time they're against the school system's chief executive, who was installed by the state last June and given unilateral authority after the city system ran up a deep deficit and needed a huge bailout.

Baltimore's school crisis developed along similar lines, and it appears that Maryland's solution will resemble California's - an enormous infusion of cash accompanied by new state controls and deep budget cuts.

As part of the Oakland bailout plan, which has been studied by Maryland leaders, Siegel and fellow board members lost their power, their decision-making authority, their staffs, salary, health plan, office space and even their cell phones.

Five schools are being closed, and others have been warned that they will be next if test scores do not improve. Teachers took a 4 percent pay cut, 62 custodial jobs were eliminated, and there is no more money to print school newspapers.

"My feelings range between anger and humiliation," says Siegel. "Sure, it's humiliating to be told you're a failure and this guy is going to come in here and do a better job than you can. But my major feeling about it is anger. We were making positive changes here, and to see children become such political pingpong balls is very disturbing."

In Oakland as in Baltimore, financial mismanagement and academic achievement went hand in hand: A take-charge superintendent came in to improve instruction and student performance. New programs were created, big schools were broken up, better teachers were hired. But no one paid attention to what it cost.

And in each case, the school system ran up a $58 million deficit requiring a state loan.

California provided the Oakland schools with a $100 million line of credit - the most expensive school bailout in state history - but it came with strings attached. A state administrator was sent in to lead the system and given total authority. The superintendent was fired. The elected school board remained, but only in an advisory capacity.

It's the only way to go, takeover advocates say. School systems cannot spend money willy-nilly and face no punishment.

"This board failed the community. The state cannot afford to let them take the loan and not suffer the consequences," says Sheila Jordan, the elected superintendent of Alameda County, which includes Oakland. "Everybody would like to have really small classes and really small schools. But you can't do it. You have to have a budget."

The state sent in Randolph E. Ward to clean up the mess. Ward had been the state administrator for the Compton, Calif., school system after a takeover, and is credited with fixing buildings and improving test scores despite his autocratic manner.

For some parents and educators here, the concern is not Ward personally, but what he represents - state bureaucrats who don't trust the city to run its own school system. Parents complain that they have little influence.

"He treats everyone the same: He is not going to listen to you," says Isabelle Toscano, an activist parent with two children in Oakland schools.

Parents and teachers have protested. In January, Siegel led a demonstration of about 1,000 people upset over Ward's plan to close schools.

Sometimes Ward has heeded parents' pleas. He embraced the popular small schools program, with plans to break up some high schools, and delayed more drastic budget cuts.

By not cutting too deeply, officials are again running a deficit. It may reach $25 million this year, forcing the system to borrow more money against the line of credit from the state. To pay off the deficit from the previous two years, the district already has borrowed $56 million.

"You can come in with a broad ax and with one fell swoop, cut and balance your budget. But when you do that you take a district that is already fragile and run the risk of completely disrupting the education process, and we chose not to do that," says Arnold "Woody" Carter, the chief of staff and top district official under Ward.

Ward declined to be interviewed for this article.

The number of teachers in the Oakland system has been cut from 2,800 a year ago to 2,450 - a necessity brought on by declining enrollment, officials say. The system lost 11 percent of its students in the past four years, down to 47,000, and is projected to lose up to 1,500 more by next school year. Yet, the number of teachers was increasing.

Besides the 62 custodial positions eliminated, about 40 support staff lost their jobs. Principals now find themselves taking out trash and driving documents to headquarters because there is no one else to do it. But by far the most unpopular decision Ward made was to order the closing of five of 117 schools at the end of this school year.

Last week at Burbank Elementary, which has 220 students, children were celebrating Black History Month with skits and poems. While they did not seem concerned that they would be dispersed to two different schools next year, their teachers and parents were.

"It would be nice to think educators still had a place in the decision-making process, but that's a fantasy," says fourth-grade teacher Angela Hunter. She says children who walk to school will have trouble getting to their new schools. The district provides transportation only for special education students.

"People who live within three or four blocks barely get their kids to school, and if they have to go two or three miles, they'll never get them there," Hunter says. "We have a beautiful school with a loving attitude, and these children are going to be put into overcrowded classrooms."

But officials say the children's new schools will still have fewer than 400 students, and they say the controversy shows why it is necessary to have a state administrator instead of a school board in charge. The board, they say, would never have had the strength to make the unpopular decision to close schools.

"Virtually all of the political interest has been minimized, and so it allows us to look objectively at what needs to be done," says Carter. "It takes tremendous courage to close a school in any community. But here is a district millions of dollars in debt, and this district will not go forward so long as you have a fiscal crisis."

But Dennis Chaconas, the Oakland superintendent fired in June as part of the state takeover, says he worries that the test score gains and programs he started will wither away without educators' leadership.

"How long do you do triage before you have a vision of where you're going to take the place?" Chaconas asks.

When he started, in 2000, the district had 600 uncertified teachers, and test scores and dropout rates were among the worst in the state. He instituted a uniform reading curriculum, gave teachers a 24 percent raise over three years, replaced two-thirds of the principals and helped groups of parents and teachers open 10 new schools.

"The issue is that for 30 years these kids have been screwed academically, and I was focused on instruction," says Chaconas. "Did we turn it around overnight? Absolutely not. At least we gave people hope things were getting better. Now people just don't have that hope."

Sun staff researchers Paul McCardell and Jean Packard contributed to this article.

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