Calif. system offers lesson on trustees


Administrator: Baltimore may be able to learn from Oakland's experience with an outsider overseer for its public schools.

August 11, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

UNTIL JUNE of last year, the school systems of Oakland, Calif., and Baltimore were on parallel trajectories.

Both had spent millions of dollars they did not have to improve education. Both were showing encouraging results in rising test scores. And both cities had seen a progression of short-term school chiefs, each of whom came in as a savior and departed in frustration.

The parallelism ended the morning of June 2 last year, and what happened in Oakland is a cautionary tale for Baltimore in light of Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick's suggestion last week that an all-powerful trustee be appointed to run the troubled system.

On that morning in California, Oakland's superintendent, Dennis Chaconas, was abruptly fired by state Superintendent Jack O'Connell. In the largest state takeover of a school system in California history, Chaconas was replaced by an all-powerful "administrator," Randolph Ward.

The state handed Ward a $100 million line of credit, $65 million of which he has spent to pay off the debt Oakland ran up while it was spending like a drunken sailor in the early 2000s.

"We were borrowing from our rainy-day fund," says Gary Yee, the school board's vice president. "Every year there was more borrowing, and every year it got harder to pay back. All of this borrowing was masking structural deficits."

Among other victims of the takeover was the elected school board, which was "temporarily" stripped of its authority, even of its staff and cell phones. "Every two weeks we meet and go through the motions," says Yee. "It can be humiliating."

Although Ward, a former teacher and custodian, promised "full transparency," many in Oakland complain about the loss of local control. "Who's watching the watchdogs?" board member Greg Hodge asked in an op-ed article in the Oakland Tribune last week. "And who will protect the public interest when the local voters are deprived of effective representation?"

Those questions are being asked in Baltimore.

Ward, though, does have his defenders -- and he has made progress. The district is in better financial shape than when he took over. Early last spring, officials announced the first balanced budget in years, thanks in part to some unpopular decisions by the administrator. (For example, during the schools' Christmas break last year, Ward announced the closing of five schools to save money. He later received death threats and hired a bodyguard.)

Ward was too busy to comment for this article. That's understandable. Single-handedly running a major American urban school system is a huge and busy responsibility, whether you're a trustee or an administrator.

CollegeBound awards show off Baltimore's best

The annual CollegeBound awards luncheon is a good place to see the best of what Baltimore high schools have to offer -- and to renew your faith in the power of education.

This year's 16th such occasion at a downtown hotel honored about 90 city high school graduates, all bound for college this fall with scholarships. Many are "last-dollar grants" -- scholarships that make up the difference between the bundle of public and private aid a student can accumulate and the real cost of college.

At my table, Tyeisha Gross, 17, a Patterson High graduate bound for the College of Notre Dame, sat with her proud mother, Teresa Williams, who was in the first CollegeBound class in 1988, earned an associate's degree at Villa Julie College and now works for the Social Security Administration.

Among the speakers were twins Christina and Crystal Gonzalez, 2003 Western High graduates who will be sophomores this fall at Tufts University in Massachusetts. They advised this year's scholars to have fun in college but to work hard.

$1.3 billion in research funds given to 3 Md. universities

The National Science Foundation is out with its annual survey of federal research spending in American higher education. The survey includes a ranking of the 100 institutions that received the most federal funds in 2002.

As usual, the Johns Hopkins University led the list with a cool $1 billion -- but with an asterisk showing that $540 million of that sum went to the university's Applied Physics Laboratory near Laurel.

The University of Maryland, College Park rose from 41st to 31st on the list, with $194 million, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore received $117 million. Among them, Maryland's three major research universities collected $1.3 billion of the $21.8 billion spent by the federal government on university research in 2002.

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