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Battle Lines Drawn on State Control of Oakland Schools

September 11, 1989|LARRY GORDON | Times Education Writer and

OAKLAND — Battle lines are drawn over a plan to give the state unprecedented control in Oakland's scandal-plagued and financially strapped public schools.

On one side are state Supt. of Instruction Bill Honig, Assemblyman Elihu M. Harris (D-Oakland) and many school principals. They say the appointment of a state overseer is the best way to cure California's fifth-largest school district of theft, alleged nepotism, irresponsible budgeting and academic failure.

"You've got a disintegrating school district, and the kids are suffering," Honig said. "Somebody's got to prick the boil."

On the other side are some parents, a majority of school board members and a potent political machine. They charge that Harris is sponsoring legislation for state intervention to boost his name recognition as he prepares to run for mayor. They also allege racial bias in criminal investigations of the school board.

"It seems to me it's a power trip for the downtown business interests, who are mainly white," Darlene Lawson, considered the most influential school board member, said of the widening probes. Lawson is among four blacks on the seven-member board.

There is plenty to debate. Even after sharp cuts in music, art and vocational classes, Oakland schools need at least an extra $10 million this year. Eight current or former school employees have been arrested on charges of theft or embezzlement from the district, and as many as 50 more arrests are expected. All seven members of the school board have been subpoenaed to testify before the Alameda County Grand Jury.

The Oakland Tribune last week ran a much-discussed series of articles alleging that acting Supt. Edna Washington, Lawson and some other board members run the schools as an "iron grip" patronage system that has allowed corruption to flourish.

Two of Lawson's daughters are school custodians, but in an interview with The Times she denied any nepotism. Washington, whose brother, sister and cousin are employed in the schools, could not be reached for comment.

"We are having some really serious problems on the business service side, and there are no excuses for employees who steal," school board President Alfreda Abbott said in an interview last week. "But we do have 6,000 employees, and the majority are honest, hard-working and effective. To say everybody is corrupt and dishonest is just not fair."

Meanwhile, the state Senate this week is expected to pass Harris' bill, which won overwhelming Assembly approval last month. Under its provisions, Oakland schools could receive a $10-million loan in exchange for a state trustee with veto power over many school board actions for five years. If the school district refuses the loan, as it says it will, a state trustee with advisory powers will be appointed at first and could get stronger controls if Honig thinks the situation is getting worse.

In the past, half a dozen California school districts facing severe money problems have agreed to be placed under trusteeships, according to Honig. The Oakland district will probably be the first to get a trustee against its will. In business terms, the state is plotting a hostile takeover.

The Oakland school board recently voted 5 to 2 to reject the state loan--and thus the trusteeship--and to issue its own $10-million worth of certificates of participation. District officials insist interest on those bonds will be $450,000 less than interest on the state loan. Honig and Alameda County schools chief William Burke pledge to block the sale of those Oakland certificates.

Education experts say the Harris plan is part of a new trend to help troubled inner-city schools. For example, New Jersey has begun to take control of schools in Jersey City, an old waterfront town that has many of the same troubles as Oakland. Last week, Boston University took over schools in impoverished Chelsea, Mass. Illinois legislators this summer voted to break up the central board of education in Chicago.

Harris acknowledges that he will run for mayor next year but insists his legislation has a wider goal than just boosting his career. Harris, who is black, also dismisses charges that his bill would serve the interests of the white establishment.

"I'm concerned about the children, not the school board," he said. "If the children are well served, then there is no question that the state's role is proper."

Everyone agrees that Oakland's 50,000 schoolchildren need help.

Nearly half of them come from families on welfare, and many face daily struggles against drugs and crime. About a quarter of the students speak limited English. About 60% are black, 17% Asian, 14% Latino and 9% Anglo.

The dropout rate over three years for the high school class of 1988 was 23.5%, slightly higher than the state average but well below the 39% in Los Angeles and 30.4% in San Francisco.

State tests in reading and mathematics ranked Oakland's 12th graders last year in the bottom 5% statewide and the bottom third when compared to similar urban districts.

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