More allegations, more documents

Today, I lugged a tall stack of papers out of 1025 Second Avenue. In response to a public records request, the school district released hundreds of documents related to its investigation of payments to the Bryant & Brown law firm (most of which came from construction bond money, for work with facilities projects).

Among them was a letter written by Deborah Cooksey, the district’s general counsel, to Meredith Brown, of Bryant & Brown. It accuses the firm of a number of things, including:

  • charging OUSD multiple times for the same work ($50,929)
  • mismanaging a “routine” case with an electrical company by taking it to court, rather than negotiating — and losing ($722,268)
  • copying and pasting City of Piedmont forms, making minor changes for a Waste Management contract, and billing OUSD $51,000 for the drafting work
  • refusing to cooperate with the General Counsel’s office

Cooksey also writes that Brown tried to get school board president David Kakishiba to call off the investigation, and that she contacted Gary Yee as well. Continue Reading


Franklin, Grass Valley score huge science grant

I have some good news to report this morning: Franklin and Grass Valley elementary schools have received almost $1 million in NCLB funding to improve their science teaching over the course of the next four school years (including this one). Teachers will be working with each other, and with science and education faculty at UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Hall of Science, to bring science to life for the kids.

I know I’ve already posted this video about the quality (and quantity) of science teaching in Bay Area elementary schools. But that was almost a year ago, and I think it shows why such an effort is so important:

Teachers: If you teach science (alone or along with other subjects), what kind of support would help you the most?


Toy guns in schools

This fall, a sixth-grader at Bret Harte Middle School in Oakland’s Laurel District was apparently taken to the emergency room after another student shot him in the face with a BB gun while they were in class.

The boy was not seriously hurt, but he could have been. (The girl who injured him was suspended and will possibly face expulsion.)

At Hillcrest Elementary School, a K-8 school in the Oakland hills, three children were suspended for three days last month after they were caught playing with an Airsoft gun at lunchtime. Continue Reading


Obama, McCain education advisors to face off

Obama advisor Linda Darling-Hammond, left, and McCain advisor Lisa Graham Keegan, right

From 4 to 6 p.m. PT tonight, the education policy advisors for Barack Obama and John McCain — Linda Darling-Hammond (who just conducted Oakland’s small schools study) and Lisa Graham Keegan, respectively — will debate the future of public schools.

Tonight’s “Education and the Next President” debate at Columbia University’s Teachers College might not be quite as sexy to the average American as the Biden-Palin showdown. But for those steeped in the challenges of public schooling everyday, as many of you are, the event could illuminate how each of the candidates would tackle education policy, and how they differ.

Education Week is hosting a free, live Web cast. You can register for it here.

Update: If you can’t catch the debate live, considering the hour it’s airing in California, I’m told that it will be posted on Ed Week’s Web site by Wednesday afternoon.


Oakland might suspend cultural arts program

UPDATE: The city council spared the cultural arts funding. Read the Trib story here.


The Oakland school district isn’t the only local institution struggling to stay out of the red; the city has a $42 million budget deficit.

And tomorrow night, to help balance the books, the City Council might decide to temporarily stop funding its Cultural Arts Department, which gives grants to programs at more than 20 Oakland schools.

The Prescott Circus Theatre, the Museum of Children’s Art (MOCHA), Stagebridge and the Oakland Youth Chorus are among those potentially affected by this decision. Continue Reading


Cash for good grades?

The other week, we discussed the pros and cons of performance pay for teachers. But what about paying students for being good?

Thousands of Washington, D.C. middle-schoolers had their first payday last week. In exchange for good behavior, attendance and grades, they received checks for $20-$50 as part of a yearlong, $2.7 million pilot program called “Capital Gains.”

The kids’ reactions were mixed, according to a Washington Post story. One boy told a reporter that he felt insulted by the idea that he’d need to be paid to do the work. Others said the prospect of a paycheck made them work harder. Continue Reading


Cash desensitization

In the last few weeks, our national discourse has been about billions — and even trillions — of dollars.

In the Oakland school district, much of the money talk hovers in the millions, or the multi-millions: the $100 million dollar emergency loan, the $20 million cuts to schools, the $435 million facilities bond.

That’s why yesterday, when I spoke with the lawyer representing Bryant & Brown and he told me that the firm had received an extra $22,000 because of duplicate bills sent to OUSD in 2007 and 2008, I understood how he could say that while it shouldn’t have happened, “In the total scheme of things, it’s relatively unimportant.”

Continue Reading


McCain and Obama tout charter schools

In case you missed the final presidential debate last night, John McCain and Barack Obama both embraced publicly financed, independently run charter schools — and the competition they bring — as a way to reform the nation’s public education system. You can watch the video of the education discussion here:

Oakland has 34 charter schools, which educate about 8,000 of the city’s roughly 45,000 public school children. They’ve definitely fueled competition. In fact, much of the declining enrollment in district schools is directly attributable to charters, according to a demographic analysis conducted last year.

Do you think that competition has had any positive effects for the school system?

Here’s the transcript from last night’s education discussion, if you’d rather read it: Continue Reading


Your bond money at work, paying lawyers

In 2006, Oakland voters passed a $435 million tax levy that would allow the district to refurbish its crumbling schools. Did you know that more than $1 million of that money has gone to a two-partner law firm, even though OUSD has its own lawyers?

In 2006-07 alone, local attorneys Bryant & Brown took in $846,900 in bond money to handle construction contracts, litigation and facilities-use plans, according to school board documents (just type the firm’s name in the search box) — plus $200,000 from the district’s general fund that was apparently furnished by an East Coast developer that was trying to negotiate a deal on a prime piece of district property.

Well, they do call themselves a “boutique law firm.”

In any case, the Oakland school district’s general counsel is investigating Bryant & Brown’s contracts and invoices, and the district has asked the Alameda County District Attorney’s office to review them as well. If the firm was, in fact, overpaid (and it’s possible that the total payments to Bryant & Brown were much larger than $1 million), the probe will look into how it happened and who was responsible.

“This is an extremely serious matter that we should not take lightly,” Noel Gallo said. “We need a full, complete investigation from the top down.” He added: “All those involved need to be terminated.”

Troy Flint, the district’s spokesman, said no personnel actions have been taken, but that the initial inquiry found “irregularities” in the firm’s invoices. Continue Reading


Don’t worry, the PSAT is on us

Tenth-graders at Berkeley High School will take the Preliminary SAT — the practice test for the real thing — for free tomorrow morning. Word has it that an anonymous donor picked up the tab to encourage more kids to take it.

The test normally costs about $15, so if all 875 sophomores showed up, that could amount to a $13,000 donation. I’d say that’s a pretty nice gesture.

Kids are encouraged to take the PSAT in the fall of their 10th-grade and 11th-grade years, and not just for the practice. Those who fill in enough of the right bubbles might qualify for college funding, including the National Merit Scholarship.

Continue Reading