So, who will it be?

I just returned from the town hall meeting featuring the final three superintendent candidates. I spoke with a number of people throughout the event and afterward, and asked their perceptions of each finalist: Barbara Adams (right), Tony Smith, and Edward Velasquez.

At least in terms of popular opinion, it seems as though the front-runners are Smith, a deputy superintendent in San Francisco, and Velasquez, superintendent of the 33,000-student Montebello school district in Los Angeles County.

Anthony Hall, an involved dad whose daughter has attended Hoover Elementary, Westlake Middle School and now, Oakland Tech, said Smith struck him as a philosopher and consensus-builder, while Velasquez seemed to have more of an assertive leadership style. He said he liked the two candidates, but he was leaning toward Velasquez.

“We shall see, what does Oakland want, a philosopher or a general?” he said. “I believe Oakland needs a general.”

It was clear during the forum that the small schools/Oakland Community Organizations camp generally backed Smith, an Oakland resident who used to work with the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools. Smith drew applause, and even a standing ovation, during his address, including from some student leaders sitting in the front rows.

While some said Smith’s knowledge of the district’s history, its schools and its players are key to moving OUSD forward, others said they liked the specifics Velasquez cited in his address, and the fact that he’s been in the same district for so long. The audience applauded when he touted his district’s 9 percent dropout rate. He also had some good one-liners. (When asked about creative solutions to Oakland’s budget crisis, he said, among other things: “Some of you know I’m also the chief of the police department, so that’s a budget savings.”)

For those of you who attended, what did you make of these candidates? Who do you think is the best fit for Oakland schools?

photos by Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Oakland Resident

    I am a resident of Oakland and have been consulting with the school district off and on for 3 years. I have worked with Cabinet level executives and line staff from virtually all departments, so I understand OUSD well from the inside.

    I just returned from the candidates forum tonight and for the first time, I am hopeful and energized!

    Tony Smith is exactly what we need as our leader. He has a long term commitment to Oakland (being a resident and having a child who is going to attend public school, he has real skin in the game), a vision of what we need to do to fundamentally change the school system so that it serves our youth and their families well — and has a track record, right here in the Bay Area.

    Anyone who I know personally who knows Tony or worked with him has nothing but positives to say about him. He has the grace to partner with a Board who is notorious for being “less-than-constructive” — and I think he can inspire them to be the best that local control can be. He is a real listener, and he answered all the questions without filling in the time with undue verbiosity.

    My heart was touched at the end of his presentation, when he received a standing ovation from the students, who proceeded to embrace him. Young people know when someone is FOR REAL.

    I am a native of the Bay Area, an alumni of SFUSD in the 70’s. I watched the school system crumble behind me as my younger siblings did not have the educational opportunity I had. I swore I would come back and help. That is why I consult to OUSD, in spite of the challenges. Many times I wondered if the results were worth the effort it takes to deliver results in this challenging organization. Bringing Tony here would re-energize me and deepen my commitment to do whatever hard work is needed to provide a strong learning environment for the kids, and a strong community resource in our schools. I pray that the Board makes the right decision for the kids in Oakland.

  • TheTruthHurts

    I think the choice is between the “general” and the “consensus-builder.” I would lean toward the general given the tough decisions ahead. The finances of the District and the entire state seem to be in shambles. There won’t be time for consensus.

    That said, I like that Smith has been around, knows the players, knows the competition (SF) and is committed to the city. If he could convince me that he could make the tough choices and get the Board to do the same, he’d be ideal. From what I hear, there’s much healing that needs to take place within OUSD and any leader who could facilitate that would be a welcome change.

    Does Velasquez have a military background?

  • Renae Briggs

    I am a fully credentialed, NCLB highly qualified, ELL certified, 20+ year veteran public school teacher currently working in OUSD. “Oakland Resident”….. who has been “consulting” in the District along with Tony Smith’s BAYCeS and countless other “educational organizations” is part of the problem, NOT the solution! People outside the school system have been siphoning off funding and resources from school sites for as long as I can remember. OUSD is THE largest employer in Oakland and small fortunes have been made off the backs of teachers and students by diverting funds away from the classroom and into the pockets of “armchair quarterbacks” who LEFT the classroom to make MONEY instead of staying IN the classroom and teaching our kids.

    Remember the 71 MILLION dollars that OUSD has been paying to consultants EACH YEAR for who knows how long? A lot of that money was paid to BAYCeS and other outsiders for EXPERT advice about how to make our schools better. How has THAT been working??? Our schools continue to decline and teachers are asked to do more and more with less financial resources and mostly LESS TIME as they are mandated to attend professional development from outside “experts” AD NAUSEUM.

    Now granted… some of the OUSD “teachers” NEED PD because they are not REAL TEACHERS! Too many veteran teachers are being pushed out to make way for younger, cheaper “teachers” from Americorps and Oakland Teaching Fellows. These people are entering our schools UNPREPARED for the challenges of teaching and unfamiliar with what it actually takes to BE an engaging and successful teacher. Just because you were an executive in corporate America…. does NOT automatically mean you have what it takes to be a good teacher.

    The new superintendent needs to stop allowing the bulk of our district resources to be spent on packaged curriculum, consultants and outside agencies, and district employees like custodians, security and clerical personnel who continue to be paid when they do NOT do their jobs. Then there’s the entire layer of OUSD Administration in the central office! OUSD is FULL of waste!!! Meanwhile… the kids in the classroom and the teachers on the front lines must beg for pencils, copy paper and clean restrooms.

    We need Mr. Velasquez. The other two candidates are too invested in breaking up the union and turning Oakland into charter school central.

  • OUSD Customer

    I agree with Oakland Resident: Tony Smith would be a great OUSD Superintendent, and his presentation was head and shoulders above the other 2 candidates at last night’s meeting. He provided a clear vision of how to address the district’s current problems, and his local roots and experience in similar urban districts (Emeryville and San Francisco) will prove invaluable.

    He knows and understands the unique challenges that the city and the district face, knowledge that would have to be learned on the job by the other 2 candidates. He will establish or improve relationships with key community partners to provide support to Oakland’s public schools through challenging economic times.

    The answers to audience questions by Barbara Adams and Edward Velasquez seemed to lack depth and substance, and provided little insight about the leadership qualities they could bring to OUSD.

    Tony Smith would provide the district with leadership skills, experience, and vision that the OUSD has sorely missed in recent decades.

  • student

    Dear OUSD Board of Education,

    I am a junior at BEST High School (Mcclymonds Educational Complex). I’m writing this email to tell you how I feel about the changes OUSD is making at BEST High School. First of all, I feel really hurt that BEST will no longer exist in 2012. Another thing that’s bothering me is the fact that BEST might not have a full program for the upcoming school year. I don’t know how I will meet the A-G requirements with not that many classes available. I feel that it is impossible to run a school with just 2 or three teachers.

    Will I be able to attend college? Will I have enough credits to pass high school? I don’t know the answers to these questions because a lot of the changes. I know there might be options for me to take classes at EXCEL High School, however I am not enrolled in Excel, I feel that I should be able to take classes that I need at BEST since I am ENROLLED at BEST. I don’t understand why BEST is phasing out in the first place and I feel like BEST has been set up to fail from the start (2006).

    We never had the resources or the support to succeed as a small high school. Unlike EXCEL, you (board of education members) are visiting on regular basis and BEST staff and students witness it. Vincent Matthews has been seen at EXCEL numerous times but NEVER at BEST (which is across the hall).

    Our Culinary program has been very successful and has inspired many of BEST students to stay in school. I don’t understand why you would get rid of something successful. We need electives to go to college. A-G is strongly imbedded at BEST Curriculum, and students need a full program to prepare for College.

    There are lots of problems with our resources. We haven’t had a librarian in almost two years. We constantly lose teachers and classes we need and are given less options every year.

    I am not writing this to make a bad name for OUSD or the board members. I chose to write this because I want everyone to know how many of BEST students feel. I also want to keep my name anonymous for personal reasons.

    I would appreciate it if board members or anyone who cares reply to this and explain everything and answer all my questions.

    Junior (class of 2010) student

  • Cranky researcher

    In response to Renae Briggs: (1) When BayCES and other consultants got heavily involved in OUSD in 2001, it was the worst performing district in the state, with an estimated 40% graduation rate (no one working in the district actually had good data). Flatlands schools were massively overcrowded and students could not read (this is what the buzzword “low-performing” means – kids. can’t. read.). Today: OUSD has been for the past four years the most improved district in the state in terms of achievement tests (= more kids can read: what is the “decline” exactly?). The flatlands have a number of schools that are recognized as excellent – some charters, some in-district like Think College Now, Ascend, Life Academy. These schools and others like them would not exist if it weren’t for outside intervention. A recent evaluation by Stanford University highly endorsed the 40+ new small schools created under the leadership of OCO, BayCES, and other ‘consultants’ who by the way brought in much more $ from Gates Foundation and others for the district than they were even close to ever being paid. So what more evidence do you need of the value of outside help?
    (2) The $70 million OUSD spends on consultants consists largely of mandated spending on after school programs, SES, and special education, not school improvement coaching.
    (3) Consultants are not “armchair quarterbacks.” They are typically as qualified as you are to teach, plus they know how to train other teachers to get to that level, and train principals to help teachers get to that level, a great need that you recognize. The district can hire consultants or hire full time staff with benefits to do that work, the cost will be roughly the same. There is no scandal here about consultants, this is just scapegoating, looking for some outside entity to blame for continued messes inside the district.

  • Redwood Parent

    I was at the community forum last night and I am an Oakland resident and a parent of a 3rd-grader in OUSD. I agree that the most impressive candidates were Tony Smith and Edward Velasquez. In my view, however, framing the difference between them as philosopher vs. general is inaccurate and unhelpful. Both Tony and Edward came across as strong leaders – the difference is in their leadership style. From what I heard, Tony has a compelling vision for where to take the district and demonstrated a level of intellectual heft that I found refreshing. His leadership style is to listen, forge consensus, articulate a vision, work tirelessly to advance the vision, and rally partners to achieve a shared agenda for our district and our city.

    Edward also came across as a strong leader, though in a way that I’m not sure is right for Oakland. He appeared tough and decisive, but his leadership style suggested that he is top-down and authoritarian, holding a my-way-or-the-highway posture. I thought his comment about principals in his district doing what he told them to do or they would not longer be principals was telling.

    By far, Tony was the most charismatic and visionary of the candidates and I am excited at the prospect of having Tony lead the district. He demonstrated the right leadership qualities, the intellect, a sensibility of working with the community, and the internal drive to bring about a renewal of our district.

  • Catherine

    We were greeted at the door by a well-spoken, courteous MetWest High School student who was helpful and could answer questions about the evening’s discussion.

    The meeting started 28 minutes late. Eight seatmates who regularly attend School Board Meetings affirmed that the tardiness is typical of nearly every OUSD School Board meeting. Most people in the audience seemed resigned to the disrespect of the audience’s and applicants’ time as though it were both commonplace and acceptable.

    I will give what I think are the five key points of each candidate. These are based on my notes and are listed in the order in which the candidates spoke.

    Barbara Adams:
    1. Schools, district, business and community need to remain disciplined enough to stay on track to educate the students; victory is in the classroom.
    2. Analysis is the key to learning how to succeed. We need to learn and analyze what high achieving students are doing and compare / contrast that to the low achieving students. Create a plan based on analysis and remain discipline enough to stay with that plan.
    3. Partnerships with the community include national foundations such as the Ford, Carnegie and Wallace foundations which have proven track records of research, analysis and success.
    4. Require herself as Superintendent and the NEXOs to walk the classrooms to avoid piracy of the schools by teachers, principals and the district.
    5. Teachers are professionals and schools are professionally run, therefore they should have autonomy over the budget and instruction – and having that autonomy must have proven achievement outcomes that have been measured.

    Tony Smith:
    1. Teachers must have common planning time to use best practices and provide consistent, high quality instruction to all. This also includes educating students outside standard classroom times.
    2. Money needs to be reshuffled. This includes money raised by the school community through private fundraising efforts including the PTA money. Money for low performing students will be in proportion to their need and their current performance. Higher performing schools will receive less money as their need is less than others.
    3. Since the drop out rate and academic failure are based on institutional bias and disenfranchisement of students and their families including a bias against the use of non-standard English and race, the partnership plan is to include parents, adult community members who do not have students in Oakland public schools and the students themselves.
    4. Our school system stifles creativity of the students, teachers and principals. Therefore all stakeholders must have a voice. Students must be allowed to evaluate teachers and the evaluations included in the teacher personnel files although such evaluations would not be included in the formal annual or biannual evaluations.
    5. To succeed Oakland Unified Administration must begin by listening to the students and their families as well as the teachers, and the key is “to be in relationship with one another.”

    Edward Velasquez
    1. Principals keep their jobs when their school succeeds in educating students, maintaining a safe environment, keeping a high average daily attendance rate and developing relationships with parents and other family members and students. All underperforming students should be known by name as well as those students’ strengths and weaknesses. Everyone is responsible for his or her role so there is no redundancy in services.
    2. Each child should have an individual learning plan that is well coordinated from year to year. Less mobility in family life makes it easier to keep kids in school and continue their plan. The plan for each student would include a plan for GATE students, non-standard English speakers, mainstream, underperforming and special day students.
    3. Community partnerships would come in for form of local, state and federal grants to provide food, financial support and social services to the child and the family to reduce mobility, increase attendance and provide necessary safety. A strong social framework provides school consistency for students.
    4. The relationship and trust built in the classroom by student and teacher is the most critical component in learning the needs of the students and learning what is keeping the student from learning the material and achieving. The relationship established between student and teacher provides the framework for all other strategies discussed.
    5. Teachers are professionals and therefore must use the research based methods of instructions. Teachers must have the support to learn the latest educational methods and then have an opportunity to practice and refine the methods to become classroom practice. Teachers must also be willing to humble themselves enough to seek other teachers’ methods that may work better than theirs for student achievement.

    When walked in to the meeting, I had a clear front-runner in mind based on the facts and information I had researched from the districts and the schools each candidate had work or currently works, their education and published research and their experience in and around Oakland.

    After the presentation I viewed the same statistics with fresh eyes. I listened carefully to what each candidate offered our students, teachers, classified staff, principals and district staff. I was particularly attentive to the community building (number 3 in each candidate’s ideas), accountability and the candidate most likely to be willing to stand before parents and the community and say, “The buck stops here. I am accountable for the choices made that resulted in the education or lack thereof for your child.”

    My opinion of the person willing to make the necessary changes and be willing to be held accountable to increase educational achievement of all of our children within the budget constraints unprecedented in this state is not my original front-runner. My choice is Edward Velasquez.

    He was the only candidate that addressed the needs of all the students. He was the only candidate that talked about school safety. He was the only candidate that believed that each child, not just children who are far below basic and below basic, should have an educational plan customized for the child and follows the child throughout the district.

  • Follow the Money

    Let’s be clear on the real numbers and relative quantities. OUSD spent $77.7 million on consultants last year. How does that compare to every other district in the state? That $77.7 million was part of $95 million spent on the general category of 5000 codes (5000-5999) “Services and Other Operating Expenses.” The 5000’s include $95 million in spending, such as the district PR budget (which doubled from $1.6 million to $3.2 million this year).

    That $95 million averages out to $2,590 per ADA/student, which is 280% of $922, the average amount all school districts in CA spend per ADA. It’s also more per average ADA than OUSD spends on benefits for all employees. (Source: http://www.ed-data.k12.ca.us, while compiles data sent in by CA districts on their mandated Actuals forms)

    Obviously, if state and federal laws actually mandated spending $77.7 million on consultants, every other district would also be spending $2,600 instead of $900 per student. Conversely, if Oakland spent the state average, all of the 5000’s including consultants would only cost $34 million total instead of $95 million.

    The apology for giving away shipping containers full of money to consultants also relies on the logical fallacy of suggesting that if some of the money is actually being spent at sites on direct student needs then all or most of it must be being spent on that purpose. We shouldn’t believe that without a lot of proof and a complete itemized list of who and what programs are getting 5000’s category money, especially for codes 5100 and 5800. This means not just tossing out a few benevolent examples but listing every single item. That’s accountability.

  • Born and Raised Oaklander

    This past November, the Oakland community came out in force to elect Barack Obama – a leader who embodies intellect, grace, relational integrity, passion, and the overarching need for dialogue. We have a similar choice before us here in OUSD. While I understand the temptation to root for the Hawk, the law-and-order buck-stops-here type of leader, Oakland is a nuanced and diverse community (quite unlike the homogenous Montebello district). As such, we deserve a leader who excels at building coalitions and bridging deep divides. Tony Smith has a proven record at doing just that. I hope OUSD has the courage to choose this brave and unique candidate.

  • turner

    I just want a leader who will be here for us. The last three or four have been here to raid the coffers and increase their public profiles. Maybe the local guy Smith is the one for us.


  • Catherine

    What I heard from Tony is a desire to serve only a portion of our educational community. To the people on this list who work with children who do not read, whose parents have a great difficulty parenting their children, for children who do not speak standard English in their homes and with their friends, and for those who quite frankly have not been treated fairly by OUSD, Tony will listen to them and help them solve their educational problems.

    We still have the special day students, the GATE students, and the mainstream students who are proficient. I listened very carefully to what Tony had to say – he did not address ANY of these groups. He did not mention them at all. He did not lay out a plan for communication with them. He did not discuss the educational opportunities after school hours. He completely ignored them. They were disenfranchised last night by Tony.

    And while our treatment of the lowest performing (children not reading) students in the district has been horrid, they do not deserve to be disenfranchised, and neither does any other student or group of students.

    Tony’s fiscal policy is to raise parcel taxes, if they are approved by voters, and to take money from PTAs and functioning schools and give to other schools. Most Title 1 schools already receive between $2,000 – $3,000 more per student than non-title 1 schools. Money alone is not the answer. Poor fiscal control will only allow an entry into our district by the State of California once again.

    The root causes of our children on welfare not learning is the 30 million word gap by age three of these children. Parents on welfare also give more negative feedback to their children than positive feedback. For information on the study please Google Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American Children. Copyright 1995.

    Until we address the issue of parenting, there will be a learning gap. The way parents talk to their children, the number of words per day, the different words per hour create the difference in readers who comprehend and readers who sound out.

    The vocabulary of the average 3 year old middle class child is larger than the average welfare parent. We need to have the parents in class learning the educational material alongside their children. See article in today’s Oakland Tribune for an example of where this is working in Oakland using foundation money from Toyota.

    To speak to the body of information that has been studied is not disenfranchising anyone; it is beginning at the starting point that can make a difference in the educational lives of children.

    I just don’t see how Tony is going to be able to do that because it will not allow for being “in partnership” with resistant parents.

  • turner

    Follow the Money,

    Consultants provide a professional service to the district. Some are political friends but most are legitimate with tangible contributions to the district. And, don’t forget consultants are usually hired to do work that the existing staff can’t do or get to due to union contractual obligations and prohibitions, time constraints or the existing level of competency.

    And consultants are easy to pick on and vilify. They work behind the scenes. They don’t have guaranteed employment. They don’t have any representation and can be easily fired.


  • Follow the Money


    Modifiers like “most” “tangible” “usually” “easy” and “easily” don’t mean a whole lot without the data and specifics to back them up. What’s upsetting is not anything about particular consultants as individuals but the decision to devote so much scarce resources to consulting as a category when other districts (working under the same laws and very similar types of union contracts) spend so much less. We deserve more than pieties about the work that goes on “behind the scenes” when the price tag soars to $77.7 million (again, that’s $2,590 per student).

  • turner

    We do deserve more than pieties.

    But, you have already concluded that the $77.7 million paid out under professional services category was not justified. You are “upset by the decision to devote so much scarce resources to consulting” when you don’t even know what it represents. You have no detailed data. I wonder how you can make such a blanket accusation about money spent on consultants when you have no clue who they really are and what they do. Maybe because it’s so easy to.

    How much was spent on special ed consultants? How much was spent on federal mandated consultants? Do you know?

    Did you know OUSD provides some services to its students that other districts don’t? Do you know what services these are? It also helps to compare apples with apples, not oranges. OUSD is a large district that should be compared to other large districts

    I’ll refrain from making any conclusions until I see detailed information. Til then, I’ll use my modifiers.


  • #1 Teacher

    As an Educator, I know Edward Velasquez is the man for us and Oakland students. After much research, it seems as though he has done GREAT things in Montebello and his District loves him! That says a lot. He is all about equity, accountability, and safety. These three, especially the latter, is what Oakland Public Schools need. He is the man for the job. The fear of nepotism that many have because the other 2 candidates are “local” is valid and unwanted in OUSD!

  • Follow the Money

    San Francisco is a large school district that spends $1,257 per ADA on the 5000’s category. California is full of large to medium-large school districts with a lot of special ed and Title 1 programs. Oakland is not so unique that it needs to be spending 2.8 times the average of what other districts spend. No laws mandate that kind of excess.

    I’m very open to the possibility that some of that $77.7 million is being spent on very worthwhile needs. The question is how much of that would the rest of us in the public be willing to prioritize if the decision was laid out before us more openly. Jack O’Connell, the OUSD central administration, and the consultants who are making so much money are obviously not saying no to continuing to spend so much. The burden of proof is on them to provide more details of that spending. If it really was that easy for people to point out and question such expenditures, a lot more people would be a lot more upset. Now that the clues about the magnitude are starting to come out, there will be attempts to distract us by telling us we do not have the clues we in fact already have.

  • Nextset

    Catherine: Your earlier post seems to imply that the schools can keep lower class parents from being “lower class”. Are you saying that our public school system should endeavor to change the entire family of the underclass children? Isn’t it more appropriate to take them as they are are design programs accordingly?

    From my experience, people generally like what they are and have no intention at all of changing. Besides, in this Brave New World we have created for ourselves in CA we are about to terminate the state’s low income children’s medical plan in order to attempt to balance the budget – there will be no money for social programs in the schools and in fact the public schools are about to get massive budget cuts and layoffs.

    I’m afraid that by delusional programming we will continue to lose the brights that do exist within the public school constituientcy that could have been brought forward by good competitive schooling. And I rather suspect that part of the reason we are doing this is that these brights are more frequently the children of immigrants especially asian immigrants. A competitive school program would deselect so much by race it would destroy the “all men are equal” mantra the schools are pushing. So it is considered preferable to ruin the schools for everyone.

    Attempts to make over the underclass will fail as history shows. An AK to the head will do it but we can’t do that, can we?

  • Cranky researcher

    There is a huge debate among experts about the relative influence on low academic performance of poverty on the one hand (parents, language, health, etc), and the schools on the other (quality of teaching, services, etc). There is a lot of compelling data that schools can make up for a great deal, if not most, of the achievement gap that first originates outside of the schools. Ed Trust West lists a lot of this research on their web site. Estimates include that if a poor, minority student had a top tier teacher for 4 years in a row, the achievement gap would disappear. The undeniable fact is that there are many many schools where poor black and brown students do just as well in testing and college-going as white and asian students. These schools’ success cannot be entirely written off as a selection bias — ie, students have to apply to a charter and therefore only the better supported students go — that is accounted for in studies, and only explains a minor proportion of the very big improvement these schools (some charter, some district) make over other, more typical public schools.