Wife of Oakland schools chief resigns from nonprofit after conflict of interest inquiry

Kathleen Osta, the wife of Oakland schools Superintendent Tony Smith, will leave her post as associate director for the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools, a school reform nonprofit with longstanding contractual ties with the Oakland school district.

The decision came about because of a conflict-of-interest ruling by the Oakland school district’s new general counsel, Jackie Minor. After reviewing state law and case law for about two weeks, Minor said, she concluded that Osta’s employment with BayCES was a conflict of interest for Smith and the school district.

Minor said concerns about Osta’s employment were raised shortly after Smith’s appointment in May; she wouldn’t say by whom. She concluded that one of two things would have resolved the problem: either Osta stepping down, or BayCES ending its work in Oakland Unified.

Smith said he and his wife decided it was the right thing to do — though I’m not sure they had much of a choice.

“It’s obviously very personally hard, but professionally right,” Smith said this afternoon. Osta had been with BayCES for 12 years.

BayCES Executive Director LaShawn Route-Chatmon had this to say, in a prepared statement:

We respect the public’s right to have the potential conflict fully disclosed and resolved. The resignation of a valued colleague is the unfortunate and unintended consequence of the tremendous opportunity Tony’s appointment to superintendent represents for this city.

I asked Minor whether the same laws governing the interests of public officials would apply to David Kakishiba, another board member who is director of the East Bay Asian Youth Center (EBAYC). Minor said she had been looking into this, as well.

She did say, though, that Kakishiba is only considered to have only a “remote interest” under one of the laws, since he is part of a multi-member body. Kakishiba abstains from voting on issues relating to EBAYC contracts.

Stay tuned.

Katy Murphy

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

  • district employee

    I wonder how many other OUSD leaders have spouses or family members in leadership positions in agencies with contractual relationships in Oakland.

    No one ever said anything about Gary Yee’s oversight of Lincoln Elementary when his wife was Principal.

    Or about Broach family up and through custodial services.

    Very interesting.

  • harlemmoon

    A few (former) NEXOS had spouses who profited significantly from OUSD contracts.
    Yes, there does seem to be a double standard afoot.

  • Filly

    Hopefully, this is a sign that things are going to be different. Already in my interactions with him, he seems like a good guy who genuinely interested and proud to be here. Let’s hope he keeps this transparency and thoughtfulness going!!!

  • Don Krause

    Mr. Smith was also part of BAYcees. Is that not also a potential conflict of interest?

    When I asked to review the school site plans here in San Francisco (the Balanced Scorecard), Mr. Smith personally refused to allow it. These are public documents that were developed by local school communities. How could Tony Smith cite the deliberative process privilege and legally prevent me from reviewing them when hundreds or thousands of members of the public had already seen the plans?

    Mr. Smith claimed that the new planning process was a work in progress and that it was appropriate to prevent public scrutiny at the time. This legal rationale does not hold water. You cannot tell members of the school public to develop and review school plans and then refuse right of review to the public. With the deliberative process privilege you have to keep the withheld public information on a need-to-know basis within the agency for a limited period of time. If you allow access to some members of the public you have to allow it for all. Not doing so as in this case is a violation of the Public Records Act.

    I know that Mr. Smith is generally well regarded. But in my experiences with his office I would have to take exception to that. Accountability is the single most important characteristic of a public servant. In my estimation he failed that test.

  • Downtown Celeb

    Smith is white, Minor is black…any more questions?

  • Katy Murphy

    Yes. What do you mean?

  • Downtown Celeb

    Hi Katy, I won’t get drawn too far in by your question. But, it is my opinion that in these types of cases where race is a factor (care to dispute that race is not a factor at OUSD?) Anyway, the benefit of the doubt will go in favor of the individual under examination if the examiner is of the same race. It works just the opposite when the examiner and person being examined are of different races. I’d say this is especially true in black / white situations.

    My opinion about why the Kakishiba conflict is allowed to continue is because both the examiner and examinee are racial minorities. While not always the case, in such instances the benefit of the doubt will go to the examinee because of the racial “affinity,” i.e., both are members of groups that have experienced descrimination at the hands of the majority – no new information there.

    In this regard, since Kakishiba does not pose any kind of “threat” to Minor, i.e., black interest’s, that makes the Kakishiba decision easier for Minor.

    So, yeah, Smith doesn’t get any of the benefit of the doubt regarding the apparent conflict.

  • A Life Time Educator

    Thank you for showing us that in 2009 bigotry still exist. Tony and Kathleen are honorable people who want to do the right thing regardless of race. Please save us your reverse racism stick.
    It is insulting and hopefully beneath you as a person.

  • David Cohen

    Careful there, Life Time Educator – you were responding to someone calling himself or herself “Celeb” rather than “Caleb”. Not defending the post.

  • Downtown Celeb

    Honorable, yes; perfect, no.

    You can dislike my thoughts all you want and label them as any good PC, Norcal’er might. But, this stuff happens and people you know think and act the way I describe – as distasteful to you as it may seem.

    I disagree that my comments are racist. Racial, yes, but I’d make a big distinction between those two lables.

    Do I need to add that whites have, for centuries and decades, acted infinitely worse than the rest? Does this make the thought that professionals might not be completely unbiased at all times more palpable to you?

    You call it stick, I call it reality. I did not call it racism, I call it “that’s just the way things are.”

  • Downtown Celeb

    Question: was Smith presented with the option to abstain on BayCES-related votes in the same manner as Kakishiba does for EBAYC contracts?

  • Katy Murphy

    No, Smith wasn’t given that option. As Minor explained it to me last week, abstention is only an option (potentially) for those who sit on governing boards with numerous members. Plus, superintendents don’t vote.

    Minor said that since everyone in OUSD reports to Smith, directly or indirectly, it would be impossible for him to wall himself off on this issue.

    Minor was still looking into the Kakishiba issue, though, because there are apparently three bodies of law in California that speak to conflict of interest and public officials.

    It’s also relevant to note that she only recently became OUSD’s general counsel.

  • Downtown Celeb

    Hi Katy, thanks for this. I find it hard to believe that an attorney the caliber of Minor could not craft an adequate ethical wall for Smith and BayCES. That the “entire OUSD” reports to Smith is pretty theoretical to me especially since Smith does not vote. This goes to my “benefit of the doubt” idea.

    I am not interested in trying to remove additional spouses who are successful at outside and related education institutions. I’m not trying to “deep six” Kakishiba’s spouse in her successful role.

    It’s not like that – just the opposite. I’m sure it is a great disappointment for Smith, his wife, and BayCES to lose her, so I don’t want to spread more of that disappointment and loss.

  • Don Krause

    The obvious conflict of interest issue was something that OUSD should have considered carefully when choosing Smith for Supe. Why is it appropriate for public servants to enrich themselves and their associates off the public trough? It doesn’t matter how good a job T. Smith or his wife did for BAYcees. What matters now is this- how do the students and faculty of OUSD get the best instructional assistance and PD knowing that contractors are not competing properly in that marketplace with Mr. Smith in his current position? Shame on the OUSD board for creating this problem through their unethical selection of Smith for superintendent.

    Smith made a commitment to the students here in SF and jumped ship as soon as he saw more dollar signs across the bay. As I explained in my previous post, in my experience with his office I would trust him to make the ethically correct decision, particularly as it concerns BAYcees.

  • Don Krause

    Correction to former post- I meant to say “I would NOT trust him” in the last sentence.

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