September 2, 2008
New Oakland Schools Leader in Town
By Katy Murphy
OAKLAND -- Roberta Mayor, Oakland's interim schools superintendent, started her second official day on the job as most newcomers to a city might. She took a tour.The three-hour excursion, led by facilities director Tim White, gave Mayor a glimpse of the construction at Oakland High School, the vista at Skyline High School (and the paper plates littering the grass nearby), the health clinic on the McClymonds campus, the fresh paint on the walls of Madison Middle School, and evidence of graffiti at almost every stop.
"You going to let your crew know about the graffiti here?" Mayor asked during a stop at Sobrante Park Elementary School in East Oakland, when she saw White reach for his cell phone.
To some Oakland residents, Mayor may just be another highly paid outsider, someone who will try to make quick fixes based on scant institutional memory -- and who will leave shortly thereafter. To others, the short-term leader represents an opportunity for Oakland to run more like a normal school district.
Mayor, who declined to give her age, is the first superintendent hired by the school board since the district's fiscal meltdown and state takeover in 2003. She will be paid a salary of $250,000 a year, and a total compensation package of nearly $316,000.
For the past five years, the Oakland school district has been run by a series of state-appointed administrators who report to officials in Sacramento rather than to the school board. The current state administrator, Vincent Matthews, is still in place, but Mayor has taken over the day-to-day operations of the district. Matthews will have veto powers over academic and financial decisions as long as those two areas remain under state control.
Mayor may be unfamiliar with Oakland's geography, its neighborhoods, and some of its players, but she has been studying the intricacies of the school district for five years -- longer than many of the top-level managers have been in place.
As a chief management analyst for the state's Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, Mayor led a team of auditors that periodically rated Oakland's progress under state control. According to state takeover law, the state superintendent may restore local governance over a department when the auditors give the area a high- enough rating.
School board President David Kakishiba believes Mayor will be able to use her insight to improve Oakland's scores and quicken the return of local governance. During the next year, Mayor is also charged with helping the board make a long-term plan for the district's future and leading the search for her permanent replacement. Her one-year contract expires in June.
"This is a great time for these changes to occur," Mayor said at the end of last week's tour, as White steered the car back to the district's administrative offices. "Everybody's ready for some good things to happen."
White nodded. "Oakland really needs local control," he said.
Mayor is a Hawaii native and has held at least 10 education- related positions in the past 40 years. She has been a teacher, principal, superintendent, and administrator with Hawaii's department of education. Mayor has a courteous, unassuming manner and speaks thoughtfully, carefully enunciating each word.
During a recent school board meeting, when two board members announced their concerns about her appointment, Mayor listened, politely. A large part of Mayor's job, according to Kakishiba, will be to help the long-disempowered school board learn how to exercise its new authority effectively.
"We have no unified vision or a unified strategy," Kakishiba said. "We have seven individuals who are doing their own thing."
The school board was divided over Mayor's appointment. The fact that the district is paying two executive salaries -- Matthews earns $250,000, plus benefits -- made the closed-door decision more controversial than it otherwise might have been. Faced with more than $20 million in proposed state budget cuts, on top of steadily shrinking enrollment, the Oakland school district's $422 million budget for 2008-09 is about 9 percent smaller than it was a year ago.
Some board members, including Noel Gallo, have openly criticized the idea of paying for two bosses while cutting programs and basic supplies at schools. Kerry Hamill, who also voted against Mayor's appointment, said she isn't certain how a short-term leader fits into the district's long-term outlook.
"I want some real leadership in the district, and you build confidence with continuity," Hamill said. "It takes time."
Hamill said she hopes Mayor will "help us come up with a plan that is bold and realistic and good for schools -- and gets implemented." But, she added, "If you're not going to be the person who actually has to make it work, how realistic is it going to be?"
Mayor said she plans to propose changes to the way the district distributes money to its schools -- she wouldn't go into detail before she had presented the ideas to the board -- and to take a critical look at other initiatives conceived in recent reform-happy years. She will, for example, examine the small schools movement, which has resulted in dozens of new schools, mostly in the city's low-income neighborhoods.
"It's not the smallness of the school, it's not whether it's a charter or a non-charter, it's whether it can offer a quality program to all students of Oakland," Mayor said.
Mayor expects to make some difficult decisions this year. This spring, Oakland's financial office recommended the closure or merger of 10 to 17 schools. The student population has declined from about 55,000 in 2000 to less than 40,000 in 2007, and funding has diminished accordingly. Mayor says she plans to help the board determine the criteria for closures, and to look at other cost- saving alternatives, such as shared administrations and mergers.
Charles Wilson, principal of Fred T. Korematsu Discovery Academy - - a new, 400-student elementary school on the old Stonehurst campus - - said he felt the board made the right decision by hiring an interim superintendent. Because Mayor reports to a locally elected school board, Wilson said, Oakland citizens might be able to hold its elected officials accountable for the first time since the state takeover.
"I really feel that there's a need for a very strong leader who's going to help the board reassume its responsibilities," Wilson said.
Alice Spearman, a newly re-elected board member, said Mayor is an easy person to work with.
"She's not coming in to make a bunch of changes. She doesn't have an overpowering personality," Spearman said. But, she added, "She knows her stuff."
Reach Katy Murphy at 510-208-6424 or [email protected] Read her Oakland schools blog and post comments at www.ibabuzz.com/education.Biography
Roberta Mayor, Interim Superintendent, Oakland school district-- Total compensation, including benefits: $315,847-- Background: A Hawaii native, Mayor was a teacher, principal and state education department administrator in her home state before moving to California in 1992. She lived in the Bakersfield area for the past 11 years, where she was superintendent of the Wasco Union High School District and, later, a chief management analyst for the state's Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team.-- Education: Doctorate of Education, the University of Hawaii-- Family: Two children -- one in Half Moon Bay, one in Dallas -- two grandchildren, and another grandchild on the way.
Originally published by Katy Murphy, Oakland Tribune.
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