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Indeed, several district insiders were stunned by the seemingly smooth transition by which Matthews took over from Statham last month after she announced she would be taking a job in DC. One hint that Matthews may have been tapped to replace Statham well before her departure appeared in a packet distributed to parents at Back to School Night last month. Inside was a letter from Matthews, who identified himself as "interim state administrator" even though Statham had not yet left the school district. The letter was dated August weeks before Statham announced her resignation.
Vince Matthews' history with the Oakland schools actually began well before the state takeover. In July 2001, then-Superintendent Dennis Chaconas hired him as principal of Dewey Alternative High School. Dewey serves some of the poorest and most troubled teenagers in the city in other words, the kids most in need of a good education.
But Matthews quit Dewey shortly after the school year began, abandoning his students and leaving Chaconas without a replacement. "I was really disappointed that he did not want to work in a school full of kids that needed a lot of support and help," Chaconas said. "I tried to talk him out of it. I liked him. I thought he had potential. It was sad for the kids."
In an interview last week, Matthews twice insisted he has "never walked away from a challenge." But he admitted that he quit Dewey after less than four months on the job. He said he was being micromanaged at the time by one of Chaconas' deputies. "I thought as a principal I would have a certain level of autonomy," he said. "I believe that to improve student achievement, principals have to have a certain level of autonomy."
Matthews also was involved in a controversy over low-performing students in San Francisco. In the 2000-01 school year, he had been the principal of a charter school operated by Edison Schools, the controversial for-profit education company. In the spring of 2001, the San Francisco school board attempted to revoke the school's charter. The board had uncovered allegations that the Edison school was discriminating against African-American and special-education students.
San Francisco school board member Jill Wynns, who led the fight to revoke Edison's license, said she could not remember any specific allegations against Matthews. The board's investigation focused, she said, on the company's alleged attempts to boost test scores by discouraging black parents from enrolling their kids. "There were claims that they would tell parents: 'This is not the program for your child. We advise you to go elsewhere,'" she said. Edison also allegedly discouraged parents of kids with special needs from applying because of the extra costs associated with educating those students, she said.
Matthews and other Edison officials adamantly denied the accusations, and claimed the San Francisco school board was biased against the for-profit company. The school stayed open thanks to the state board of education, which assumed oversight of Edison's license. One of Edison's supporters, Wynns said, was then-state board president Reed Hastings, another charter-school backer and Broad confidant. "The state board was packed and still is packed with charter-school advocates," Wynns said.
After Matthews left Dewey, Edison hired him as a vice president. Later, he went back to being a principal at John Muir Middle School in San Leandro, where he had worked in the 1990s. From there, he took a job with NewSchools Venture Fund, a nonprofit cofounded by famed Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr.
NewSchools, a major supporter of charter schools, shares Broad's vision of using business strategies to solve problems in public education. Doerr, who ranks 271 on the Forbes list, is a good friend of Eli Broad. And Broad and Hastings rank among NewSchools' biggest donors.
But the NewSchools connection apparently wasn't enough of a résumé booster for Matthews. Before Ward left Oakland, Matthews interviewed for a midlevel administrator's job overseeing principals for Oakland Unified. Matthews characterized it as an informal talk and said he never officially applied for the job. Regardless, he wasn't considered qualified for the position, according to one knowledgeable source.
Matthews' fortunes changed after he attended Broad's training program. In the summer of 2006, San Diego Unified offered him a position similar to the Oakland job for which he was deemed unfit.
Less than a year later, however, he was back in Oakland to serve as Statham's chief of staff. His stay in San Diego was so short that he apparently failed to make much of an impression. "He seemed to be a reasonable person," said Camille Zombro, president of the San Diego teachers' union. "But he didn't follow through on a number of schools that had some real problems."
When asked why the state superintendent would appoint a man with such a spotty record to run Oakland schools, O'Connell spokeswoman Hilary McLean cited Matthews' experience as Statham's chief of staff. "Superintendent O'Connell thought it was important to have consistency, and Vincent Matthews provides that consistency," she explained.
Both McLean and Matthews also said he was not tapped to replace Statham until after her resignation. Matthews said he wrote the letter to parents after O'Connell appointed him, and that the August date was "without question a typo."
Finally, McLean strenuously denied that Broad's campaign contributions in any way compelled the state superintendent to hire graduates of his academy to run the Oakland schools. The academy, she said, is "very highly regarded" in education circles, and O'Connell "is looking for excellence in educational leadership."