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Eli's Experiment

Meet Eli Broad, a SoCal billionaire who uses his cash and connections to groom Oakland school administrators and keep the district under state control.

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Statham's resignation has only rekindled enthusiasm to end state control of the district — a campaign that has been a local cause célèbre for more than a year. Ron Dellums ran for mayor in 2006 on a platform that included the return of schools to local control, as did Dellums' former congressional aide Sandré Swanson during his successful state Assembly campaign. Even a majority of the Oakland City Council, which remained largely silent when the state took over the district reins four-plus years ago, now wants the school board's powers restored. "When I was on the campaign trail last year, parents told me that their decision to stay or leave Oakland depended on how competently the schools were being run," Swanson said. "It was real clear to me that this was among the top issues in Oakland, along with crime."

Upon taking office last December, Swanson kept his promise to voters and made local control the subject of his first piece of legislation. The original language of his bill, AB45, would have required the immediate return of all responsibilities to the Oakland school board, except for financial management. But after talking with his legislative colleagues, Swanson decided it wouldn't pass unless he watered it down.

The result is a measured piece of legislation that would gradually return power to the board over the next few years. A key provision lets the state's Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) decide on the timing of the transition. The bills' supporters believe this would hasten matters because FCMAT (pronounced "fick-mat") was recommending two years ago that the state begin to transfer oversight back to the district.

O'Connell repeatedly ignored that advice, and it wasn't until a few months ago, after it become clear that AB45 would pass both houses of the Legislature, that he returned the powers of governance and community relations to the school board. "I think that happened because the bill was making its way through the Assembly," Swanson said.

State Senate President pro tem Don Perata, the most powerful Democrat in state politics, also signed onto the revised bill and helped carry it through the Senate. AB45 passed both houses on mostly party lines, and was sent to the governor in early September. Apart from O'Connell, the state Department of Finance, and the Republican legislators who voted against the bill, the only recorded opposition, came courtesy of a little-known organization backed by a Los Angeles billionaire and a few of his close friends.

Jack O'Connell would seem to have a conflict in this matter. After all, it was the men opposing Swanson's bill who put him in office.

When O'Connell ran for the state superintendent's seat in 2002, he was a little-known state senator from Carpinteria, a town just south of Santa Barbara. But he had plenty of money to run on, thanks largely to three wealthy donors: Eli Broad, John Doerr, and Reed Hastings.

Actually, Broad's $100,000 donation to O'Connell's campaign that year only put him among the top five contributors. Venture capitalist Doerr took the No. 2 slot with $205,000 in contributions, and Hastings, the founder of Netflix, led the pack with two checks totaling $250,000. O'Connell and Hastings have been close friends for years. O'Connell nearly went berserk in 2005 when Senator Perata, at the request of the state teachers' union, blocked Hastings' reappointment to the state board of education.

But Broad, Doerr, and Hastings share more in common than their support of O'Connell, charter schools, and business as a model for public education. They also served together for several years on the board of directors of EdVoice, according to copies of the Sacramento nonprofit's annual tax returns from 2003 through 2005 (2006 returns are not yet public).

EdVoice helps fund charter schools and advocates for education reform, but the group also has political and lobbying arms that have been very active in recent years. According to campaign finance disclosures, the nonprofit has formed two major political committees since 2002 — an independent expenditure committee and a political action committee, which have raised a total of $2.36 million.

The committees support various education causes, but spend most of their money backing political candidates throughout California. Among them was Oakland City Attorney John Russo, who ran against Swanson, for state Assembly last year. Just before the June 6 primary, one of the EdVoice committees spent $47,855 on Russo's behalf. But it wasn't enough. Swanson beat Russo by eight percentage points.

This year, EdVoice's lobbying arm has been busy fighting Swanson's bill. The state assemblyman recalled how he and his staff asked EdVoice officials why they were lobbying against AB45, and why a Sacramento nonprofit was so interested in Oakland schools. "They admitted to us that a board member had requested that they oppose the bill," Swanson said.

The officials did not say whether that board member was Broad, Swanson added. But campaign finance records show that Broad has donated at least $353,900 to the two EdVoice committees since 2002, including two contributions this past April, totaling $100,000.

State law does not require EdVoice to reveal how much it has spent lobbying against the return of local control to Oakland schools. And EdVoice executive director Christopher Cabaldon, mayor of West Sacramento and a former official with the Oakland-based charter school group Aspire, did not return phone calls seeking comment. But the organization reported to the secretary of state that in just three months, from April 1 to June 30 (the last required reporting date), it spent nearly $114,000 on lobbying, including the fight against AB45. Swanson said EdVoice also wrote to the governor, imploring him to veto the bill.

Eli Broad did not want to answer questions for this story, so his true intentions for Oakland schools remain a mystery. O'Connell, meanwhile, has yet to lift the "interim" from Matthews' job title, saying he wants to finish "a national search" for Statham's replacement. It also would make no sense to appoint a permanent state administrator if Schwarzenegger were to sign Swanson's bill into law.

But if the governor vetoes AB45 as expected, then Matthews likely has the inside track. After all, O'Connell conducted a national search last year after Ward left, before finally settling on Statham as Ward's successor. Matthews said if he is made permanent, he plans to "maintain our uncompromising goal to increase our academic rigor, and continue to increase the quality of schools."

Oakland parents are accustomed to such pabulum. The key question is whether the relatively inexperienced Matthews can handle running a large and complex school district, and whether he's committed to the job, given his track record of bouncing around. As for O'Connell, he'll be state superintendent through 2010 and there's no indication he has any plans to pull the plug on Broad's experiment in Oakland any time soon.

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