Randy Ward squirmed in his chair. The state overseer of Oakland's schools was happy to describe his new job in San Diego, and smiled when he talked about his wife, two young children, and prospects of a quieter life. But he didn't want to discuss the real reason he was leaving. "I don't want to talk about anything that isn't helpful," he said.
Leaving, you see, was not Ward's choice.
The official story is that Randy Ward resigned, but interviews and a review of hundreds of pages of public documents show that he was quietly forced out of his job. During the past eighteen months, Ward submitted at least a dozen requests for a contract extension. But each time, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell ignored him, put him off, or refused.
All of this was unknown to most of the Oakland education community, which had vilified Ward as either O'Connell's stooge or a patsy for state Senator Don Perata, author of the legislation that led to the state takeover. But Ward turned out to be a fiercely independent reformer perhaps the best Oakland could have hoped for. He surprised nearly everyone by embracing and quickly implementing the educational ideas of former schools Superintendent Dennis Chaconas. He expanded the district's small-schools program, attracted more than $25 million in corporate investment, and started to revolutionize how the district's dysfunctional central office serves one-hundred-plus campuses. He also righted a decades-old wrong when he changed the way individual schools were funded, making sure Oakland's worst schools got just as much money for teachers as its best.
Test scores rose steadily and Oakland became a national model for school district reform. Yet Ward's achievements went largely unnoticed and unappreciated. In Oakland, teachers and politicians were preoccupied about losing control of their schools and suspicious of his every move. At school board meetings, wild-eyed activists stomped their feet and shouted, "Ward must go."
In the state capital, Ward's bosses also were unhappy. State Superintendent O'Connell never sought the sweeping reforms Ward championed. The changes met with resistance in Oakland, especially from union members, and O'Connell, who someday aspires to be governor, longed for less controversy. He and one of his deputies often clashed with Ward, sources said, and were so displeased that they sometimes berated Ward in front of his own staff.
But the biggest gap between perception and reality emerged this summer during the debate over the future of Oakland's school district headquarters. Ward's critics denounced him for pursuing a sale of the property, but the truth is he never wanted to sell it in the first place. He believed that the state had no business selling property that belongs to the people of Oakland. O'Connell eventually overruled him, and ordered the land put on the market.
Ward was reluctant, but he also was a good soldier. He and his staff promptly put together one of the best development deals the city has seen in decades. It calls for selling the district's waterfront site to an East Coast developer for almost $6.34 million an acre, enabling Oakland to pay back much of its state debt and hasten the return of local control. By contrast, just last month the city council approved another deal to sell a vast parcel of publicly owned waterfront land for only $280,000 an acre almost 23 times less money per acre than the deal brokered by Ward.
O'Connell sent Ward packing anyway, maybe killing the city's best hope for finally turning around its troubled school district. But the state education chief remains bent on selling the property and paying off the district's debt so that Oakland can put its financial problems behind it. In the meantime, the sale of the property is under attack from an unlikely coalition of antidevelopment activists and officials with ties to Senator Perata. Waiting behind the scenes is another developer anxious to get its hands on the property only this one is seeking a huge and costly city subsidy. If that happens, it would be just the latest in a long list of sweetheart deals for the state senator's friends.
Before Ward arrived in June 2003, his predecessor's supporters quietly suggested that Perata had orchestrated the state takeover so his cronies could get hold of the school district property. There was little evidence to back up this theory and Perata denied it, but there was no question that whoever took possession of the land would be getting a prize. After the city completes its $200 million remake of Lake Merritt, the district headquarters site will be revealed as prime waterfront property. "For housing, it would really be spectacular," Perata told the Oakland Tribune in May 2003.
At the time, Superintendent Chaconas also thought Perata wanted him fired because he had refused to put some of the senator's closest friends on the school district's payroll. In early 2001, Perata wanted his longtime pal, bond financier Calvin Grigsby, to sell the district's $300 million construction bonds. But Chaconas balked because Grigsby had been indicted on federal corruption charges. The senator then dispatched an angry e-mail to Chaconas. "I have a list of persons or issues that have not been resolved," Perata complained in the January 25, 2001 e-mail. "It makes me look a little impotent or ineffectual." The senator then made a veiled allusion to the horse's-head-in-the-bed scene from The Godfather as a figurative consequence for not complying with his wishes.
Shortly after the school district overspent its budget by $65 million, Chaconas was fired and the voter-elected school board stripped of its power. Ward immediately began to reorganize the city's schools from top to bottom. After ignoring loud pleas from community members and closing a handful of poorly performing schools, he received threats, hired a bodyguard, and earned a reputation as Oakland's most-hated man. But selling the headquarters property was not his priority. "He never wanted to touch the issue at all," said Oakland school board president David Kakishiba.