The October 10 meeting of the Oakland Board of Education was ugly and painful. The subject at hand was a delicate, unpleasant matter that plagues most urban schools every year, a process called "consolidation." Each fall, the school district must estimate how many children will be attending each of its schools in order to assign its teachers. Each fall the district is wrong and, one month into the term, finds that it must transfer teachers to different schools, breaking up the tenuous community of the classroom in the process, and throwing the education of hundreds of students into disarray. It's an awful annual trauma for teachers and students, one that the board and the superintendent's office must handle with maturity, sensitivity, and caution. Instead, this year's board discussion was a perfect example of why so many people say that Paul Cobb, one of Mayor Jerry Brown's appointees to the school board, should never have anything to do with education again.
The school board chambers were packed with angry students, teachers, and parents who had come to decry the impending shake-up. As board members listened and winced, a line of children took the podium, one after another, and begged the board not to break up their classes. Sheila Quintana, the president of the 3,800-member teachers' union, the Oakland Education Association, urged the board to find some way of ensuring that this never happens again. "As a classroom teacher, the kids bond with you immediately," she pleaded. "And we know about the tragedy that happened on September 11. These kids need to be affirmed that they are going to be safe, that they are going to be secure, that they are going to be protected. But their psyches are suffering, because they are moved around like a deck of cards."
When the board finally got down to discussing how the district could fine-tune next year's process, director Greg Hodge spoke first. The endless chain of disruptions each October is unacceptable, Hodge said; the district must find a way to improve its projections. Then he made it clear that the board would get nowhere if small-minded politics poisoned this discussion. "The question is, 'How can we work this out together?'" he concluded. "We don't want to have a lot of rhetoric tonight." Fellow director Bruce Kariya echoed Hodge's concern and he warned against any "sound and fury, signifying nothing." Although neither mentioned Cobb by name, the message was clear: "Please, Paul -- don't turn this meeting into a zoo again."
Finally it was time for the Paul Cobb Show. With more than twenty years of community activism under his belt, Cobb, the self-styled "mayor of West Oakland," has accumulated a sizable arsenal of community goodwill and moral authority, but his critics claim that along the way, he has honed race-baiting and grandstanding to a fine art. Rumbling with a preacher's cadence, Cobb began by admitting that he hadn't done his homework and knew nothing about the topic under discussion: "This has been quite a learning experience -- I'm trying to consolidate some of these issues, so I can keep up with what's going on,"
Then he proceeded to arbitrarily insult both Superintendent Dennis Chaconas and director Jean Quan. A few minutes earlier, in an attempt to explain why she thought it a bad idea for the the board to dip into the district's emergency reserves to fund a less painful way out of its staffing crisis, Quan had cited a number of looming expenses that the board had to be prepared to pay. One of the items on this list was teacher salaries. Seizing upon Quan's almost offhand remark about the board's obligation to honor the increased salaries it had approved for teachers, Cobb embarked upon a bizarre and irrelevant diatribe, in which he accused Quan of asserting it was greedy teachers who are responsible for the consolidation mess. "Now, I missed part of that so-called Shakespearean quote about sound and fury signifying nothing. But I know what what's-her-name said and that dog ain't gonna hunt! Okay now, I don't know whether or not we are posturing for some kind of labor union negotiations, [but]... I heard a subtle dig by saying, 'Well, we paid our teachers all that money, and now it's coming back to haunt us.' You know, I think there's another way to say it. We didn't pay the teachers enough!"
The crowd cheered, and Cobb was on a roll, but other board members were quietly seething. They'd seen Cobb pull this stunt countless times before; whenever a disgruntled group storms the public comment period, claim surprising numbers of his fellow directors, Cobb leaps to play the righteous populist. Meanwhile, the less glamorous work of actually solving complex problems falls to his colleagues.
This time, Quan wasn't going to take it. Furious, she leaned away from her microphone and snarled angrily at Cobb from her position three seats away.
"Okay, okay!" cried director Kerry Hamill, who was chairing the meeting. "Just proceed, Mr. Cobb."
Far from proceeding, Cobb silently leveled his gaze at Quan for ten long seconds, a look of pained indignation on his face. "You..."