Archive for September, 2015

Is Representative Democracy Breaking Down at Oakland Unified?

Oakland Unified School District Governing Board. Standing (l-r): President James Harris, Director Roseann Torres, Director Aimee Eng, Vice President Jody London, Director Nina Senn, Director Shanthi Gonzales, Superintendent Antwan Wilson Seated (l-r): former Student Director Katebah Al-Olefi, General Counsel Jacqueline Minor, Director Jumoke Hinton Hodge, former Student Director Carmen Jimenez.

Oakland Unified School District Governing Board. Standing (l-r): President James Harris, Director Roseann Torres, Director Aimee Eng, Vice President Jody London, Director Nina Senn, Director Shanthi Gonzales, Superintendent Antwan Wilson. Seated (l-r): former Student Director Katebah Al-Olefi, General Counsel Jacqueline Minor, Director Jumoke Hinton Hodge, former Student Director Carmen Jimenez.

By Ken Epstein

Local residents are raising concerns about a new set of “meeting procedures” and “meeting norms” dictating the behavior of the Oakland Board of Education, which could limit board members’ ability to lead the district, as they were elected to do.

Some of the norms and procedures, adopted unanimously by the board and implemented at last week’s meeting, might sound innocuous, though they have a paternalistic air that does not seem appropriate to a body that is elected to set policy that is supposed to represent the beliefs and needs of Oakland residents.

“Five minute speaking limit, no mingling with the audience, focus on agenda items, always be respectful, no interruptions, model desired behavior, no personal attacks,” says the list says, along with “honor the time, no sidebars, technology aligned to meeting purpose.”

Jim Mordecai

Jim Mordecai

However, at least one of the norms for board members has members of the community worried.

“Act as a collective body – honor confidentiality.”

This is a norm that appears on its surface to call on board members to close ranks, refrain from publically disagreeing with each other or the administration and avoid revealing too much about district proposals.   But the Board is responsible for setting policy for the district and California law requires that those policy discussions be held in public

Recognizing the public’s concerns, School Board President James Harris said the changes are not designed to limit transparency or stifle the voice of elected officials but to guarantee that meetings are conducted legally and with civility.

“Some things are confidential to board members, such as closed session things,” said Harris. “We’ve had a few board members break those rules. You’ve got to respect the laws.”

Book by Don McAdemsAdditionally, he said, “You don’t want personal attacks on board members,” he said. “We all need to get better. We need to be better communicators. “

However, there are community members who see this new policy as symptomatic of a school board that has lost its sense of responsibility as an elected body and generally passively follows the lead of the latest superintendent and his team of administrators

The problem goes back to Oakland’s loss of local control of the school district in 2003 when the district went bankrupt and took a $100 million state loan, still not repaid.

The State Supt. of Instruction installed a trustee, Randy Ward, who ran the district singlehandedly. Working closely with a team of administrative advisors from Bakersfield, Ward fired principals and veteran administrators, in one shot eliminating much of the district’s diversity and the historical memory of the institution.

Over the course of the years, despite the return of local control to the school district in 2009, the balance of power has continued to shift away from the board and toward the administration.

The attorney for the district used to be an employee of the board, but that has been changed. The attorney now reports to the board and the superintendent.

The board secretary used to be an employee of the board. The superintendent is now the board secretary and sets the agenda of board meetings in conjunction with the board president.

Like the City Council, the board used to have a number of committees, including curriculum, facilities and business and finance. With the committees, board members could gather information, listen to community input and make informed decisions.

Without the committees, they lost their eyes and ears. They were forced to rely on what staff told them at board meetings, along with some one- or two-minute presentations from the public.

In addition, the board several years ago agreed in principle that it would not ask questions or disagree with the administration in public. Instead, individual board members are supposed to ask questions or disagree by email.

As a result, many policy differences among board members never come to public attention.

Though concerns about the board not fulfilling its role as an elected body have been raised under the one-year-old administration of Supt. Antwan Wilson, the same issues existed and were compounded under former superintendents Gary Yee and Tony Smith.

While some on the board are committed to the idea that board members should “not disagree publically on things, I think people should know if we are having disagreement on things. There’s nothing bad about disagreement,” said Boardmember  Shanthi Gonzales, who represents District 6.

Another board member, who asked not to be identified, said she and her colleagues were under tremendous pressure not to disagree with each other or with the district staff in public.

Staff also uses pressure to try to silence teachers and students who speak up at meetings, the board member said.

According to Jim Mordecai, a retired teacher who attends and speaks at most board meetings, the erosion of democracy in the Oakland district is also occurring in other school districts around the country, related to growth of corporate involvement and privatization of public education.

Much of the erosion of democracy norms is tied to a variety of corporate reformers, who want to run the school system like their companies, such as billionaire Eli Broad (rhymes with road) and his Broad Foundation and the Broad Academy, where many of the nation’s new superintendents are trained he said.

Oakland’s State Trustee Randy Ward was an early Broad trainee, and he staffed the district with a crew of Broadees.

People coming from the corporate mindset “prefer a board that is just a rubber stamp, “ Mordecai said.

“(But) Some of the women on the board are pretty strong, and sometimes they stand up and fight back,” he said.

But they are still struggling to understand the issues, which are not simple.

“It takes a lot of time to understand,” he said. “It’s complicated. (For example) they don’t come on the board understanding about Broad training.”

Making their job more difficult, he said, Oakland school board members attend retreats where they learn from “experts” that their proper role is to be a cheering team for the administration.

Oakland School board members have attended two trainings by Texas based consultant Don McAdams, who worked for Eli Broad when he was setting up his superintendent academy.

According to critics around the country, McAdams suggests that board members not “interrogate” staffers during board meetings.

Board members are encouraged to vote unanimously, if possible, on important issues, such as school closings and bond proposals, sending a message to the public and workforce that the issue is a done deal, McAadams says in his trainings according to reports.

This approach is deeply flawed says civil rights attorney Dan Siegel, who served on the school board and worked as the district’s general counsel.

“As voters, we’re entitled to hear board members express their best opinions and if they disagree and to make decisions,” he said.

In reality, the board trainings are not neutral but ideological, encouraging the board to get out of the way of the experts, said Mordecai,

“But that’s not the process. The process has to be inclusive of the community. It’s supposed to be a democratic institution.”

The Post is printing this article in response to questions and concerns that have come up in the course of our coverage of Oakland schools. We look forward to publishing your reactions and thoughts on these issues.

Courtesy of the Oakland Post, September 5, 2015 (postnewsgroup.com)

Landmark Victory Curbs Long-term Solitary Confinement in California Prisons

 Family members of prisoners, demonstrators and lawyers celebrated last week's landmark settlement reducing long-term solitary confinement in California prisons. A press conference was held on Sept. 1 outside the state building in Oakland. Photos by Ashley Chambers.

Family members of prisoners, demonstrators and lawyers celebrated last week’s landmark settlement reducing long-term solitary confinement in California prisons. A press conference was held on Sept. 1 outside the state building in Oakland. Photos by Ashley Chambers.

By Ashley Chambers

A landmark victory this week to reduce long-term solitary confinement in California will immediately release up to 2,000 prisoners who have been held in isolation for 10 years or more for alleged gang affiliation.

The settlement in the case of Ashker v. Governor Brown last week is a historic step to reform the practice of keeping prisoners in solitary confinement indefinitely.

The lawsuit was originally filed by prisoners held in Security Housing Units (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison, challenging long-term solitary confinement as “cruel and unusual punishment” and as a violation of prisoners’ Fourteenth Amendment right to due process.

Under the settlement, prisoners in solitary confinement for alleged gang affiliation will be released into the general prison population. Some prisoners, depending on their offenses, will enter a two-year, four-step, step-down program to return to the general prison population.

In addition, solitary confinement will no longer be used as punishment for alleged gang affiliation, dramatically reducing the SHU prisoner population in the state.

Nearly 3,000 prisoners are held in solitary confinement in California prisons, the majority of which have been in the SHU for multiple years, some for as long as 30 or 40 years.

Angie Gallegos, whose brother has been in solitary confinement in Pelican Bay State Prison for 26 years.

Angie Gallegos, whose brother has been in solitary confinement in Pelican Bay State Prison for 26 years.

Prisoners in the SHU spend nearly 24 hours a day in small cells, not much bigger than a large bathroom stall and often without windows. They are denied phone calls, physical contact with visitors, and any recreational activities or programs.

Prisoners mobilized hunger strikes in 2011 and 2013, when over 30,000 prisoners protested indefinite solitary confinement.

The prisoners themselves played a critical role in the fight to win this settlement, said Jules Lobel, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, and the lead lawyer on the lawsuit.

Going forward, no prisoner will be held in solitary confinement for more than 10 years, a length of time that many still consider to be a violation of human rights.

“This is something we’ve been waiting for so long. It’s so emotional, I don’t even have words,” said Angie Gallegos, whose brother has been in the SHU for 26 years at Pelican Bay.

“Hopefully next month, we’re going to have our first hug in 30 years,” said Gallegos, speaking at a press conference held on Tuesday, Sept. 1 in front of the state building in Oakland.

Hugo Pinell, who was recently killed in prison, was held in solitary confinement for 46 years, the longest known time a prisoner has ever been held in isolation. Pinell’s life and fight against prison violence was acknowledged at the press conference last Tuesday.

Marie Levin, the sister of one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said her brother has been in solitary confinement for 31 years.

Marie Levin, whose brother has been in solitary for 31 years.

Marie Levin, whose brother has been in solitary for 31 years.

She said she has had no physical contact with her brother during that time. “It will be a blessing to hold him,” said Levin.

She said she hopes that other states will follow California’s example.

“They’re allowing prisoners to have input on the change,” said Levin. “So they’re asking the prisoners what do we need to change, how do we need to do this, what’s effective, what’s not – that’s going to make a difference.”

According to a statement released by the prisoners who are plaintiffs in the case, “California’s agreement to abandon indeterminate SHU confinement based on gang affiliation demonstrates the power of unity and collective action.”

“It is our hope that this groundbreaking (End Hostilities) agreement to end the violence between the various ethnic groups in California prisons will inspire not only state prisoners, but also jail detainees, county prisoners and our communities on the street, to oppose ethnic and racial violence,” the statement said.

The settlement includes the creation of a modified general population unit for prisoners coming out of the SHU, allowing them time outside their cell, family visits, phone calls and other privileges.

“Part of this agreement is that there’s going to be a new facility created for men stepping out of the SHU who’ve been there for 10 years or more,” said Anne Weills, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

“There are different categories in this group: some of the men that are coming out, there may be threats against them so we want to protect them,” she said. “Some men will be in the step-down program; some men maybe have committed an offense that would place them in the SHU.”

Prisoners in these new units will have access to educational programming. Lawyers on the case also want psychological and mental health support for prisoners but that is yet to be negotiated, Weills said.

One additional term of the settlement is no retaliation against prisoners based on their conduct, leadership and involvement in this litigation, she said.

“This movement is so important…to give these men a proper setting to grow and to change, and to basically live a halfway decent life in the system,” said Weills.

Courtesy of the Oakland Post, September 5, 2015 (postnewsgroup.com)