Oakland's Superintendent of "No"

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Randolph Ward grew up sandwiched between three older brothers and three younger sisters in a hardscrabble inner-city Boston neighborhood, a position which might explain his distaste for centrism.

“We’ve got a lot of districts going down right now that have been trying tried to please everybody,” said Ward, who is embarking on his second year as the state-appointed administrator of the financially plundered Oakland Unified School District. “Some say I don’t listen to people, but if not listening to people means never saying no, then they’re right. Because I know how to say no.”

That, in essence, is his job.

“This is not a period you want somebody who needs to be liked anywhere near the budget,” said Oakland school board member Kerry Hamill. “This is an era of ‘no’ in Oakland.”

Appointed by state superintendent Jack O’Connell in June 2003 to commandeer the OUSD, Ward arrived from his Long Beach home amid a storm of vitriol from board members, administrators, teachers and other district employees, nearly all of whom were aghast at the state takeover – and many of whom feared for their futures.

In a series of meetings with district employees at the outset of the 2003-04 school year, Ward laid his cards on the table.

“I made it very clear that I had a $37 million deficit (which, Hamill notes, he inherited after ousted superintendent Dennis Chaconas pared down a deficit of $65 million) and I had to make cuts,” Ward said. “There’s no way a smart person would cut effective programs, departments that make a difference and services that were effectively rendered. I made it very clear that I would be looking for those that work, and those that don’t.”

But Ward’s critics insist that he wasn’t so discriminatory when the hatchet began to fall.

“I think the whole point was that he was trying to cut deadwood,” said McClymonds High School English and journalism teacher Mark Sneed. “But our school won awards for its newspaper, and they cut those programs (throughout the district) anyway. A lot of my students are at-risk kids, and when you take (the newspaper) away, you take away the reason a lot of them come to school. We were lucky, because we had a private donation that saved the program.”

Ward, showing off a check for $150,000 from Oakland A’s legend Reggie Jackson to help fund another district program, has extolled such entrepreneurialism.  As Hamill notes, “you can’t survive in public education if you’re not out there hustling (for donations).” In one prominent example, Oakland Tech’s music program was rescued from the chopping block by a $91,300 grant from the Service Employees International Union. Tech’s choir now sports black shirts with the SEIU label and addresses labor issues in its repertoire.

Technically, Ward’s “Results-based budgeting” program leaves the school’s budget – as well as tough decisions about which programs and personnel to discard – in the hands of each principal. That’s a tactic that some disdain; Ben Visnick, the recently inaugurated president of the 3,500-member Oakland Education Association (the union that represents teachers and other district employees) says that “the buck is supposed to stop with Randolph Ward.”

But others feel the concept empowers them.

​“I can anticipate now, with registrations coming through, the need to staff another teacher in the fall, and I can bring that person on,” said Piedmont Avenue Elementary School principal Angela Haick. “People out in the trenches know how to make the schools better.  When utility bills are paid by the district, there’s not much incentive for cost-effective measures.”

Ward’s appointment to Oakland was lauded by a Los Angeles Times editorial, which cited his success in cleaning up a similar mess after a state takeover of the school system in Compton, located in the urban heart of Los Angeles County.

“Actually, it has many of the same elements in term of dysfunction,” Ward said in comparing Oakland’s school system to the one in Compton. “What it doesn’t have is the corruption. And that’s refreshing. But you have to wonder where these chunks of money go … The more doors we open, the more we see basic incompetence and people not taking care of business.”

A recent state audit discovered 120 or so irregularities in OUSD’s books for the year leading up to Ward’s arrival. State Controller Steve Westly leveled $163 million in fines – an amount that would obviously bankrupt the district a few times over. But few expect the state will actually pursue the fines, and certainly not in that proportion.

Ward’s own digging uncovered, among myriad findings, an expense “approaching a million dollars” for an estimated 800 cell phones within the district. He promptly shut them off. But he didn’t quiet any skeptics by hiring a bodyguard at a cost of $140,000 per year, paid to the California Highway Patrol.

“I don’t try to defend protecting my life,” said Ward, who said he has been told by the CHP not to discuss details of the arrangement – nor the reason for it. A CHP spokesman acknowledged the arrangement but declined to comment on the details.

Ward married for the first time six years ago to Cheryl James, an elementary school principal in Long Beach who once said “the number of jail cells that we need in the future is determined by the number of kids who aren’t reading by the end of the third grade.” Ward became a father at age 46 when daughter Jerne was born in April 2003.

Shortly thereafter, Ward accepted a $239,000-a-year position that some have likened to diffusing a stick of dynamite burning at both ends. Rampant overspending and plummeting state funds due to an exodus of students from the district - Mayor Jerry Brown’s gentrification program is the most prominent suspect - created a 2003-04 budget that had been gutted by 25 percent compared to the budget from the previous fiscal year.

Oakland schools have lost some 7,000 students in five years and  declining enrollment will further slash the budget this fall.

Ward has responded with his most controversial move to date, closing the doors of five elementary schools when the last bell rang in June.

“I think Dr. Ward is doing his best, but I really believe he has not moved the district forward in the year he’s been here,” said school board member Dan Siegel, one of Ward’s most outspoken critics. “I would have problems in concept with anyone that was appointed (by the state), but a lot of these issues have to do with his personal management style.”

Though he has gone about reeling in the budget in an unapologetic manner, Ward is not without charisma. One OUSD headquarters staffer refers to him as “Billy Dee Williams with a Boston accent.” Visnick, a fellow Boston native who claims that Ward is dealing with the district’s structural problems “in ways in which I vehemently disagree,” concedes that the superintendent-by-mandate is “very personable on some levels.”

“You can’t do this job without a total commitment to getting it done; it’s too hard on the psyche,” Ward said. “My passion is to really make public systems work for all kids. So you push, push, push, push – and one day you’re out of a job.”