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Flak hits Jerry Brown over fundraising for his charter school projects


Today’s San Francisco Chronicle reports:

“Democrat Jerry Brown, who wrote the landmark 1974 state law to curb special interests' power in politics, has raised nearly $10 million in gift contributions to his pet charities from some of the interests - utilities, casino operators and health care organizations - that he oversees as [California] state attorney general, state records show.”

Brown’s “pet charities”? Those would be the Oakland Military Institute (OMI) and Oakland School for the Arts (OSA), two charter schools that he founded (in defiance of Oakland school district administration) amid a flurry of publicity during his terms as Oakland mayor, 1999-2007.

Brown, by the way, is a likely candidate for California governor, a position he previously held from 1975-1983.

The point of the Chronicle’s front-page story is the ethical concern involved in Brown’s requesting donations to a cause from interests over which he has power. In my opinion, since Brown isn’t benefiting personally from those donations, it’s not the worst breach of ethics I’ve ever seen (the Newsweek high school rankings are a greater ethical sin – that story is complicated; click here to read more).

But there’s an interesting story all the same. I heard Brown speak at an event promoting charter schools in December 2001, while plans for OMI and OSA were under way. His attitude, as I interpreted it, was that those stoopid educators who have so much trouble running inner-city schools should get out of the way and let him show them how it’s done.

Well, after the initial publicity about both schools, they largely fell out of the limelight – probably to Brown’s relief, because from the reports that have trickled out, both have struggled badly. (Yes, OSA has pretty good test scores, but it’s a school with an audition selection process, which inherently means it loses the right to crow about the scores – more about that below.)

OSA, for example, has suffered from near-fatal student, teacher and principal turnover.
I have better information on OSA than on OMI, and I know that at least in the case of OSA, Brown has worked his tush off raising money (as we see from the Chronicle story) and remaining otherwise hands-on in running the school. Some of this I know personally because after struggling to find a stable, effective principal, he wooed away Donn Harris, the very popular principal of my own kids’ school, San Francisco School of the Arts, to run OSA. My strong impression is that Brown personally recruited Harris, whose mission includes bringing stability to the school.

In 2007 the Chronicle reported on another income stream Brown created for OSA – an electronic billboard at the Bay Bridge toll plaza that generated controversy mostly over its brightness, which was blamed for impairing drivers’ night vision and also blighting nighttime bay views from as far away as Sausalito. The lighting was eventually dimmed somewhat. The income generated by renting space on the billboard went to OSA.

According to press reports, Brown legitimately channeled money from the mayor’s discretionary fund to the two charter schools, and also had city staff working on various tasks for the two schools. An August 2006 column in the Berkeley Daily Planet charged that Brown himself and city underlings devoted themselves to OSA and OMI while neglecting the Oakland school district:

Voters … believed that [Brown] would follow through on his promise for “dramatic public school improvement in Oakland,” expecting that Mr. Brown would spend considerable time and energy in reforming the public school system.

Instead, Mr. Brown appeared to lose interest in the public school system … focusing instead on trying to get his two charter schools approved. No one knows the amount of staff hours the City Manager’s office put into the approval process, but it was massive.

The diversion of city staff members to Jerry Brown charter school duty did not end with the approval process. Once the OMI was approved and opened, City Manager’s office employee Simon Bryce moved his offices from City Hall to the OMI headquarters at the Oakland Army Base, working on the city payroll but spending much of his time coordinating OMI activities. Imagine if Mr. Brown’s office had put as much effort trying to help OUSD get out of state receivership? The City of Emeryville did, ending up in an innovative—and perfect legal—transfer of money to Emery Unified that allowed the school district to pay off their state loan.

But. [Robert Bobb, then Oakland city manager*] and Mr. Bryce were not the only city employees working extensively on Mr. Brown’s private charter school on city time. So was Mr. Brown himself.

On five separate days in July and August of 2005, for example, Mr. Brown’s official schedule shows entries of between three and five hours of something called, simply, “OSA Phoning with Marianne,” all taking place in the middle of the work week. On July 28th and 29th he is listed as working at this OSA phoning business for two straight days, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Thursday, and again from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Friday. I have no idea who Marianne is or why they needed to take up the bulk of the mayor’s working time, but you are free to make your own guesses. No other single activity took up as much of Mr. Brown’s time during the period of January 2005 through April 2006, the period in which UnderCurrents received copies of the mayor’s schedule.

… Could Mr. Brown have helped make “dramatic public school improvement”—as he promised in 2000’s Measure D—if he had put his full attention to solving Oakland’s school problems? It’s impossible to say. All we know is that while Mr. Brown was putting much of his time into his two charter schools, Oakland’s public schools were going into state receivership, with children sometimes vainly trying to learn amidst continuing chaos.

So what to make of all this? Obviously, Brown rapidly learned that it’s not so easy to run a school better than professional educators after all. (By the way, I’m told that there was disdain for the notion of hiring an experienced educator to lead OSA in its first years; the recruitment of veteran principal Harris signaled a change in that attitude.)

Turning to the governor’s race for a minute, I have to say that the M.O. of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, Brown’s rival in the primary, would have been to forget all about both schools as soon as the going got rough, if not before. By contrast, Brown has demonstrated his dogged commitment, even as the schools floundered. It sounds like OSA, at least, would have collapsed without that – not to mention without the extra millions he has raised for it. (Brown was similarly dogged about working to get OSA into its permanent home in the restored Paramount Theater, where it moved a few months ago; he also recently made news for recruiting Sean Penn to do a fundraiser for the school.)

Commitment shows far more character than fickleness. However, the more righteous attitude for Brown to adopt would be one of repentance: He would apologize publicly for the disdain for educators he displayed while founding OSA and OMI – and for turning his back on Oakland’s public schools to support his two charter projects -- and publicly ask forgiveness. (If I were better informed about religion I could invoke Biblical terms here, given Brown’s Jesuit education and former interest in the priesthood.) He would publicly lay bare the challenges he has faced in working to keep those two schools afloat, and would vow to work to help all schools rise above those challenges. He would declare that it costs far more to run a school than our state provides, and would decisively refute those who claim otherwise. Then he’d go back to all those donors and ask them to support all of California’s underfunded schools, with both money and political support – including calling on them to work with him to repeal Prop. 13.

Now that would be the gubernatorial candidate of my dreams. As it is, at least I can say I admire his commitment and determination.

About the achievement scores for Oakland School for the Arts: Schools with selective admissions processes can’t be fairly compared to schools that admit by lottery – and I’m speaking as a parent at a school that has a selective admissions process. Even though the audition process for an arts school doesn’t take academic achievement into account, the fact that it takes a significant effort to get in still weeds out the unmotivated and low-functioning. So there should be an asterisk on achievement reports for OSA and for my kids’ school as well.

*By the way, former Oakland City Manager Robert Bobb, a non-educator, is now in a position as financial manager of the badly troubled Detroit school system. One of his strategies is bringing in private for-profit companies to run some Detroit schools – including Edison Schools, trying to rehabilitate its image after its previous failure as the great hope of privatization. I’ll be blogging more about that soon.

Follow me on Twitter @CarolineSF



  • Michael Sagehorn 5 years ago OMI we haven't "struggled" badly. That comment is off point and plain plumb wrong, considering the evidence. I have been teaching here 6 years.

    Like all initiatives in education, a military-themed charter school will likely search for it's right mix of staff, strategies, and stuents as it pursues its goals.

    I don't understand why a public school enterprise that operates under full disclosure rules takes so many shots from the press? We are trying to create a climate of academic performance, high expectations, and a safe and secure environment and you keep suggesting that something evil or unethical is afoot. What gives?

  • Caroline, SF Education Examiner 5 years ago

    Hi Michael. I'm a critic of charter schools for a number of reasons. "Evil" and "unethical" are putting it overly strongly, but I believe that they are harmful to public education. As Oakland blogger Sharon Higgins details in her Perimeter Primate blog, OMI and OSA get huge amounts of private funding -- sums that Oakland's public schools can only dream of. While private funders have every right to donate their money as they see fit, I still don't think it's fair that enormous amounts of money are poured into those two schools while others are neglected. And the questions over whether Jerry Brown is exerting the clout of his position to persuade donors to contribute to OMI and OSA does move well into the realm of "unethical."

    I know that OMI has struggled with turnover and achievement.