Oakland Unified School District Superintendent Antwan Wilson will be leaving at the end of this month after having served only 2½ years in his position. Superintendent Wilson is the eighth superintendent I worked with over my 12-year tenure on the Oakland Board of Education. This revolving door of superintendents has been an incredible disservice to children, families and teachers. We cannot build a world-class public school system with the relentless leadership turnover we have endured.
I was board president in 2014 when we voted to hire Mr. Wilson to be our superintendent. Our public vote to select him was unanimous, but behind closed doors, debate among all seven board directors was profoundly telling. Despite broad-based community calls to the board to select a superintendent deeply committed to Oakland and advancing Oakland’s community schools agenda over the long haul, the majority of the board placed a higher value on the allure of a “rising national leader” – even knowing the risk that he will quickly job-hop to a larger urban school district – rather than selecting a proven local leader. Our action yielded exactly what we received: a first-time superintendent more career-driven than community-centered. As for myself, Superintendent Wilson’s short tenure in Oakland was completely predictable.
Oakland needs a superintendent who will stay on the job for the next 10 years, dedicating her or his life to the steady, step-by-step work of building and supporting our schools. Oakland can afford no less.
How does Oakland make this happen?
First, Oakland must resolve to select a superintendent who is deeply rooted in Oakland, for Oakland. The Oakland Unified Board of Education has heard this message repeatedly from Oakland’s institutional and community stakeholders ever since the district exited state receivership in 2009. Traditional executive head-hunting services have not yielded what Oakland needs, largely because these processes elevate the wrong drivers of success. Instead, we need to identify a leader who: 1) Has a substantive record of results in improving Oakland’s schools; 2) Can effectively operate in the public arena, and endure and persist amidst stressful, hard-headed political conditions; and 3) Demonstrates a sober, practical understanding of the time, discipline and humility needed from an institutional leader to foster transformative change.
Second, Oakland must resolve to select a superintendent who deeply understands and respects the governing role of the board. Our publicly elected board is entrusted to establish strategic priorities, enact policies and budgets, and oversee the superintendent’s work performance. The superintendent must support the board – a group fundamentally comprised of volunteers – to effectively govern through practicing transparent disclosure of school district performance, engaging and embracing diverse points of view, and maintaining discipline in decision-making and follow-through. An informed and engaged board of education is a superintendent’s best friend through good, bad and ugly times.
Finally, Oakland should expect the next superintendent to advance a small number of strategic priorities – not a long list of projects and initiatives that lead nowhere but an empty wallet. Here are three priorities that will best drive school improvement in Oakland if worked through with consistent, disciplined leadership.
Oakland must reaffirm its commitment to make every school a full-service community school. This commitment begins with valuing and supporting the professionalism of our teachers. The next superintendent must marshal resources to enable teachers, in partnership with health, social service, and youth development professionals, to build structures and implement practices that normalize shared decision-making, foster instructional improvement and innovation, and provide early and sustained support to struggling students. Fostering a professional culture in every school is a fundamental condition for teachers and other educators to equitably and effectively support all children.
Oakland’s 63 percent high school graduation rate is, by double-digits, the lowest of all California urban school districts with student populations of 35,000 or more. Oakland’s next superintendent is responsible for effectively investing $24 million annually of new local parcel tax revenue, made possible by the support of Oakland voters in 2014 (Measure N – College & Career Readiness for All Act) and 2016 (Measure G1 – Teacher Retention & Middle School Improvement Act). Both measures send a clear community message to the Oakland Unified School District: We’re giving you more money, we support your roadmap, and now get every student graduated from high school prepared for college, career, and the challenges and opportunities Oakland has to offer.
Oakland is challenged with managing an extraordinarily large number of schools – 128 and counting. California Education Code does not allow a local school district to manage the number and type of publicly financed, privately operated charter schools operating within its jurisdiction. Oakland has 45 charter schools serving nearly 12,000 children. The vast majority of charter schools provide their students a solid education, but their uncontrolled expansion has spawned complex challenges to the common good – inequitable student assignment, diminishing school revenue, and a growing, ever-contentious political war between “pro-charter” and “anti-charter” advocates. Our next superintendent must unite these constituencies and others around a common interest to win state legislation that provides Oakland local control over the number and type of schools that can operate.
Oakland has numerous leaders who can take on the top job with confidence, including those from within the Oakland Unified School District (current and former employees), charter school organizations and the nonprofit service sector.
In these challenging national and local times, Oakland needs a committed superintendent to do the essential and unglamorous work of building and supporting our schools, every single day.
David Kakishiba served on the Oakland Unified School District Board of Education from 2003 to 2014, including five years as president. He is the chairman of the Measure N College & Career Readiness Commission, a parcel tax measure authorized by Oakland voters in November 2014.
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