Following the surprising resignation of Superintendent Tony Smith three weeks ago, the Oakland School Board announced Monday morning its plan to appoint board director Gary Yee as acting superintendent. The board will formally vote on the matter at its next meeting on Wednesday.
In a letter addressed to district staff, School Board President David Kakishiba states that Yee, who currently serves as director for District 4, joined the board in 2003 but has worked in the school district since 1973, when he became a third grade teacher at Cleveland Elementary School. Yee went on to become a principal and assistant to the superintendent, and worked in higher education as dean of instruction at Merritt College and vice chancellor of educational services for Peralta Community Colleges.
“This bond with the city and its school district yields a special knowledge of the challenges facing OUSD, as well as the assets we can use to overcome them,” Kakishiba wrote.
Yee will be expected to serve as acting superintendent for the entirety of the next school year, beginning the day after Smith’s departure on July 1.
Yee, who received his doctorate in education from Stanford University, said he finds the situation ironic, as his dissertation from 1996, titled “Miracle Workers Wanted,” focused on how school districts select new superintendents, using Oakland (between 1950 and 1990) as a case study. “After the initial shock of Tony’s announcement to resign, the board realized it had to get moving on some sort of strategy for succession and it just so happens that that’s my dissertation!” Yee said.
Oakland schools, which have experienced their share of turmoil, have been led by six different superintendents since Yee joined the board in 2003—starting with the ousting of Dennis Chaconas after the state takeover of the school district. But Smith’s departure added a new wrinkle. Based on his own research, Yee said, “I can’t exactly think of any situation where the superintendent leaves for purely personal reasons—not because of a promotion, not because he was fired, not because he died. This is pretty unusual.”
Yee said he was actually considering retirement before Kakishiba surprised him with the prospect of serving as acting superintendent.
Yee’s wife of 45 years, Caroline—a longtime Oakland school district principal—passed away in February. “There was a lot of emotion around all that and thinking about what retirement means after the death of your long-term spouse,” Yee said. He consulted with friends and colleagues, who “encouraged me to keep the door open,” he said.
Yee said part of his motivation was a drive to complete Smith’s district-wide five-year plan to create “full-service community schools,” designed to provide social services and community programs on site.
“There are a lot of steps that have been in the planning and design phases,” Yee said. “I want to make sure that the staff and the district knows that they’re not stopping. This is my commitment to continue the work that Dr. Smith has done.”
Katherine Schultz, the dean of the Mills College School of Education, said she was pleased to hear about Yee’s appointment. He is “highly respected by the current board and highly respected by many members of the community,” she said.
Schultz, who co-chairs the Oakland Education Cabinet, a collaborative group also headed by Mayor Jean Quan and Superintendent Smith, says that Yee has been a part of the group for several years and he has a “good working relationship with the mayor and within the district and across Oakland.”
Schultz also previously published a blog editorial with the Washington Post earlier this month, outlining the qualifications she believes the new OUSD superintendent needs to have. The ideal candidate will “preserve the momentum that has been built up with the work that Tony Smith and his staff has been doing” and is someone “who really respects teachers and will bring them into conversation,” Schultz said.
“Instead of halting progress for a year until someone permanent is elected, [Yee] will keep moving things forward in a productive way,” Schultz said. “There’s a very strong group of senior staff working with the superintendent right now and I’ve heard they’re all interested in staying with Gary as the acting superintendent.”
Yee will submit a formal letter of resignation at the Wednesday meeting before the board votes on his appointment. If the vote is in Yee’s favor, the board will have 60 days to decide how to fill his district seat. Kakishiba said the board could decide to appoint his successor or call for a special election, which he hopes it can determine in the next week.
“I appreciate the support and the belief that people have in me as a long-term Oakland native and educator,” Yee said. “But really what people need to do is hold me accountable for carrying out the goals stated by the board. Having been on the board, that’s what I would like to see a superintendent say.”
As for the search for a permanent candidate, Kakishiba said the board still needs to discuss things like whether it will begin a national or local search and whether it wants to hire a headhunting firm. He said it wants to take action by September so that applications can be accepted as early as late September or early October.
“Between now and September, we’re going to have a bunch of conversations with people, with key stakeholders, to get a sense of people’s input about what kind of scope, what kind of process and what attributes people are looking for,” Kakishiba said.