Town hall audience prefers local cadidate for schools’ superintendent

on May 21, 2009

About 200 community members, teachers, parents and students went back to school on Wednesday night to meet the final three candidates for the first permanent, locally-appointed Oakland Unified School District superintendent in six years.

At the doors of the Oakland Tech high school auditorium, each person was handed a 3×5 white note-card, told to grab a snack (Chex Mix, Corn Nuts and mini Crystal Geyser bottles were among the choices) and grab a spot in a cavernous auditorium filled with rows of plastic turquoise seats.

Although, like most high schools, there were people texting and checking cell phones, the crowd was for the most part polite and attentive as each of the three candidates for superintendent – Barbara Adams, Tony Smith and Edward Velasquez – took to the stage to answer questions.  By the end of the evening, however, the favorite was clear.

“Dr. Smith,” said Castle Redmond, a case manager for the OUSD, when asked who his choice for superintendent would be.  “I believe in him wholeheartedly.”  Redmond ticked off the qualities that he had been looking for – community-based thinking, real innovation, and an investment in student, teacher and parent communication.  “I think we need more than just holding the fort down.  We need a transformative leader.  This is the time,” he said.

The OUSD Board’s final decision about which candidate will fill the superintendent position will take place today.

Smith, the former superintendent of Emeryville and deputy superintendent for the San Francisco Unified School District, earned his doctorate in education from U.C. Berkeley and has worked in the Bay area for more than a decade. Many people in the audience cited personal connections to Smith, either having worked with him or met him in the past.

On stage, behind a lectern, Smith came across as intelligent and relaxed as he answered questions posed by a small table of high school students, representatives of All City Council, a leadership group composed of students from among the OUSD high schools and middle schools.

Taking a page from Obama’s book, Smith emphasized listening to teachers and students rather than authoritarian leadership.  He also talked about the deep structural racism within the social system and of the importance of providing good support to teachers and developing community partnerships.

“I think if we get that part right, [supporting teachers] then we can handle the part about discipline,” he said.  “Honestly, it’s more about listening than telling.”  Smith also talked about the achievement gap between low and middle-income students. In the past, he said, he focused on changing the content of the curriculum and re-thinking ways to engage and support students. Of the three candidates, Smith was the only one to receive a standing ovation from several audience members.

Brad Edgar, a Bay-area businessman, liked the fact that he was local. “He’s lived in Oakland for 12 years, he’s a native Californian, and he knows the community,” he said.  “He can hit the ground running.” Edgar described the position of superintendent as difficult and worthy of someone who could put forth a Herculean effort. “It takes youth, ambition,” he said. “It’s not just a job.  It’s a mission.”

Despite the occasional microphone mishap and the three grueling 45-minute question sessions, many audience members took copious notes and small groups engaged in intense discussions of the candidates during the short breaks.

When asked for their opinions after the three-hour presentation, many audience members chose Smith as their favorite, referencing his Oakland roots. In an atmosphere where state governance has reigned supreme for years, due to a state-takeover of the school district in 2003, being home-grown counts.  However, under the control of Jack O’Connell, the state superintendent, the district has raised its Academic Performance Index (API) score significantly, making it California’s most improved large, urban district according to an OUSD press release.

The other two candidates who participated in the town hall meeting (and who survived the nation-wide superintendent search) were from Boston and Los Angeles, respectively.

Barbara Adams, who was the first candidate to speak, is Chief Academic Officer for the Boston public school system.  Leaning over the microphone and repeating the Oakland district’s mantra – “expect success from every student, every classroom, every day” – Adams came across as purposeful and intense. She discussed ways to close the achievement gap, which she called the access gap, and delivered thoughtful answers, but the crowd was unenthusiastic.

“She talked in generalities and some of her responses felt canned,” said Monique Epps, a community member and co-founder of an education non-profit organization.

Edward Velasquez, the other candidate, is superintendent of Montebello Unified School District in Los Angeles County, and also serves as his district’s chief of school police. The former sheriff’s deputy exuded toughness, tempered by a strong affection for his students.  He told many anecdotes culled from 33 years of teaching and working with youth and talked about his commitment to keeping kids off the streets and making sure they were safe and ready for college.

His leadership style seemed a little out of step with what the audience wanted to hear. They applauded after Velasquez said he raised his school district’s graduation rate, but responded with less enthusiasm when he followed this by saying it was because his principals did what he told them to do – otherwise they wouldn’t be his principals.

Epps, the non-profit co-founder, said that she wondered about Velasquez’ ability to connect with the community of Oakland, although she liked that he talked about the budget crisis and used concrete examples of how he planned to solve the financial problems of the district.

Like the other audience members that this reporter talked to, Epps liked Smith best, but she did have reservations about his ability to “go beyond inspiration” to follow through. “I want someone who is visionary and who can also get things done,” she said.

The evening was largely hosted by high school students.  OUSD Student Engagement Specialist Raquel Jimenez said earlier the students drafted a letter of complaint to the OUSD Board members when their expectations of participation in the event were not met.

A copy of the letter, printed on hot pink paper, listed student-preferred characteristics for the new superintendent, such as the ability to relate to students, willingness to seek their input, as well as knowledge of Oakland youth culture and California.  “They also want someone who’s nice, and likes to smile,” Jimenez said, smiling.

As the handful of participating high school students gathered excitedly at the foot of the stage after the event, they revealed that they had voted (almost) unanimously, ranking Smith, Velasquez and Adams as their top 1, 2 and 3 choices.

Marcus Thompson, a high school student at Oakland Tech, said that he liked Smith because he answered the questions directly and got straight to the point.  Shannon Chase, another high school student, said that the key thing that stood out about Smith was that he was ready to listen.  “That’s something we want, because we want to be heard,” she said.

Smith’s local ties to Oakland and his accessibility were important to the students as well.  “He has charisma,” said Thompson, “and was cool and humble and down to earth.”

1 Comment

  1. […] The public also weighed in on the winning candidate at a town hall meeting on Wednesday. See what they had to say. […]



Photo by Basil D Soufi
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