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North Oakland Now: angry haiku, masked teachers

on September 11, 2009

The challenge: criticize a half-billion dollar public works  project in only three lines.

“Boondoggles galore

But this one takes the biscuit

In the U.S.A.”  — Tanja C.


“So it costs nearly

three thousand dollars an inch:

slow is beautiful.”  — Alan T.


“$550 million?

BART could go to Livermore

for that kind of dough.”  —   Mark F.

A humorous and often profound Haiku contest sponsored by Oakland transportation advocacy group, TransForm, aims to channel the public’s collective uncertainty regarding the Oakland Airport Connector (OAC) into creative lines of 5-7-5.

Contest organizer Rebecca Saltzman said the group felt it was important to run the art and haiku contest in order to “give people a positive outlet for their frustrations with the project.”

When initially approved by the public in 2000, the 3.2-mile elevated rail project was expected to cost $132 million dollars and include at least two stops along the route between the Oakland Coliseum BART station and the Oakland International Airport. Since then, the project’s budget has swelled to as high as an estimated $550 million dollars without any stops along the heavily industrial and commercial corridor along San Leandro Street and Hegenberger Road in East Oakland.

art by Glen A. at

art by Glen A. at

Critics and advocacy groups like TransForm argue the proposal has grown too expensive and is no longer cost-effective, considering the continuing fiscal problems for regional public transit systems.

“This is not a broad community-supported project,” said John Knox White, TransForm’s Program Director. “If people learn how about the costs associated with the project compared to the service provided, people will say ‘this doesn’t make sense at all.’”

The poems are part of a continuing campaign by the group to raise public awareness before the Oakland City Council Public Work Committee meets to discuss the OAC proposal on September 15. A thumbs-up or thumbs-down by the Council could significantly influence BART’s public statements regarding the long-delayed and controversial rail project.

TransForm works to promote so-called “working-class public transportation and walkable communities in the Bay Area and beyond.” Knox White said they launched the contest as a way for people to “have a little fun while engaging in social policy critiques.”

The winning haiku author receives a $100 prize while the lucky graphic artist gets $250. The group is receiving entries until Sept 12th. Submitted haikus and drawings can be seen at

–Tom Gorman/Oakland North

Facemasks at the school board make for memorable start

A mysterious assembly of masked men and women gathered last night, their faces wrapped in plastic, their only forms of identification their yellow t-shirts with the initials OEA emblazoned on the back. To a casual observer, it might have looked like a masquerade or a mime party was about to break out. But no–this was an Oakland Unified School District board meeting.

“For the past six years, teachers have been treated like faceless, voiceless, interchangeable parts,” said Betty Olsen Jones, president of the Oakland Education Association. She welcomed new superintendent Tony Smith by saying, “We want you to see the faces of our teachers. We want you to hear our stories.”

With that, union members removed their masks and, one by one, took the podium to tell those stories. For a reporter now learning the Bay Area, the complexities that confront the Oakland education system continued piling up quickly after that.  But despite many differences of opinion expressed last night, there seemed a general sense of hope in the leadership that Smith will provide.

“I have a lot of faith in you — I really do, Mr. Smith,” said David Laub, a high school math teacher. “I met you the other night at Oakland Tech and I was impressed by you. I haven’t been impressed by a superintendent since I can remember.”

Highlights from tonight’s meeting:

–       Eliminating the impasse on contract negotiations and raising teacher salaries was the focus of the union message. OUSD teachers have been working under an expired contract for over a year.

–       The California Connections Academy, a “virtual school” that instructs online, applied for a charter from the board– drawing intense disapproval from teachers and union members. The union is pushing for the elimination of charter schools in the OUSD.

–       The board discussed President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, which asks states to eliminate caps on charter schools and link student test scores to teacher evaluations and pay (a practice that is currently illegal in California). Board members were split on the issue, but were generally opposed to the idea of a federal mandate.

–       A $25 million budget cut will be necessary this year, according to the board’s chief financial officer, Vernon Hal. Smith assured the board that he and Hal would be meeting today to develop options for handling the cuts. Reconciling the cuts with union demands for a pay raise will be a major challenge moving forward.

The next Board of Education meeting is scheduled for  Wednesday, September 23rd at 5pm.  For more information, visit

— Jake Schoneker/Oakland North

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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