Nonprofit Fights for Oakland School Libraries

One-third of the libraries in the city’s public schools remain closed due to budget cuts, but a nonprofit is working to reopen them. (first appeared in the East Bay Express, March 27 edition)

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It’s hard to keep track of the many educational programs that no longer exist in California because of budget cuts enacted during the past decade. The elimination of adult education in local school districts is one example. School libraries have also lost significant financial support. In Oakland, one-third of the public school libraries have been closed for years, and another third are only open part-time with limited staffing — mostly by volunteers.

Indeed, the school librarian, like the school counselor, has become an endangered species in Oakland and other cities throughout the state. My kids graduated from Oakland public schools in the 1990s. As lackluster and sad as their schools seemed back then, at least their libraries were still open and staffed.

Depending on where and when you grew up, you probably had a library in your elementary school. And by the time you got to high school, you could depend on finding a good selection of encyclopedias, non-fiction books, periodicals, and novels. You could talk to the librarian when you couldn’t find what you wanted, and you learned about the Dewey Decimal system.

But that’s no longer the case for many Oakland schoolchildren. “A child could enroll today in a district elementary school and graduate from an OUSD high school without ever having the benefit of a school library,” said Oakland city Library Commissioner Ruby Bernstein, recalling a quote from Kari Hatch, the executive director of Friends of the Oakland Public School Libraries.

Currently, Oakland Unified School District only funds two full-time and two part-time librarians for the entire city. OUSD’s Ann Gallagher — one of the full-time librarians — oversees the district’s libraries, librarians, technicians, and volunteers. She told me that California now ranks fiftieth in the country in terms of its ratio of students to librarians — and it’s a distant fiftieth. Some California school districts, however, have managed to keep most of their libraries open. Berkeley is using library technicians and San Francisco has held onto its librarians by splitting them among schools.

Gallagher said school libraries are particularly important because “children, especially children living in poverty, need access to free-choice reading,” and that “reading is more than drill and practice.” She believes that teachers are already too overloaded with curriculum tasks to also act as de facto librarians. Librarians also help train students to develop research skills in order to prepare them for college and careers.

Given these issues, Gallagher is working closely with Friends of the Oakland Public School Libraries (FOPSL), whose mission is to resurrect the city’s closed school libraries. FOPSL started in 2009 as a dedicated group of volunteers in the Montclair Community Action Committee who organized a book drive for schools that had outdated collections. When they realized what a huge undertaking it would be to live up to their motto — “Every child deserves a quality school library” — they decided to incorporate as a nonprofit. From 2009 to 2011, before they incorporated, they managed to reopen eight public school libraries, including two at middle schools — all of them in Oakland’s flatland neighborhoods.

Hills schools have managed to reopen their libraries, hire librarians, and buy supplies thanks to fundraising from parents. Many well-to-do hills parents also have the time to volunteer in their libraries. FOPSL, by contrast, wants to reopen libraries in neighborhoods in which parents have fewer resources.

“Our goal is tangible and achievable,” Hatch said. So far, the group has worked to DSCN4167reopen more than twenty school libraries with the help of grants, community donations, corporate sponsorships, and partnerships with faith-based organizations. The reopened libraries also have received funding from Measure G, a parcel tax approved by Oakland voters in 2008. Measure G provides more than $55 per pupil, but the measure’s oversight committee has made the funding available only to elementary and middle schools, and not high schools, due to the limited amount of funds available.

Currently, Skyline High is the only high school in the district with a full-time librarian. The other high schools have decided to fund other essential services, although they’re still hoping to reopen their libraries in the future.

In an editorial last October in the Fremont High School student newspaper, the Green and Gold, students bemoaned their shuttered library as a place where rats roamed. However, construction has begun refurbishing the space, and there’s hope that it will be reopened next school year. Students told me that Castlemont’s library has a computer area, which they use for things like applying for college loans online, but that the rest of it is closed off. Oakland Tech has a clerk who can open the library on occasion, and Oakland High’s library is currently being used for online classes and as a meeting space.

The state takeover of Oakland public schools is partly to blame for the demise of local school libraries. In addition, budget cutbacks as the result of an education “flexibility” spending plan approved under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger have made things worse. The change gave school districts more authority on how to spend taxpayer dollars. Many districts, including Oakland, decided to focus on basic education. That led to the elimination of adult education, along with funding for libraries, not only in Oakland but also in other cities.

But there is hope. Superintendent Tony Smith is currently considering a Library Equity Plan, which would reallocate Measure G funds. A pilot project to hire six professionally trained librarians is gaining traction with district administrators, while the reallocation plan would offer sixty district employees the opportunity to be retrained as library technicians who would be able to staff the newly stocked and refurbished libraries.

Library refurbished by Fopsl

Library refurbished by FOPSL

For those interested in joining or contributing to FOPSL, check out the group’s website at FOPSL.org.

Chronicle Editors Outraged, Mayor Reads News Online!

Mayor Jean Quan with her husband, Dr. Floyd Huen

The San Francisco Chronicle is on a tear. They have spent years and presumably thousands of their hard-earned dollars paying columnists to trash Oakland. I think the only mayor we ever had that they didn’t attack with such ferocity was, yeah, you guessed it, Jerry Brown. But Jerry was clearly part of the political establishment.

I won’t try to psychologize why they never found anything that about Dellums to like. It might have started with Dellums’ own disparagement of the press and just gone downhill from there. But, it wasn’t just Dellums, whenever possible they castigated city council members except for maybe,  de la Fuente (a Perata ally).

But now their editorial team is reaching so far out to find fault, that it’s becoming laughable. First the Chron editorial team meets with our new mayor and nitpicks its way through a nasty depiction of her new administration.

Then they declare that “Quan should be outraged”. Maybe they missed all her press briefings, “Open letter to Occupy Oakland”, and her outraged defense of port workers and port business while they were sitting in a corner of their San Francisco ivory tower reading print editions of their paper.

Let’s see, no city has been able to control its “occupations” without overwhelming force and heavy expenditures, but Quan should have able to do better than all of them. The port, which sits in our city, represents commerce from around the entire Bay area; yet we are still expected to beg or pay for assistance from other police agencies-dealing with the aftermath alone when they don’t follow our “crowd control” rules, including the resulting lawsuits and negative publicity.

Okay, yeah, guess our new mayor isn’t superwoman although even the Chronicle could never fault her work ethic and dedication to our town. But the other issue they have with her is that she reads the newspaper online. Wow, since the majority of newspaper readers in this day and age, digest their news online, is this for real?

Why don’t these cranky folks come out and say what they have against our mayor and our city? I don’t know what their problem is; but since I do read their paper (in print form most days), I have noticed a pattern: delegitimizing our system of voting and disparaging our grassroots work.

The folks at the Chron endorsed the machine candidate for mayor and fully expected him to win. When he didn’t, numerous stories began to appear casting aspersions on RCV, ranked-choice-voting, which I admit, helped to elect the first grassroots mayor in our history.

In terms of that silly resolution demanding the city prevent any future port closures, well, that was just posturing and carried with it no guarantee of how that might be accomplished.

Occupy Oakland has said that it no longer sees that as a tactic, but now some of the more reactionary elements in the movement may want to take on the challenge issued by de la Fuente. I hope they won’t be goaded into such a wrongheaded move; but I think the attention the resolution brought to the difficulties all cities face in these days of turmoil, did more to promote uncertainty than to contain it.

Occupy Oakland-What’s Next for the Movement?

I am a poster child for the 99%. I am a woman, an older person with no retirement savings, and I raised two kids by myself. My kids experienced chronic illnesses as children and one of them still struggles with medical issues and the costs associated with them. I do my best to help on my part-time job.

I was on the verge of despair over the combination of economic problems, climate horrors (which can exacerbate chronic illnesses), and the war on women. I was elated when the Occupy Wall Street movement started because I really need this movement.

But I also gotta say that when someone handed me a flyer that we were gonna occupy my town, I asked why, why Oakland? We’re not a financial center and very few of the 1% live here. Hell, the director of our Chamber of Commerce lives in Tiburon.

I felt a shiver go through my body as I envisioned riots once again in downtown Oakland and little shops owned by other women and people of color being vandalized.

Then came October 10th and I was cheered by the crowd and the sense of common purpose. I couldn’t stay away and visited almost every day-raising funds for supplies, and photographing, writing, talking, meeting, and attending GA’s when I could.

I was impressed by the organization, the creativity, and the upbeat mood. In terms of the GA’s I loved the diversity of the crowd and just the fact that there was a crowd-glorious! But, I never thought that these late night, long-ass meetings were a substitute for democratic elections and rules of transparency. Politicians will always try to break the rules but because they are clear, it is possible to force them to comply.

Now, not surprisingly given the pressures on Occupy Oakland (and you can’t imagine the pressures on city officials, or maybe that’s the problem, you don’t try and imagine them), troubles- schisms, paranoia and a boat load of arrogance seem about to overwhelm our home-grown version.

It’s not just the provocateurs, some undoubtedly paid and some who believe in “heightening the contradictions” or the romanticism of revolution or the folks who think the whole thing boils down to confronting our infamous police force.

The paranoia is not surprising but it is debilitating. For instance, I attended a press conference with long-time activist and former Council Member Wilson Riles was accused, accused being the operative word, of being a member of the organization that had originally been formed to elect a grassroots candidate as mayor, the Block by Block Organizing Network. He wasn’t a member but that shouldn’t have been the point. This organization, which has its own internal contradictions and struggles, has gone on to hold a town hall in every city district.

Then Dan MacCleay, himself a former candidate for mayor, was chided at this press conference -which was being held to promote an open forum at the GA -for the having the audacity of holding it without consulting the General Assembly first, huh, what??

So what’s this movement all about and how does it relate to the rest of Oakland- a city that truly struggles under the weight of federal and state governments which continually bleed it, a city where a battle was recently won against machine politics, a city where the most creative entrepreneurial folks from around the world come to set up shop, a city where 40% of its youth don’t get to graduate from high school, and many families struggle to live and work in unsafe neighborhoods.

Leaving aside the issue- which always seems to resonate in Oakland-as to whether the young occupiers come from here-I don’t come from here- although since coming here, I have truly made it my home. We attract creative folks looking for a new way of doing things and that’s good.

And, leaving aside the terrible mistakes our new mayor has made and what her decision making process was, how much the police union had to do with how things came down on October 25th, leaving aside all that since so much has already been written about it. Even leaving aside all the posturing that has gone concerning our mayor….

Now, I want to know what kind of cockamamie process leads folks to believe this movement should be about fighting cops, denouncing locally elected officials they never even tried to talk to, and now occupying, in the worst sense, a neighborhood that was never even consulted??

And while we’re at it, why does downtown Oakland need another march? What have the owners of Rudy’s Can’t Fail Café, Oaklandish, and on, and on, done to deserve the streets repeatedly shut down around them or to live with the fear of destruction yet again? Did the GA also announce that everyone should spend enough money to make up for the folks who won’t come?

While we’re speaking of the GA, what on earth gave this shadow government the right to decide what happens in our city? Really, whoever shows up is in charge of the next stage of the movement, my movement too, even if I can’t participate in all these meetings?? Furthermore, I can’t go because I can’t tolerate the amount of smoke that billows around me.

So that leads me to another point and not a small one, I might add. Years ago when my very asthmatic son was small and I was the chief of staff to a city council man, I worked hard with the American Lung Association to make Oakland the city with the toughest smoking laws. We then went on and passed the toughest state laws. When my family would visit relatives back East, we had to put up with and live through places like planes and restaurants with smoking sections. It was horrible but smoking has been limited since then, thank the goddess.

But the GA decided, in its wisdom, to bring back smoking sections. So much for my hard work in a democratic process and so much for my comfort, not to mention that of lots of folks who are sensitive to smoke?

As many of you know by now the GA recently decided to move the OO encampment to a lot and park at 19th and Telegraph where the neighbors have not been consulted and where the city (remember that group of elected officials we get to ignore?) has decided to build a public art space.

Maybe the folks at the GA didn’t know all this stuff but now they do, and they also know that they may be splitting more folks off from the movement-the movement that some of us really need to succeed.

Folks, even politicians listen when there is an uproar, is this little bureaucracy so difficult to maneuver, so in-grown, that it can’t tell when it’s time to reassess the process and the point. Is this movement part of Oakland or will it be consumed fighting Oakland?

I believe that the next step for OO has to be particular to Oakland’s needs and desires, and no one group or neighborhood or assembly can speak for that. Many organizations are hard at work in Oakland making this a better place. Many neighborhoods are struggling. We’ll have lots of allies if we listen, consult, and begin to go out to the neighborhoods and ask how we can assist in their struggles.

When I say we, I am asserting that even if I can’t attend all these damned meetings, I’m still a part of this movement whether I am willing to pretend that the GA’s actually represent it or not.

The strength of OO was that so many people from all over Oakland came together to talk about the real issues of living in a country that is truly in the middle of a class war. Now it’s time to stop focusing on our lovely navels and move into a stage where we focus on the rest of Oakland. Give it some thought, occupiers, some of our lives depend upon it.

Occupy Oakland: There is a There There.

Making music at the Constant Caucus Cafe

Despite millions of dollars and decades of planning, the city center was never vibrant until now-

Occupy Oakland is in its 8th night as I write this. I have visited the site every day since the first rally on October 10th, and every day it grows larger and more complex. If you have not seen it, I don’t believe that the photos do it justice. You must go.

Tonight I met 3 new twenty-somethings pitching their tent. I asked them where they had come from and they said, Berkeley, and kind of laughed-presumably-because it is so near. But, that, of course, is part of the attraction.

Most of the people I’ve talked to are actually from Oakland. Many are daily visitors -working on projects, engaging in discussions, making art or music-not camping out but they are at work on creating community. I can’t tell you how many are camping out, but it must be quite a few, judging by the number of tents on the lawn.

The Tribune tower serves as backdrop for the new village, first week.

Before this, the area beyond the amphitheatre always seemed small to me but I guess it really isn’t. I could never have imagined that so many tents-with a few boardwalks plopped in the middle-could fit into that little area. Most of the tents look comfortable even if they sit cheek to jowl with each other.

I haven’t had the urge to stay over since the balmy evenings of that first week because it has gotten too crowded and even a bit too civilized. I’ve never been much for camping, and the endless negotiating and redesigning of a complex society just seems like lots of work. Still, the scene draws me back every day.

For instance, in the kitchen, the kettle barbecues have been abandoned for large gas-style stoves with giant pots full of stew. There is a food preparation tent alongside shelving for dishes and a dishwashing area. Whole families stop by to donate food and supplies. I have even heard that the city has asked them to stock a fire extinguisher to make this sophisticated arrangement safer.

Kitchen tent, first week.

So now that things are working a bit better-bureaucracy is bound to grow- but if we remember that bureaucracy was designed to bring organization to civilization, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Besides the first aid tent, the crafts and the childcare tents, there is a media and an info tent and a well-stocked library, plus a tent full of dry erase boards with growing activity schedules.

These message boards offer classes and discussion groups almost every hour. There are signs posted, stacked and lying about, and the messages are inspiring or thought provoking.  There is almost always music all along the paths surrounding the encampment.

Zoe and Olivia make art on site, day 7.

Early on, port-a-potties were donated by the Oakland Education Association (OEA), but cleaning them daily is expensive, and an instant fundraiser is scheduled this Sunday to provide a port-a-potty cleaning fund.

If you want to help grow this fund, please attend the Port-a-Potty Party this coming Sunday, October 23, from 5 to 7 (appetizers and drinks) at 1633 Channing Way, Berkeley, or send a check to the Oakland Education Association, 272 East 12th Street, Suite C, Oakland, 94606.

At the site, I frequently meet gray-haired friends who are visiting, chatting, and offering support. On Sunday I ran into Robert Reich who was talking to people and engaging them in discussions. He told me that this movement was indicative of the American spirit “rising up”. 

At one gathering I heard a woman older than me say that she had been waiting for this uprising for 70 years and a friend of mine-who dashed off to Target (some irony there, I guess) to buy supply bins for the campers-told me, “I’ve been waiting 50 years for this.”

For the most part, my friends and I have seen this as a young person’s movement that we are willing to support in any way we can. We respect their process and trust that the campers and daily attendees will find a way to move it to the next stage.

The most striking aspect of this for me is how it has changed the conversation in this country and around the world, and that is probably the most significant thing it can do. I go through my day aware of them and their struggles as a generation, and thankful that their statement of rebellion matches my own anger, my own hope.

Tonight by 6 PM, I couldn’t stay away any longer and set out on foot to join them. Along the way I felt a simple kind of joy moving among the runners, strollers, bikes, kids, and dogs passing together along the edges of our beautiful Lake Merritt as the sun went down. As soon as I reached the library, the emptiness of downtown Oakland after 6 PM yawned before me and made me think of turning back. But there it was- the vibrant new village at Oscar Grant Plaza (which is very ironic given how much money the City has spent over the years to revitalize this core area). The General Assembly was just being called to order; so I joined the attentive crowd and listened as so many disparate folks expressed their desire to learn, teach, and share in real community.

Now, when I hear about what is happening in Congress or the presidential race, I think that they have rendered themselves irrelevant. Just months ago, all I could think of was how irrelevant we had become to those bent on destroying our public spaces, our public rights, and our public hopes.

Of course, I know there are still lots of important battles that must be carried on in the political houses of our country. But now, I believe that these houses are also the ones we design and run ourselves in these very public spaces with people who are, it turns out, not apathetic nor politically ignorant, but actively engaged in that task. 

Whatever path the movement chooses, we will not go back to our lives of quiet desperation, isolation and self blame. This time we really will believe in hope and change. We will believe in ourselves.

Oakland’s Frail Seniors At Risk Due to Brown’s Veto

Frail seniors enjoy lunch together

Back in the late 70’s when California was flush and the governor rode a moonbeam into town, legislation was created to establish pilot programs to provide day care for the frail elderly. By 1978, that fateful year when Proposition 13 was passed, Medi-Cal was approved to cover the cost for indigent seniors and disabled folk who wanted to stay in their homes despite their need for medical supervision, physical therapy, and other services.

It was called Adult Day Health Care and, according to Corrine Jan of the Family Bridges Center in downtown Oakland, “California was a pioneer in the field of senior independence for decades” and showed the way nationwide on how to reduce nursing home costs-saving pots of money and not a little pain in the communities where these services were delivered.

By 1983 it was given a “permanent” category within Medi-Cal and the funding increased under succeeding Republican governors. Over the decades it was shuttled around to various state agencies but was always considered an innovative way to keep people out of emergency rooms and nursing homes. In fact ADHC was offered to patients in nursing homes in hopes of transitioning them back to their communities.

However, the new Governor Brown administration of 2011 promptly vetoed the continuation of the Adult Day Health Care program even with funding cut in half (which halves the Medicaid match.)

The governor’s office declared that the remaining funds were meant to transition these clients out of ADHC into something else. Corrine Jan of Family Bridges in Oakland declared, “I’ve got news for him. There ain’t nothing else.”

The Legislature had expected the Governor to apply for a federal waiver to implement the new version called KAFI, which stands for Keeping Adults Free from Institutions, and receive the appropriate federal funds.

According to the California Association for Adult Day Services, the veto by the Governor prevents the state from applying for those funds and would make California-the former leader in the field -the only state in the nation without an ADHC program.

Ms. Jan of Family Bridges which serves the majority of Oakland seniors using ADHC services, describes the program as more than just senior centers where classes take place or a meal is provided, important as that is.

Seniors at Family Bridges celebrate the holidays.

“This is a multidisciplinary medical model which provides medical supervision, physical therapy, nutrition, and socialization.” They also provide transportation for their clients from Chinatown, East, and West Oakland and services in Korean, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Vietnamese as well as English.

Ms. Jan says her center’s services cost about $75 a day compared to the $250 a day a nursing home will cost the taxpayers. Since most of the patients seen in ADHCs suffer from hypertension, diabetes, and/or dementia, emergency room visits will soar when there is no one to monitor the patient’s condition.

Ms. Jan continues, “many times symptoms are missed if no one knows,”… the client like the providers at the ADHC, “like shortness of breath or a slight blurring of the vision….signs of stroke.” These conditions have more serious consequences once they escalate, resulting in long hospital stays-at best.

Dr. Marty Lynch of Lifelong Medical Care which has a center in the Foothill Square area of East Oakland, explains that the licensing requirements of ADHCs require each center to have a medical director, an occupational and speech therapist, transportation plus providers who can assist their clients with basic functions like going to the bathroom, plus taking up to 6 medications a day within individualized plans for members of this very disabled population. Most programs must fundraise to cover the costs that Medi-Cal does not cover.

Micheal Pope, who has been with Alzheimer’s Services of the East Bay, ASEB, for 16 years, said that eleven ADHC centers have already closed their doors in California. She also stated that statewide 80 to 90% of the seniors and disabled who use this program are Medi-Cal dependent whereas 100% of their Oakland Alzheimer patients are dependent on state aid.

As a result of this abdication of the state’s responsibility to these folks, the Disability Rights California legal team, along with the National Senior Citizens Law Center, the National Health Law Program, and the law firm of Morrison & Forester filed a motion for a preliminary injunction in June to prevent the their shutdown. They expect to hear whether they have won a reprieve by the end of July.

Both Lynch and Jan say that there are no “alternative services” as posted in the governor’s veto. There is nothing to transition to since in-home services have been cut, case management plans are full, and nursing homes prefer private patients plus a small percentage of Medicare clients-putting it back on the Feds.

In fact, Jan suggests, since most other states are in the financial hole, they have looked to California’s ADHC model as a useful innovation.

Dr. Lynch was also blunt on the law suit. He says that the language on “transitioning to alternatives” was just language to protect the state which has lost previous attempts to dump patient services in the courts.

Lynch quips, “the state just wanted to say, we’re going to be able to transition to other services,” and then “count the savings” when there weren’t any services out there.

If the injunction does not win in court, frail seniors and the disabled in Oakland and throughout California will have to contend with the possibilities-losing their independence, losing their remaining health, and even losing their lives.

Even with the injunction in place, there will be little to celebrate. Seniors, the disabled, and the folks who take care of them, will have to keep fighting just to maintain the reduced circumstances they now find themselves in.

To find out how you can help, go to the California Association for Adult Day Services,  www.caads.org.

Now is the Time for Adult Education

Parents & students protest at the closed Shands School

This week is the first anniversary of the last graduation of the Edward Shands Adult School. I had written last year that, “Thursday night may have been the last graduation the Edward Shands Adult School puts on. After 139 years of free basic adult education and ever-expanding offerings, including its high school diploma program, Oakland Unified School District has decided to close almost the entire adult school department.” See http://oaklandlocal.com/blogs/2010/06/edward-shands-school-close-adult-education-faces-severe-cutbacks-oakland-community-voices.

And it came to pass that Shands in East Oakland, the Neighborhood Centers schools in East Lake, and the Pleasant Valley School for Older Adults and Adults with Disabilities were all closed by June, 2010.

Students in Family Literacy

The remaining teachers were funneled into the Family Literacy Program, English classes for parents in their neighborhood schools, and GED preparation. In the video accompanying this you’ll hear long-time teacher Jessie Ortiz talk about the only remaining Spanish GED class which she taught last year. By the way, all of these classes had been offered in summer as well as the school year before the funding stream was removed by the state legislature.

The wonderful little Bond Street center near Fremont High School still holds a core of citizenship, computer and other literacy classes for second language learners. It has been threatened with closure repeatedly over the years but still hangs on. It may not last this next round of closures, but its demise is being hard fought.

There is some confusion in the video that is shared by many in the District. Oakland Unified provided one of the few, perhaps only, high school diploma programs for adults. Most people were only aware of the General Educational Development Test which results in a California High School Equivalency Certificate.

Fully 40% of Oakland youth don’t graduate with their original classmates but could come back and receive actual coursework in the Math, English, Social Studies, and Science classes needed to complete their high school credits. We graduated roughly 5000 students since the Shands campus opened.

The high school classes program no longer exists but GED classes are still being offered at some sites. Other GED prep classes are being taught by former Oakland Unified teachers at other institutions like the one being offered, for free, at the Allen Temple Baptist Church in East Oakland. The problem is that not only are there not enough of them, most students are not even  aware of their existence.

Shands graduate & speaker, June, 2010

Last year we held a graduation in Laney College’s auditorium for 75 high school graduates and at least 50 GED certificate holders. Before joining the diploma program, I subbed in ESL at the Neighborhood Centers and some of the other ESL sites like Chinatown which had also been closed down. Then at Shands I moved from ESL to English to counseling to Government and Economics which I taught during the crash of 2009/10-interesting times.

Despite the low rate of pay and uncertain conditions-as an hourly teacher I had no guarantees and a lower wage than teachers with a District contract-I found the work immensely rewarding. The community of teachers and students and staff in our little marginalized world of immigrants, formerly incarcerated youth, single moms, and often desperately struggling families was a very cohesive one.

Everyone came to us across a minefield of obstacles that would knock most folks out for life. They continued despite lack of resources, health, support and even those difficulties unwittingly (I hope) caused by the District’s administration. Yet even those who didn’t always make it to class knew that the option to remake their lives was still available when they were ready.

One of the teachers I worked with summed it up best, “Adult Education survived two World Wars and the Great Depression, but now we can’t afford it. It’s ridiculous. Talk about not valuing what you have.”

The news is slightly better today than other days. The teachers and students have put up a helluva fight and are now getting some hopeful responses by at least one board member although the news from the governor is bad. He’s calling for more cuts if the tax extensions are not available.

At our last graduation of Edward Shands another teacher and I had made signs for the students to quietly wear over their gowns on the stage of the auditorium that said, ”Save our School & Save Adult Education.” Our principal, a perfectly nice man, told us to take them off. He said, “this is neither the time nor place…” I thought it was and I still do, but we’ll have to make the time and the place. No one is going to give it to us unless we demand it.

Please check out the video. It is my love letter to the community I miss, a community that must continue to exist, for all our sakes.

Librarian Talks Back to Oakland Trib Anti-Public Employee Rant

Jane Courant has been a full time Oakland librarian since 1998. She’s worked as a children’s librarian and is now the Adult Services Librarian at the Dimond Branch. Previous to moving to the Bay Area, she was an actor/singer in small theatre troupes and maintains an interest in the arts.

This letter is a response to the Oakland Tribune editorial bashing library workers and their unions, http://www.insidebayarea.com/opinion/ci_18217065.

“I strongly urge the Governor to follow the legislature’s lead and sign AB 438, a decidedly pro-library bill, rather than follow the dangerous position taken in “Assembly Bill 438 is an Anti-library Measure,” (6/7/11). A private company’s mission is to maximize profits. A public library’s mission is to serve all citizens equally and protect their free access to information as well as the privacy of their library records. Librarians must be able to stand up to authority — and they frequently do — to ensure that they fulfill this mission, whether it means preventing FBI access to borrowing records or opposing those who would censor materials, keeping them from library shelves or computer screens.

If a public librarian’s employer is a private company beholden to its investors, fear of losing one’s job makes such principled positions much more difficult to maintain. Recently, LSSI, one of the biggest players in the library privatization game, took over the Santa Clarita system. Its contract gave them control not only of hiring, but of materials purchasing as well. In attacking the SEIU, The Tribune misses the point of public unions completely, whether they protect the rights and responsibilities of teachers, police, park workers or librarians.”

One needs only look at the Patriot Act and the folks who fought its infringements the hardest, to see the importance of keeping the libraries public. Thanks for this letter, Jane.

Why the Gang Injunctions Got Funded and What to Do about it.


Last night the City Council finally decided to vote on the gang injunctions, the original ones in North Oakland and the new ones proposed for most of the Fruitvale. I say “finally” because the City has spent big bucks on instituting and litigating these injunctions before the council had even made a determination to do so.  Wow, even though the vote confirmed what the City Attorney’s office and OPD went ahead and did, it seems that the tail has been wagging the dog for awhile.

Considering that most of the general fund goes to pay for the police department,  maybe it’s only fitting that they make policy and the council follows behind. I asked one of the City’s leading citizens or leading lobbyists, depending on your definition, why he supported the injunctions and he said it was because Chief Batts wanted it. “Whatever Chief Batts wants, I support.” While I understand wanting to back the Chief, I don’t think he should be the one making policy. It’s like putting the generals in charge of the federal government. There’s a word for that and it’s not democracy.

I have been hearing that the police department and the city attorney’s office would offer a comprehensive report on the usefulness of these expensive “tools” for our very expensive police department. Maybe I missed that, please forward those reports to me if I did. So far I have heard no rational explanation on the usefulness of injunctions.

Back to the “tools” the Chief wants. I’m using that term because that’s what all the proponents use to describe its necessity. I could suggest that adult education is an important tool, in that it prevents crime as much as it promotes economic development. When we still served a significant number of students at Oakland Unified, it cost around $11 million for that tool. By this June, Adult Ed in our city will probably be wiped out altogether.

I still can’t think of a more important economic development tool for the folks who can’t find work in this town than that. 40% of Oakland children do not get their high school diplomas the first time around (for many reasons). Now they can’t get them at all; so let’s see, gang injunctions or school for them. Now the Council has chosen. To be fair, the CC (City Council) did not make the decision to close down the adult schools but neither did one of them, not one, object or raise the issue when they were shuttered.

Okay, back to the meeting. Young people arrived at the CC meeting in droves, signed up to speak and speak they did. As Council Woman Libby Schaaf pointed out, there were many powerful women speakers, a new generation of leadership, as many CC members noted. But hold on, not yet. You are not the voices they are ready to hear.

About a half dozen older folks showed up to talk and one guy even quoted Richard Nixon. I’ll bet he wakes up with a start one night and wonders how that happened. He noted that the “silent majority” was with him. And many of the CC members bought it. They said that the folks (who really counted) and didn’t come, didn’t show because the young folks intimidated them.

This is an old story and a sad one. Young people get diminished, ignored, or shunted aside, and then get loud and sometimes obnoxious when they finally try out their voices. It happens.

Were they dangerous, were they intimidating? Maybe if you didn’t try to know them or find out about their lives? But, after all, they are our children and grandchildren. It seems the generations have truly separated since the 60s and developed distinct cultures that are virtually impenetrable to one another. But that’s a subject for another time.

What I expected from city officials I didn’t find. I didn’t hear any rational, fact-based explanation for the usefulness of the injunctions, much less the bang for our bucks.

The City Attorney and the Chief talked to us at an emotional level about violence and loss of life. Chief Batts is so expert at pulling the heartstrings, that you actually believe you hear violins playing when he talks. He invariably brings up his childhood in South Central as his credentials. Then he asserts, in church-like tones, that he is the guy to interpret the needs of the community and this is what he wants.

I used to teach my students- before they closed my school-to listen for the facts and respond to them. I urged them not to repeat spin and then spin it further into, “they say,” kinds of arguments, but this is all I heard from city officials last night. No one, no one, made a case for how the injunctions would change the violent situation many neighborhoods live with.

As Councilwoman Desley Brooks stated, it was a fear-based argument. She pointed out that no one on either side of the dais suggested that they did not want safer neighborhoods. But how to get there, we haven’t yet had that discussion. Ms. Brooks did point out that the stats for the North Oakland injunctions proved that the money was not well spent as it had not reduced violent crime.

I thought Pat Kernighan inadvertently made the points that the youth could learn the most from. What she said is that the people who come to her meetings and to the neighborhood meetings under the aegis of the Neighborhood Crime Prevention Councils, talk about how afraid they are, how much they want more police, and want to give more “tools” to the police.

The CC members see these folks every month and at every meeting, including the town halls presently taking place. These folks also vote and they work on campaigns. Many of them are homeowners so the CC members believe they have more of a stake in their neighborhoods.

Last night I heard young people, by the way, when you all, I’m talking to the council  members now, say the injunctions don’t affect youth, you should reconfigure your terminology. Youth encompasses a broad range-anywhere from 12 to 30.

For a police officer or most of us, the average 28-year-old looks like an 18-year-old and will be treated accordingly. The average Black or Brown 30-year-old walking down the streets of our country knows that he or she is subject to completely different standards by government officials, that is cops, judges, case workers, and yes, some teachers, than any older voter or homeowner. And I don’t mean that we are inclined to offer them a lollipop.

So here’s what I’m suggesting; in fact, it has become my mantra and my students heard it frequently. If you want them to hear you, don’t give up. I know that you put your heart and soul into last night’s event. Really, even the CC heard the hearts speak from deep within the souls of Oakland’s youth. They heard you enough to make a deal with the Chief that there would be no new injunctions without a study to prove their usefulness.

Yikes, I know, another study means more money spent on those damn injunctions; but politicians love studies-that’s one of their weaknesses. Although there is no proof that these “tools” will prevent any crime, they may reflect well on the CC’s desire to fight crime and in turn be good for our shaky image.

There’s one fly in that ointment in that real estate values and probably business values will be hurt by imposing these injunctions over a wide area. A real estate agent made that statement but it was ignored. I can’t imagine why. It was probably the most important argument for a CC looking to improve their business image with this broad brush approach to policy.

But back to the deal. I have no inside information, folks, so don’t quote me on this, but it seems the deal was made to stop with the Fruitvale injunctions before the CC arrived at the dais, at least with some CC members. Then Pat Kernighan made a significant concession and asked to have the 70 slots that had been left open by the City Attorney removed so that the injunctions could not grow and encompass unknown individuals.

If you decide not to give up, your next move, not a fun one, I concede, is to start attending those little neighborhood meetings where these plans get hatched and where the CC members get “trained” by the voters. If you show up, you will not only get heard by the CC members but by your older neighbors. They’ll get to see that you have concerns and ideas and are working hard to build a better community, too.

If you fantasize that just running for office-an expensive and grueling way to spend your days-and winning will change things then look no further than some of the CC members who voted against your arguments.

Ignacio de la Fuente was once a firebrand union leader who got arrested on a regular basis. But the public trained him that they wanted a leader who would crack down on crime and promote downtown business interests, and they donated to his campaigns when he did. He has been voted back in for decades since he learned those lessons.

If you get elected without a strong grass roots foundation, you will become another politician who hews to the interests of downtown and a reactionary electorate. You can start your new career on Saturday by coming to the District 7 Town Hall meeting at Castlemont High, 1 to 3:30 and taking part in the break-out sessions, then following up in your neighborhood meetingss.

I want to thank Nancy Nadel, Rebecca Kaplan, and of course, Desley Brooks for their cogent arguments against the further funding of the divisive and dubious injunctions. And I want to ask the passionate, hard working, thoughtful, and determined youth of Oakland to keep on keeping on-as some of us old folks used to say.

Some quaint language from the US Constitution:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Thank an Oakland Public Worker Today

New Lakeshore Newsracks

I know it’s not fashionable these days to praise public workers, but I just have to do it anyway. Given layoffs, attrition, and furlough days, city employees are working harder than ever before.

A trio of folks from the Community Economic Development Agency performed a small miracle in our Lakeshore shopping district just in time for the 24thAnnual Easter Parade and Derby (hat) Decorating Contest. For years a group of us who care about our neighborhood shopping centers (I am the Director of the Lakeshore Business Improvement District), had been trying to get our city-installed newsracks cleaned up and downsized. The City had passed an ordinance but could not implement it without the agreement and assistance of all the news organizations themselves.

Lakeshore getting ready for the parade

It was a coordination nightmare and often seemed hopeless. No sooner would the City get a company to fix their broken-into box, than another one would be broken into. During that period the print news and advertising business shrank and ever more racks became abandoned. Additionally, every person with an ad or a cause continues to use them to stick up their posters then leaves them to disintegrate. The racks, which were installed to solve the problem of a jumble of unsightly boxes, got tagged and battered until they became a blight and a danger on the sidewalks.

Under the leadership of Bill Quesada, a planner with the Organization and Infrastructure section of CEDA with the assistance of Keith Pacheco and Ken Gunari, both Specialty Inspectors, an agreement was hammered out to remove the dangerous or unsightly racks while reducing the number over all and developing a maintenance plan.

The news racks on Lakeshore and Grand Avenue were reduced or moved (to more convenient locations that don’t block pedestrian access) and cleaned up just in time for our annual parade. We hope the media distribution guys can keep up with the taggers and posters and that most folks will think again before creating new blight. If you see a stand-alone box, often dirty plastic, and unsightly, those are not legal and can be reported to the City for eventual removal (following a noticing process).

So that’s the Community and Economic Development Department. I want to send out a hearty thank you to the Public Works guys and gals also. Recently I had to call them because some of the strands on our necklace of lights were not in sync and lighting at the wrong time, and they responded quickly and cheerfully, as they always do.

I can’t thank these public workers enough. From the garbage lockout of recent years (when city workers had to empty our street cans) to the mowing of the grass on the Mandana Green, yes, sometimes the work has to get on a list and wait its turn; but they always come through and not just on Lakeshore.

When I worked at the now-closed Edward Shands Adult School, (did I mention, it’s completely closed down now, no more students in East Oakland can get help there-just checking that you saw that) we had a problem with a crack house on an adjoining property. It was truly awful for the students, the staff, and the neighborhood. The police would close it down and someone would break it open again. The landlord was not very responsive.

Once again, city workers stepped in. They fenced off the driveway and building entrance, painted over the graffiti, and prevented an easy return of the criminals. We all breathed a sigh of relief and carried on with teaching and learning until, of course, the state cut off our funding and we abandoned the school and the students.

I meant this just to be a letter of thanks to Bill Quesada and his co-workers but I really hope it makes us all rethink our attitudes towards those who serve us in government. I read a note on our neighborhood listerve the other day in which the writer stated that he could not support the small parcel tax that the Mayor and most of the City Council are requesting, but the writer implied he would support a bond for our deteriorating streets.

I share that neighbor’s concern over the state of our potholes, as they could be rightly called rather than streets, but I’m not sure I would put streets, roads, and cars above all other concerns in our city, knowing the needs of our young folks and seniors as I do.

Let’s pass the small, $80 parcel tax so that the everyday and not-so-everyday things that our city’s workers do for us can continue to be done, albeit in an even more reduced capacity. Don’t kid yourselves that this is not as big a catastrophe as Loma Prieta and the Oakland firestorm put together. The difference is then; we got lots of help from the federal and state governments. But this time, no one is coming to save us.

At town halls and other meetings, our new Mayor has asserted that she is determined not to abandon our seniors, or our libraries, or our parks. I hope we won’t abandon them either.

Young Parade goer gazes warily at the Easter Bunny

How to Pick a City Attorney, Oakland-style

The garden island on Lakeshore in the late spring.

This morning I finally made it down to Cana, our wonderful new café and restaurant on Lake Park Avenue near Lakeshore, for a café con leche. Unfortunately, they had just run out of that sweet mild drink (sorta like me, eh?), but I still enjoyed what I had at an outside table on our second dry and summery day. Is it possible that the rainy season is really over??

This place has already become popular and a good spot for people watching, which also means people judging for me. While I was waiting for my coffee, a woman tied her dog on the other side of the little wrought iron fence and started to come in. The dog barked loudly and a nearby toddler covered his ears in reaction. The woman looked embarrassed and went back to discipline the dog.

About 10 minutes later after I had gotten my breakfast treats and was relaxing outdoors, I saw the woman still trying to “discipline” this poor dog. I couldn’t help but notice her yanking his leash sharply numerous times. Even from where I was sitting at the other end of the fenced in area, I could feel her anger rising. I’m sure the poor dog could too, as she yanked him harder and harder. A few times she attempted to walk away but then she’d stop and start back, apparently trying to coaxe him not to react. Finally, she gave up and yanked him off down the street.

I had tried to shoot her a look of disapproval but she might as easily have taken it as disapproval of the dog (this was a late realization). It’s hard to know what to do to that might lessen rather than increase an angry reaction when you see someone abusing a creature that is smaller than them or otherwise dependent on them. Should you make a suggestion, chastise, or what?

I don’t know-but anyone who has ever had kids knows that walking tentatively out of the bedroom while rushing back at the first sound of crying, will encourage, actually teach, a child to cry to get out of the bedroom and back in the family circle. It can turn bedtime into a battle ground instead of a respite for both.  I imagine this dog also got the message and the other message about the angry, out-of-control owner. Most of us need help learning to be responsible for other creatures and some of us just shouldn’t try it at all.

Another cafe on Lakeshore.

In Oakland another little struggle is taking shape. It seems the battle to trim the budget without devastating already limited resources should be the number one concern for all of us. But, now that our police chief seems to be settling in (OPOA is not. All signs point to a campaign to embarrass him and the rest of city government in order to forestall a pension giveback), City Attorney John Russo has decided to change his profession while maintaining his high level of pay and remove  his charms to the taxpayers and city employees of Alameda.

I’m not being sarcastic about Mr. Russo’s charms. He was my council member and a good one. He is smart, funny, and acerbic.  But, and the but has grown, he was not so charming for the other folks who were elected to run our city and he made enemies of them or they of him. It doesn’t much matter which way it happened, (don’t kid yourself that this is just on account of Dan Siegel’s relationship to the mayor. This is longstanding) but it did and Oakland’s legal affairs became more and more difficult to manage as a result.

John has now consolidated his friends and his enemies into opposing forces-maybe that’s just a byproduct of being ambitious and determined sprinkled with a good dose of the arrogance that accompanies both. I wish him luck wherever he goes while  hoping that our next city attorney will be a little more hesitant to leap into the fray.

That leads us to the next point. Our new mayor, Jean Quan, who is smart and thoughtful, and a died-in-the-wool policy wonk, is leaning toward pushing for a change in the way we pick our city attorneys, that is, back to the days of appointing them.

I’m not sold on that. In fact I think I rather oppose a return to the days when the city attorney-and I was there and watched it happen- glanced around the room, particularly at the mayor, before making her legal pronouncements. It won’t do for the citizens of Oakland to get their legal advice on critical issues from someone who is beholding to the mayor whoever she may be.

It’s really about the type of person who runs. Everyone who knew John Russo, including those of us who supported him, wondered why he would run for a job that would reduce his policy making prerogatives. We thought, turns out we were right, that he might be tempted to keep a hand in that.

Many folks have suggested that Jane Brunner shouldn’t be appointed for that exact reason, but I’m not so sure. I think Jane has had her chance to do that (policy making), has missed her chances to move up, and maybe wants to be an attorney full-time now.

The city attorney job should be attractive to a long-term council member-it comes with more than twice the salary and fewer hours.  Anyway, I can’t help salivating at the prospect of North Oaklanders shuffling through the choices of an open-seat election. Of course, the talk is that changes are also coming soon in District 5-fun all around.

In any case, there are many competent attorneys in the department now who would be able to step into John’s shoes while, perhaps, restricting them to a narrower path. Returning to the days of appointed attorneys would require a charter change and cannot happen immediately so we have time to contemplate the possibilities.

The proposed city budget will be out any day now and it will probably have a dampening effect on political diversions. Meanwhile we await the bloodletting in our city, our state, and our nation’s capital, sigh. Come out on April 4th, “Join us for a National Day of Action to make your voice heard. It’s the least you can do, really, the least.