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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Council Moves Charter City Concept Towards Voter Approval

Tonight the City Council voted unanimously to hire a polling company to collect data about resident's views on the idea of Emeryville becoming a Charter City.  The polling data will be used by the Council to craft language that can appear on the ballot in November for Emeryville voters to consider.

From the City's E-Newsletter:

There are several steps before the City Council can place a proposed city charter on the November ballot, including public noticing of the proposed city charter and two public hearings – tentatively scheduled for June and July -  with a final decision on whether to place a city charter on the ballot occurring in late July/early August. A majority of voters must vote YES in order for Emeryville to become a charter city.
 
Charter cities, unlike cities that are incorporated under the State’s general law provisions (as Emeryville is now) have “home rule” on issues relating to municipal affairs.  So charter cities can maximize local control and pass legislation (by City Council or by citizen initiative) on municipal issues such as self-governance, contracting, adoption of certain taxes (subject to voter approval), and municipal elections for which general law cities must follow State law.  About half of the cities in Alameda County are charter cities, including Albany, Berkeley, and Oakland. For more information about city charters and/or to watch the City Council meeting discussion on becoming a charter city, click here. To download a copy of the draft city charters that the City Council will be discussing at the April 22 City Council meeting, click here.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Emeryville Resident Sam Kang For California Assembly District 15

Opinion
The Tattler is pleased to announce our support of Emeryville resident Sam Kang, Democrat for California Assembly District 15.
As the field winnows down to three viable candidates competing for the nomination in the June 3rd primary, Sam's candidacy has really picked up steam in recent weeks in both donations and energetic volunteer support.  We hope this groundswell continues and takes him all the way to Sacramento.

Our Emeryville neighbors Sam Kang and his wife Akiko.
A lead attorney at the Greenlining Institute, a public policy advocacy organization to empower disadvantaged groups, strengthen democratic institutions and  address economic and other equity issues, Sam shines as a Bay Area community activist of the highest order.  He would be the natural first pick among his competitors for District 15 for Democrats and progressives if he hailed from any other city in the District.  However Sam's Emeryville roots makes him even more appealing to Emeryville residents.  It's always a good thing when we send a progressive to Sacramento to fight for our District 15 interests but we'd like to also see Emeryville specific issues given weight in Sacramento.  Sam Kang gives us that chance.

 We've watched Sam over the years and we know him to be a progressive, willing to support the underdog, unafraid of engaging the most powerful adversaries.  In 2011, he led a successful national campaign to block the biggest telecom merger in US history and he's worked on behalf of the disadvantaged in landmark predatory lending law.  That's why Sam has been endorsed by Emeryville Mayor Jac Asher and Residents United for a Livable Emeryville (RULE).
We're sad to see District 15 Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner termed out of office but we're excited at the prospect of Sam Kang stepping in as a replacement, looking out after our interests, Emeryville's interests.

Website: samkangforassembly.com
Come join your neighbors as we walk the Emeryville precinct for Sam Kang:

When: Sunday, April 27th from Noon-3PM
 Where: Starts at Peet's Coffee at the Public Market (5959 Shellmound Street #85)   We will bring the refreshments, just remember to wear comfortable shoes!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Locally Serving Retail Can't Afford the Rent in Emeryville

Fast Food, Mattress Stores 
& Empty Storefronts 

Is There No Other Way?

How Do We Get What We Want?


Opinion/News Analysis
Walk down San Pablo Avenue in Emeryville and take a look around at the built environment.  Aside from specific food purveyors and retail establishments along the sidewalk, you'll note there's not much going on in the way of architectural heritage.  In this hundred and twenty year old town you'd be hard pressed to find a building built much before the George W Bush presidency.  Virtually every building is new.  And it's the same way pretty much everywhere in Emeryville. Twenty five years ago, Emeryville was filled with historic buildings from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Other than some existing single family residences and the Watergate neighborhood, virtually our whole town has been rebuilt in the span of a generation. So much for Emeryville history.

Not Emeryville
There's none of this in Emeryville...
Welcome to the Emeryville as imagined and built by Councilwoman Nora Davis and her latter day assistants on the Council Kurt Brinkman and Ruth Atkin.

Emeryville used to be a town made from bricks. Actual bricks, not the 'lick 'n stick' kind that have invaded the world of shopping malls of late.  Where before there was a real town with lots of beautiful and historic structures; warehouses, nineteenth century factories, an elegant three story Beaux Arts turn of the century triangle shaped bank building, vernacular storefronts on San Pablo Avenue and a classic Art Deco commercial building with a 1930's aquiline parapet and round windows, now there's....well there's what we have: anonymous new buildings with chain stores and fast food.

but there's plenty of this....
New Empty Retail Space
The tenants that are renting the retail spaces in these new buildings have their corporate headquarters in far flung locals and are mostly selling stuff you don't want...stuff like mattresses and fast food.  But there's something else.  And it's not something that's here, rather it's something not here.  While there's a lot of retail space at the sidewalk level in these new buildings, with more retail space in the pipeline, what you'll notice as you walk Emeryville is the street-scape has a Great Depression feeling about it.  There's lots of empty spaces, opaque paper over the doors and windows.  The multi-story residential building may be ten years old but the retail space at the ground level is empty, and it's been that way since the building was completed.
 of course, extra helpings of this...
 It's the same across town: empty retail spaces in new buildings going unrented.  In a city growing, becoming more affluent with lots of tech boom cash floating around, these retail spaces sit idle.  Back before the building boom, Emeryville was poorer but more alive, the retail spaces didn't sit empty like this.
In the mean time, today's Emeryville residents are clamoring for an authentic town.  Other than the parks and bike/ped paths that are essential to a desirable urban public commons, new residents and old alike want the built environment to serve as an ersatz commons; with retail that suits their needs.
Who can blame them?

Won't Pencil Out
If you can manage to sit through a City Council meeting when a developer is guiding one of these ubiquitous (mostly residential) development projects through the process, going through the motions on the way to approval, you'll hear them lay it on thick and heavy.  They'll tell the Council members what they want to hear: the proposed project, Acme Lofts say, is family friendly(!) and they're sure it'll create a vibrant and activated neighborhood with locally serving retail on the sidewalk front.  It won't be put in writing but the developer will assure everyone how wonderful the retail will be.  Once those boxes are checked, the proper words have been spoken, the project can now be approved.
After, when we don't get what was advertised, if you ask the staff or a Council member, they'll tell you (if they answer you at all)  they tried to get the kind of retail tenants that were promised but it just couldn't pencil out; the rent is too high.  Maybe next time.  Thanks for your concern.  
but mostly it's just loads of this.

And that, for all it's obvious and phony histrionics is how it's done. But smugness aside the "won't pencil out" thing is actually true.  The rent IS too high in these new buildings to support the kind of retail we want.  The only retail tenants that can afford this new construction rent are the national chains.  So if we listen to Nora Davis and her minions on the Council, it's simple economics: we now find ourselves in a new city that by definition can only support fast food or national chain retail.  Trust them, nothing can be done...join with the burger...learn to love it.

Cost Of Doing Business
Developer landlords commonly don't care about the retail component of their projects.  They're interested in building (rental) residential projects.  The retail is put in only because the City requires it.  Many of these developer landlords would rather just let the store fronts sit empty rather than bother with being a retail tenant manager.  The required retail storefronts are chalked up as a cost of doing business.

So we're left with either empty retail space or national chains including fast food.
But aside from us not getting what we want, shuttered retail has a way of negatively downgrading a town, both in terms of bringing down property values and psychologically depressing a neighborhood.  This empty storefront paradigm in Emeryville is actively harming the viability for locally serving neighborhood authentic retail.

Who could have guessed we would wind up with a terrible retail situation like this when we began our Nora Davis lead demolition spree a generation ago?   The answer is any proper city planner....like the ones we hire to staff our Planning Department.  They know the way to accommodate the kind of retail Emeryville residents are looking for is to craft your city with a mixture of new and old buildings.
The old buildings are not to be retained simply because they're nice and directly connect people with their heritage (although they do that well).  No,  the main function of old buildings (from a civics perspective) is they provide cheap rent for locally serving neighborhood retail.  Cheap rent also has the added benefit of helping incubate start-up entrepreneurial business it should be noted.
This concept is not radical or even controversial.  It was spelled out by legendary Canadian city planner Jane Jacobs 50 years ago.  It's taught in universities across the land.  This is a close to as it comes to gospel for contemporary city planners.  Here in Emeryville, the bureaucrats in the Planning Department know this but they also know who runs the ship here.  And they're not rocking the boat.  That's going to have to be the resident's job.
It's your town; learn to love it.

Having said all this, at this point in our 'rape and scrape Emeryville' frenzy it's too late to start saving older buildings in hopes of maintaining a stock of cheaper rental spaces for neighborhood serving local retail.  That horse has left the barn as they say.  Or maybe we should say 'that burger has already been eaten'.  For other than to provide a little scenery relief, there's not enough older buildings left in town to make a difference in this equation.
But it's important to note we're not now paralyzed with nothing to be done.  There's a small glut of development projects moving forward right now at City Hall: the Sherwin Williams project, the Maz project, the Golden Gate Key project, the Avalon Bay project and the Marketplace project.  These projects all contain ground level retail space.

A New Coda: How To Get Locally Serving Retail
To salvage something by way of the idea of locally serving neighborhood retail with these last few large projects now securing approval at City Hall, a monkey wrench needs to be thrown into the works.  We know the same old way of doing business will only result in the same old result: nothing but broken promises for Emeryville residents.
What we need now is retail subsidized by the developers themselves, done by written agreement and the force of law.
The City could set up the contracts so that the developers would be allowed to charge market rates for their new retail spaces (from an approved list of tenants; no fast food for instance) for a certain amount of time, followed by a sliding down rent reduction according to a pre-agreed upon schedule.  The rent would slide down until an approved (locally serving) tenant could afford it.  This new coda would be written off by developers as the new cost of doing business in Emeryville and would comport with our new creed that we should 'sell' ourselves at the price the market will bare.  If developers don't like it in the new Emeryville they can move on to Fresno.  We expect the developers and the Chamber of Commerce to push back vigorously against this.  That's what they do; fight for business interests.  But we're finished listening only to them.  We want our interests looked out after as we develop the last bit of our town.

This idea would also go a long way towards securing worker owned co-operative businesses that residents want and what we need to increase and stabilize wages in the retail sector.

This sliding rent subsidized by the developers policy, if promulgated by our City Council, is what leadership looks like.  This is how we can finally secure something for ourselves in Emeryville that's not part of the abstract and greater public/private, socialist/free market debate that seems to be poisoning public policy elsewhere and has heretofore been a silent partner here.  We need to use the tools at our disposal to create a livable town.  Forcing developers to play by our new rules with the last remnants of fallow land left, is such a tool.  The developers use every tool they have to maximize their profits, so why shouldn't we?  We're only hamstrung insofar as we let ourselves be.  Let's stop acting the rube and deliver what we want; locally serving neighborhood retail.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Will Emeryville Join the Rest of the Bay Area? Will Taxes Reflect Our Worth?

How Much Should We Charge Business to Operate in Our Town? 

Should There Be a Rational Basis?

Opinion
The City Council has been looking into raising revenue from lots of different sources recently after Sacramento two years took away the Emeryville Redevelopment Agency, formerly City Hall's main funding source.  Emeryville is left with drastically reduced revenue but the same old list of required maintenance expenditures and discretionary capital improvement projects.  It's caused the Council to think outside the box as far as new revenue is concerned.  What was formerly off limits for this Council majority; making businesses pay more including looking at raising developer impact fees the City charges, is now openly being bandied about.
These public investigations into our revenue streams has laid bare just how low taxes are for Emeryville business.  When it comes to revenue, Emeryville stands alone; business here pays far less than in neighboring cities.  It's the same story across the board: from the hotel occupancy tax to the business tax rate to the real estate transfer tax to impact fees and to outright give-a-ways like the business tax cap which allows the largest corporations in town to pay taxes at a much lower rate than smaller businesses do.  It's sort of a Robbin Hood in reverse thing going on.

"We should charge what 
the market will bare"

Make no mistake, this 'lower by orders of magnitude' taxation culture at City Hall is not an accident, it's not an oversight; it represents the will of this Council majority....at least up until now.
But besides being plain old bad public policy, this low tax thinking has no rational basis.  For rationality to be at play, there needs to be some evidentiary demonstrability in effect.  It needs to be measurable.  But there seems only to be vague and unsubstantiated ideas of the ambiguous benefits of low taxation for business driving the three person majority.  Republican Party folklore about Adam Smith's invisible hand seems to be the animate force guiding this.  The only thing missing are the normally ubiquitous 'trickle down' and 'all boats rising' memes being trotted out.

There's simply no good reason to charge so little.
A rational basis argument for how we can set business taxes in Emeryville would take into account what the prevailing rates are plus the value specifically we represent for business.  Value can be defined in numerous ways like location, access, crime, resident demographics, government services and the local neighborhood desirability in terms of restaurants and parks and the like.  The knee-jerk 'we must keep business taxes low' mantra takes none of this into account.  To set business taxes with these factors accounted for would be to levy taxes based on what the market will bare.  It represents a rational basis that businesses understands.  It's a basis we understand.  To put it simply, we should charge what we can get.  To charge any less is to give a gift of public money to business that's not warranted.

We charge far less than what Oakland charges.  There's something obviously wrong with that.

Another rational basis would be to take into account our 'positives' but charge a little less than what the market will bare.  This argument makes sense if we're trying to pump up the business sector in our town due to some previous deficit.  But it's hard to make this argument in Emeryville, being so laser focused on attracting business as we have been for the last 25 years or so.  The deficit we face can be found in livability, not attracting business.  Among the many metrics, Emeryville is below our neighbors in acres of parkland per resident; far below.  That's a manifestation of a livability deficit.

But what's impossible is to make a rational argument for what the Council majority has been doing until now: giving away the store.  Just watch Council Members Nora Davis and Kurt Brinkman especially.  They arrive at each Council meeting with a barely hidden agenda of 'how can I serve Emeryville business today?'  At almost every turn they devalue the commons to the benefit of business, especially big business. But the loss of funds at City Hall is getting existentially hazardous. The new paradigm of post Redevelopment is something they're clearly struggling with.  When the Council voted to look into raising the transfer tax on March 18, Mr Brinkman almost went out in a blaze of glory; voting NO to even consider allowing Emeryville residents to vote on the idea in November.  But the specter of a 4-1 vote on the Council dais, with Kurt Brinkman standing alone against democracy with this vote as he faces the electorate this fall, brought him back.  Councilwoman Davis to her credit seems to be taking the financial threat at City Hall more seriously; she's been a bit more pragmatic.

However, while we're busy comparing Emeryville's low business tax guiding principles to Adam Smith and what's going on in red states nation wide, we should consider how American worker's dramatic productivity gains over the last 30 years have not been matched in wage gains.  Indeed, wages have been flat or even falling despite labor's prodigious productivity rises.  We're still the wealthiest nation on Earth but the plutocrats have pocketed all the gains....done by design.
It's like what's happened to Emeryville during the same time period; as our desirability here dramatically increases, City Hall is stuck.  We're not benefiting; we can't seem to enjoy anything that we've worked for.  All the gains go to businesses...again, done by design.

It would appear a new majority on the Council is rising up and they're not willing to see the town sink.  They're at least now talking about securing enough revenue to keep us afloat.  So that's encouraging.  But as far as employing a rational basis for determining how to set business taxes in Emeryville, that would require a leopard changing its spots.  Rationality in business tax policy here is going to have to wait.  It's going to have to be imposed by us...at the ballot box...this November.  Kurt Brinkman will be seeking re-election and the idea of raising real estate transfer taxes will also be on the ballot.  We're going to have to make the right decisions amid the coming flurry of propaganda from the Chamber of Commerce.

Monday, April 14, 2014

RULE Meeting


Residents United For A Livable Emeryville

Come and meet your progressive neighbors and help make your city grow in a good way!
Next regular meeting:  Saturday, April 19
10:00 - 12:00
Doyle St. CoHousing, 5514 Doyle St., 1st floor common room

Agenda:
  • Putting Charter City initiative on the ballot
  • RULE endorsement of Sam Kang
  • Sherwin Williams project update
  • Reports
  • How to recruit more members
  • Prepare for interviews of potential School Board candidates

Bring breakfast snacks
Coffee and tea provided

Letter To The Tattler: Shirley Enomoto

The following letter has been received from Emeryville resident Shirley Enomoto:

After five years of squabbling with two superintendents of the Emery School District (John Sugiyama and Debbra Lindo),  going through two attorneys who found the issue with merit but later advised that there was a "conflict of interest," and retaining one attorney who finked out after he became attorney for Central Valley ranchers opposing the high speed rail, the Emery School District has agreed to the following:

-Every two years a mass mailing will be mailed to all Emeryville taxpayers regarding the senior exemption for Measure A, the school parcel tax approved by the voters in 2003 and extended to 2019.

-Those who file for the exemption will automatically receive each year a reminder with an application for the  exemption. (I received my notice April 12.)

-Notices will be posted in the Emeryville electronic newsletter, the Oakland Tribune (now the Bay Area News Group) and the [Emeryville] Senior Center newsletter, "The Link."

I was not successful in obtaining refunds for seniors who overpaid the parcel tax after turning 65 because of no knowledge of the exe
mption.
 


Shirley Enomoto has lived in Emeryville for 18 years and has been a "trouble maker"she says, to City Hall for as many years.  A member of Residents United for a Livable Emeryville (RULE) and a long time volunteer for the schools, Ms Enomoto has also long rallied for fair treatment for senior citizens.  She discovered the School District wasn't properly telling senior citizen property owners they could file for an exemption to pay their Measure A tax, a provision by law but widely unknown by Emeryville seniors and until now the District has been uncooperative to a fix.  
Emeryville is lucky to have citizen activists such as Shirley Enomoto keeping vigil. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

City Looks at Increasing Impact Fees

Emeryville's Anemic Impact Fees
Existing Residents/Business Subsidize New Business

News Analysis
Last week, the Emeryville City Council engaged in some very unusual behavior when they conducted a study session with an eye to possibly raise the City's fee schedule on new business and development, known as impact fees.  The April 1st meeting was the first time since 1998 the Council has looked critically at its compliment of impact fees, a turn of events brought on by the demise of the Emeryville  Redevelopment Agency and the resultant hit the City has taken on its finances.
Any rise in these impact fees would bring Emeryville closer to closing the considerable gap that's grown between what's charged here versus neighboring cities.  Every city in the Bay Area charges impact fees and the study session revealed that Emeryville as it stands now, is the cheapest place around to do business... by far.

Paid at the time of development by the developers, impact fees offset costs associated with providing public services to new development and paying for capital improvement expenditures due to population growth (for residential projects).  These fees provide a way for municipalities to ensure new comers not financially burden those here already.
As with so many other of its other business generated revenue streams, business friendly Emeryville has the lowest impact fees around; putting existing businesses and residents on the hook for helping provide public services for these new arrivals.  The result is a depleted capital improvement fund, making it more difficult for Emeryville to pay for existing services let alone provide new services citizens (and businesses) want.
The services impact fees pay for in Emeryville are earmarked for transportation, parks & recreation and affordable housing.

Ultra Low
Emeryville's ultra low Impact Fees are not a accident.  They're the conjoined work of the the Emeryville City Council majority and the Chamber of Commerce.
A manifestation of the Council's pro-business, pro-developer ideology, the impact fee schedule at City Hall falls behind neighbors Oakland and Berkeley in every single category.  Not just behind in most cases but far behind.
The staff presented the Council at the April 1st study session, with information that was revelatory.
Among the findings are the following impact fee comparisons with our neighbors:

Existing Emeryville Impact Fees*
(dollars behind average of Berkeley, Richmond and Alameda based on per unit/square feet/or room)

Housing Blocks:
-Multi Family  $13,543 per unit less than neighboring cities
-Town Homes  $22,668 per unit less

Hotels:
-$2,377 per room less

Office Space:
-$7.50 per square foot less

Research & Development:
-$5.34 per sq ft less

Retail/Mixed Use:
-$5.80 per sq ft less

Of course impact fees are just one way in which Emeryville charges business far less than what neighboring cities charge.  When it comes time to leave Emeryville, businesses get a nice parting gift from City Hall with its business friendly real estate transfer tax.  At $.55 per $1000 of value of real estate, the anemic transfer tax, paid primarily by business, falls far below all the neighboring cities including Oakland and Berkeley who charge $15 per $1000; some 2700% more than Emeryville, enabling those cities to pay for public amenities such as sidewalk repair and new parks.

The April 1st presentation is found HERE
 *page 13 of introductory staff report to City Manger Sabrina Landreth from Director of Economic Development Helen Bean and head of Planning Department Charlie Bryant

Friday, April 11, 2014

Emeryville History 2004-2014: City Hall in the Tank for Pixar



OOOPS!  Ten years later, the hyperbole is revealed to be.....hyperbole.

Here's City Manager John Flores, in 2004 in the tank for Pixar as that company sought voter approval for a major campus expansion.  The Tattler has shown how the pitch from Pixar (and City Hall) for Measures T & U were vastly overstated including how Pixar was going to benefit the schools and the community. But what we got for our permission to vastly increase their campus instead is a giant corporate tax cheat and no money for the schools coming forth from the fenced off and secretive private Pixar compound.

In addition to giving credence to the absurd claim that Pixar would flee Emeryville unless it got everything it wanted (and write off its billion dollar initial investment), Mr Flores, supposedly representing our interests, tells us that Pixar would be a "major benefactor to the Emeryville community including the schools".
Pixar for its part, told voters in 2004 that they (Pixar) would tremendously benefit the Emeryville community but instead of putting that in writing as the T&U opposition wanted, they should simply be taken at their word.
And the rest is history as they say.

Video from the Emeryville Property Owners Association

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Former Emery School Superintendant Tony Smith: Teachers Unions Must Be Destroyed

The Long Shadow Cast By Tony Smith
"We're Doing What's Best for the Children"

Opinion
Remember, I only want what's
best for the children.

(Repeat often)
Recently there's been a national debate begun about public education and while charter schools, most operating at the expense of public schools have proliferated and teachers unions have come under attack on many fronts, public education supporters have begun to push back against this concerted push to privatize the nation's public schools.  At Emery Unified School District however, the course was set years ago and Emery has played its own small role in this conservative attempt to cripple public education, especially where that attempt seeks to destroy teachers unions.  To see this one only needs to look to the legacies of former superintendents of its schools Tony Smith and the recently deposed Debbra Lindo.

Even though they had the same goals in mind, of the two former superintendents, the great mentor and architect-in-chief of Emery's slide into it's current anti-teacher state of affairs is inarguably Tony Smith.  His shadow is long and even though he left Emery years ago to command Oakland Unified and has since left there amid a witness tampering scandal, Tony Smith and his school privatization philosophy continues unabashedly to serve as guiding principles for Emery.  The School Board here is quite clear about their tutelage by Tony Smith, proud even.

Ditto.
While at Oakland, Tony's divisive anti-democratic program of cutting, shutting and chartering schools while taking on the teachers caused a massive grassroots citizen's push back.  He is revered nonetheless by the Emery School Board and they have even picked up some of his affectations: think the oft publicly repeated and ever popular "we're doing what's best for the children" as a way of shutting down those who would disagree, as in; what YOU'RE advocating then must therefore be by definition NOT what's best for the children.

After Tony left Emery, the School Board looked to find a permanent replacement and they ultimately found a near carbon copy in Debbra Lindo (except she lacks Tony's easy going and chipper personality).  Tony's influence was evident as Debbra Lindo and her Board surrogates began their siege against Emery teachers following the release of the Teachers Resolution in 2012.

Mega ditttos.
The Emeryville duo Tony 'n Debbra have now very publicly entered the national debate with their support in the Los Angeles Superior Court's infamous Vergara case.  They tell us that everything will be great if we just tie teacher's pay to high stakes 'bubble' test outcomes, kill due process for teacher's employment and make their jobs teeter on the whims of unelected superintendents.  We'll get the best and the brightest apparently if we de-professionalize teaching: sever their job security, cut pay and make their fates dependent on things beyond their control.


Below is a recent letter to the Oakland Tribune from Tony Smith (filled with right wing memes and dog whistles) that might seem sincere to the uninitiated. To those following the Emery School Board (Tony's begats)  however, it's just part of the continuing attack on and privatize of public education.  Here is Tony Smith, the Great Man to Emery Unified continuing to release his toxic brand of divisive politics even as he has decamped to Chicago, some 2000 miles distant:
Guest commentary:  
Let's start protecting all of our students
By Tony Smith, guest commentary © 2014 Bay Area News Group
POSTED:   03/30/2014 04:00:00 PM
California's education laws are currently designed to almost unconditionally protect a group of adults -- teachers -- at the expense of our children.
And students living in poverty -- those most in need of every opportunity our public schools can offer -- are being disproportionately punished by these laws. The system tells them: sorry, teachers' jobs are more important than your education and your future.
Is that right?
No, it isn't, say the nine students who brought the Vergara v. California case, currently awaiting a ruling in Los Angeles Superior Court. The students are suing the state because five state laws are denying them -- and the other 6.2 million California public school students like them -- their constitutional right to a quality education.
If the court agrees, then the dysfunctional statutes controlling teacher tenure, dismissal and layoffs will be struck down, creating a transformational opportunity to design a new system that puts students' needs first, ensures a high-quality teacher in every classroom and helps all Californians see a better future.
Supporting our teachers really matters. Effective teachers are essential for a well-educated California. Under current laws, though, the system fails to make effective teaching a priority, creating an environment that's bad for both hardworking teachers and students.
The tenure law forces administrators to grant lifetime employment to new teachers after less than 16 months in the classroom. I am aware of no other profession where someone is granted protected status in such a short time and without any real evidentiary basis for the decision.
Once permanent employment is granted, it is nearly impossible to dismiss ineffective teachers for any reason other than criminal activity. The dismissal process is so cumbersome and costly that in the past 10 years, only 19 teachers out of California's 1,052 school districts have been successfully terminated through the dismissal process for reasons including unsatisfactory performance.
When funding reductions instigate layoffs, administrators are not allowed to base staffing decisions on the quality of a teacher's service to children. The primary factor that may be considered is how long he or she has been employed by the district, so every year a district has layoffs, children lose passionate, hardworking, effective teachers -- just because they lack seniority.
As superintendent of Oakland Unified School District, I had to explain why excellent teachers were being let go, while parents pleaded and begged, saying, "Please, please keep this teacher. You don't understand what this year has been like for my child. This is one of the most extraordinary educators I've ever seen in my life."
But under the law, there is nothing we can do to keep that extraordinary educator.
Is the system I just described a system focused on what's best for children?
Not to me.
A system that prioritizes meeting the needs of California's students -- as the state constitution demands -- would focus on enhancing educational quality before protecting seniority.
A system that truly puts students' learning first would evaluate how well our students are doing and how much growth they are making.
We would discuss how to help teachers develop their practice, using growth in student learning as the primary data guiding our efforts.
When teachers demonstrate effective work in service of students, we would do everything in our power to enhance that work and reward those teachers. And when a few adults are consistently failing our children in the classroom, we would hold them accountable.
In a district like the Oakland Unified School District, where I served as superintendent for four years, 70 percent of students come from low-income households. Our students face serious challenges outside of school. For many students, the road leads either to graduation or incarceration. Having caring, attentive, effective teachers along the road makes all the difference.
Let's not lose sight of the goal of our public schools: to ensure that every child in the state has access to a good education, so every child can participate and thrive in our society.
I hope the Vergara student-plaintiffs are victorious in court. I hope the Vergara case marks a turning point in the trajectory of public education in California. Let's make a true commitment to current and future students: educational excellence, starting with an effective teacher in every classroom.

Tony Smith is a former superintendent of Oakland Unified School District.