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Op-Ed: Setting the Record Straight on OUSD Principal Transitions

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By Supt. Antwan Wilson

 

 

Last week this paper ran a story entitled “Oakland Schools in Turmoil as District Threatens to Remove 17 Principals.” This is completely false, and this number was not confirmed with us before publishing. I was shocked and dismayed to see it reported – incorrectly – that we, OUSD, are planning to remove 17 principals. I am writing to set the record straight and provide some context for the real challenges we need to face together.

 

 

For next year, there are 5 official principals who received a notice of possible reassignment, nowhere near 17. The notices referred to in the article are something required by state law to be provided every year by March 15 to any leadership potentially reassigned. For comparison, the year before I came to Oakland, there were 20 such notices given to principals. These numbers demonstrate that we have not engaged in massive reassignment of principals as suggested in last week’s article.

 

 

Principal turnover is an issue that is of concern to us in the district and me specifically. We want to minimize turnover as much as possible. We also recognize that there will be factors that lead to us losing leaders, some out of our control and others related to systems that we are in the process of improving, such as operational systems that have been an issue for decades.

 

 

I’m proud to work with our many great school leaders. We are committed to working with new leaders by growing with them and investing in their leadership. The changes we seek require strong leaders and leadership teams made up of principals, assistant principals (when applicable), teacher leaders, parent and community leaders, and student leaders. There will be times we have to make changes to school leadership. When that happens, we will work to make sure we are lifting up the needs of the students and what’s best for the district. It is important that as we do this work that we provide accurate information about what we are doing and how.

 

 

As a former principal myself, I know how important school leaders are. I also know how pivotal they can be when we need to turn-around our schools. We need to do this in multiple schools across the District. In places where change is under way, we are giving principals more supports and resources to produce Continued from page 1 some results before considering any leadership changes.

 

 

Finally, to mix in the issue of Proposition 39 offers of unused or underutilized public school space to public charter schools is unfair and inappropriate. The Prop. 39 process tends to coincide every year with the March 15 legal deadline for noticing certificated leadership of potential reassignment or removal. There’s no connection, other than circumstantial. Also, it is true that where schools have been underperforming for years, students and parents are likely voting with their feet and taking kids to other District, private, or charter schools, often thereby creating a bunch of empty classrooms that we then, by law, must offer to charter schools that request space. The cause and effect, however, are the reverse of what was insinuated in the article.

 

 

We face challenges every year as we try to change course by providing high quality education to ensure that Every Student Thrives. If you know of any great potential school leaders out there, please send them our way!

 

Barbara Lee

IN MEMORIAM: Tribute to the Late Rev. Dr. Gillette O. James, Emeritus

Rev. Dr. Gillette O. James’ patience and foresight helped individuals to discern their calling to the ministry. Some became pastors because they were properly trained, tutored and mentored in the meaning of godly service to others.

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Rev. Dr. Gillette O. James, pastor emeritus, Beth Eden Baptist Church
Rev. Dr. Gillette O. James, pastor emeritus, Beth Eden Baptist Church

By Rev. Dr. Martha C. Taylor

Maya Angelou’s iconic poem “When Great Trees Fall” is a reminder of the impact that a person has on the lives of others during their lifetime.

Rev. Dr. Gillette O. James, pastor emeritus, Beth Eden Baptist Church was called from labor to reward on April 20, 2022, leaving a huge void in the Bay Area after serving for 46 years as senior pastor. He was an honored senior statesman and distinguished iconic figure.

Pastor James joined the Beth Eden community in 1970 as an assistant pastor. A year later, he accepted the call to lead the congregation after the retirement of Pastor A.C. Dones. Dr. James became the 12th pastor of Beth Eden, also known as the “Mother Church” because it was the first Black Baptist church in Oakland and also a historic flagship church in Alameda County.

Dr. James was born in Dominica, West Indies. He immigrated to the United States in 1955, and later met his beautiful wife, the late Dr. Rosa V. Ferguson, in Ohio. She was a renowned educator in the Bay Area and formerly with the Progressive National Baptist Convention as noted by Dr. Vinchael Booth.

They remained married for 55 years until her death in 2017. They have one daughter, Jennifer Muhammad. Dr. James was a great soul. He was not only a pastor, he was an educator, author, community leader, justice warrior, humanitarian champion, voice for the voiceless, and a moving force for civil rights in the Bay Area.

Pastor James was a strong advocate for the role of women in church leadership positions. At one point, he was ousted from the California State Baptist Convention for his strong stance on women’s involvement in the ministry. He was later restored and continued to license and ordain numerous women in the clergy ministry.

Bay Area pastors looked up to Dr. James as a ‘pastor’s pastor’ and mentor. For him, life had endless possibilities. Dr. James had a reputation for keeping churches united. Under his leadership, Beth Eden maintained strong relationships with other churches and denominations including Taylor United Methodist, Bethlehem Lutheran and Antioch Missionary Baptist churches during the Thanksgiving season.

Dr. James was one of the rare persons who reached the summit of life because he believed in God’s word: “Thou Will be Done on Earth.” Doing God’s will on earth was about helping others along the way.

With the help of able-bodied members, Beth Eden built 54 senior housing units, purchased single-family housing and a triplex near the church for low-income families, fed the hungry, distributed groceries in the community.

Under his visionary leadership, a new family life center, with gymnasium and a daycare facility started construction and has been completed under the leadership of Dr. Dwight Webster, current pastor.

Dr. James showed a great appreciation for Black History, both from a religious as well as a cultural perspective. Beth Eden provided free office space to the first Black Adoption Agency in the Bay Area in its early days.

At one point, Beth Eden was named Oakland’s Teaching Church of the Year by the Berkeley School of Theology, formerly known as American Baptist Seminary of the West. Dr. James served on the seminary’s trustee board, was an adjunct professor at the seminary, bringing new ways of bridging theological training to the everyday lives of people.

Dr. James’ patience and foresight helped individuals to discern their calling to the ministry. Some became pastors because they were properly trained, tutored and mentored in the meaning of godly service to others. Dr. James authored “Through Toils and Snares-A Preacher Testifies.”

In this book, we get a glimpse of Dr. James’ life prior to his call to ministry at Beth Eden. Dr. James served two years in the military as Chaplain Assistant with numerous military attire photos. He was ordained in San Francisco at the Greater New St. John Missionary Baptist Church; one month later he and his wife were the key organizers of Grace Baptist Church, San Francisco. Drs. Gillette and Rosa James purchased a beautiful home on Havenscourt Boulevard, a tree-lined street in East Oakland where they loved entertaining the deacon and deaconess boards, often having them over for dinner and fellowship.

On March 13, 2017, Congresswoman Barbara Lee honored Dr. James in the House of Representatives on the occasion of his retirement as Pastor of Beth Eden. Dr. James legacy will never die. The current pastor, Rev. Dwight Webster, PhD, is a former son of Beth Eden, who was mentored by Dr. James.

The Homegoing celebration for Dr. James will be held Monday, May 16, 2022, at Beth Eden Baptist Church at 1183 Tenth St. in Oakland at 11 a.m.

COVID protocols will be observed and everyone must wear a mask.

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Activism

Installation Invoking Black Struggle for Justice in Opens May 14 at Oakland City Hall

Society’s Cage is an open air, accessible pavilion featuring 500 hanging steel bars that form a cavernous cube with a habitable void allowing visitors to experience the symbolic weight of institutional racism. This immersive experience offers the opportunity to consider the severity of racial biases within our institutional structures of justice and allows for moments of reflection and healing. 

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Support Oakland Artists Executive Director Randolph Belle atop the installation called ‘Society’s Cage’ as it was being assembled. Photo courtesy of Facebook.
View of ‘Society’s Cage,’ an immersive exhibit at Oakland City Hall. Photo courtesy of the organizers.

By Randolph Belle

A traveling exhibit that invokes the history of repression of Blacks in the United States arrived in Oakland for installation this week at Frank Ogawa Plaza.

Support Oakland Artists, an Oakland based 501(C)3, partnered with Society’s Cage to bring the acclaimed social justice art installation as a feature in front of Oakland City Hall from May 9-30, 2022.

Society’s Cage is an open air, accessible pavilion featuring 500 hanging steel bars that form a cavernous cube with a habitable void allowing visitors to experience the symbolic weight of institutional racism.

This immersive experience offers the opportunity to consider the severity of racial biases within our institutional structures of justice and allows for moments of reflection and healing.

The designers, Dayton Schroeter, Julian Arrington, Monteil Crawley and Ivan O’Garro, created the installation to contextualize the contemporary phenomenon of police killings of Black Americans within the 400+ year continuum of racialized state violence in the United States.

It is a data-driven installation shaped in response to the question “What is the value of Black life in America?”

The Oakland installation will be the first on the West Coast as it travels nationally to sites of symbolic power related to justice, freedom & democracy. Originating in Washington, D.C. on the National Mall in response to the 2020 murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Society’s Cage has continued its journey as an interpretive lens highlighting the historic forces of racialized state violence in the United States.

Other sites have included War Memorial Plaza in Baltimore, Maryland, and the site of the Vernon AME Chapel in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race massacre and destruction of the Greenwood District, known as Black Wall Street.

Oakland is an ideal host site for the installation as the home of the Black Panther Party, which was founded to combat the legacy of police oppression, inequitable incarceration practices, and remnants of slavery in the form of state-sponsored terrorism against Black people.

In 2009, the killing of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old, unarmed Black transit rider by the BART police in Oakland set off local and regional organized protests that catalyzed a national movement.

Support Oakland Artists Executive Director Randolph Belle atop the installation called ‘Society’s Cage’ as it was being assembled. Photo courtesy of Facebook.

Support Oakland Artists Executive Director Randolph Belle atop the installation called ‘Society’s Cage’ as it was being assembled. Photo courtesy of Facebook.

“We were inspired to create the installation as a response to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor,” explains Dayton Schroeter, lead designer of Society’s Cage and design director at SmithGroup, which has offices in San Francisco. “The pavilion is a real and raw reflection of the conversations about racism happening now. It’s a physical manifestation of the institutional structures that have undermined the progress of Black Americans over the history of this country.

“The name Society’s Cage refers to the societal constraints that limit the prosperity of the Black community,” says Julian Arrington, who led the design with Schroeter, and is an associate at SmithGroup. “The pavilion creates an experience to help visitors understand and acknowledge these impacts of racism and be moved to create change.”

 

 

 

“It only took an instant for me to commit to this project,” said Randolph Belle, executive director of Support Oakland Artists. “In my over 30 years in Oakland as an artist and community developer, I’ve strived to utilize the arts to engage the public in thoughtful ways around important and timely topics. This project, this site, and these times are an unprecedented example of that.”

Visitors are encouraged to participate in a shared experience upon entering the pavilion. After holding their breath for as long as they can, evoking the common plea among victims of police killings, “I can’t breathe,” visitors then post a video reflection of their experience on social media using the hashtag #SocietysCage. This exercise is meant not only to build empathy but expand the installation’s impact online to allow anyone to participate in this shared exercise.

The pavilion was fabricated by Gronning Design + Manufacturing LLC in Washington, D.C., and Mejia Ironworks in Hyattsville, Maryland. A soundscape was commissioned from a pair of composers, Raney Antoine Jr. and Lovell “U-P” Cooper.

Comprised of four pieces, each eight minutes and 46 seconds in length in recognition of the time George Floyd suffered under the knee of police, they are themed to reflect each of the four institutional forces that sculpted the pavilion’s interior — mass incarceration, police terrorism, capital punishment and racist lynchings.

Early sponsors who have made the hosting of the Society’s Cage Oakland installation possible include the Akonadi Foundation, Tarbell Family Foundation, individual sponsors including principals from SmithGroup’s San Francisco office, corporate sponsorship including SmithGroup and many community partners including BIG Oakland.

Jeremy Crandall and Emax Exhibits were the Oakland Installation team.

A public unveiling is scheduled for Saturday, May 14, 2022, at 11 a.m., and a programmed event featuring local cultural artists is scheduled for Sunday, May 29, 2022, at 7 p.m. Participating individuals and organizations include original members of the Black Panther Party, the Black Cultural Zone, HipHopTV, and a host of local artists.

For more information, visit www.societyscage.com to find a link to the donation site. Additional donations will assist with programming and documentation related to the Oakland activation.

Randolph Belle is the executive director of Support Oakland Artists and RBA Creative studio in Oakland.

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Activism

Claiming Neglect, City Towers Tenants and Supporters Organize

City Towers tenants, have been outspoken in their complaints about VPM. In four interviews with tenants and 14 written statements shared with this reporter, 18 City Towers residents claimed mistreatment from the company. A dozen of these tenants complained of mold, 10 of broken appliances, seven of security mistreating residents and/or providing insufficient services, six of mice and/or roach infestations. Six tenants also complained of urine and/or feces in elevators and/or stairways, which they say occurs because security does not stop outsiders from entering their buildings. During onsite visits, this reporter walked through unlocked entrances in all three City Towers high-rises and was not asked by security to check in, or who they were visiting.

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Katie Latimer (left) of The United Front Against Displacement and City Towers' tenant Ali Boutte (right) in Boutte's apartment in West Oakland on May 6. Photo by Zack Haber.
Katie Latimer (left) of The United Front Against Displacement and City Towers' tenant Ali Boutte (right) in Boutte's apartment in West Oakland on May 6. Photo by Zack Haber.

By Zack Haber

Tenants living in City Towers Apartments, a 231-unit affordable housing project located in three high-rises in West Oakland, are organizing for healthier and more secure living conditions with the help of local supporters. They claim that neglect from VPM Management Inc, the Irvine-based company in charge of providing services to the units, has caused their homes to fall into disrepair and become unsanitary and unsafe.

“I’m scared to live in my unit,” said Elise Jones, who’s lived in City Towers for over 16 years. “I don’t think we should have to suffer in our homes just because we’re in poverty.”

According to Jones, the apartment she shares with her son has maggot and mice infestations and a stove that no longer works. She says she’s put in work orders to Don McShane, VPM’s site manager, who has not yet fixed these issues.

In July of last year when a leak in her apartment came to her attention, Jones says she immediately informed McShane, but he delayed responding to the issue. Her rugs, clothes and furniture were destroyed as the leak grew and her apartment became increasingly damp.

“I knew it was unsafe for me and my son to be there,” Jones said. “But I was told it had to be a real emergency for them to come due to the [COVID-19] shut-downs.”

Jones reports that in September, VPM Management Inc. fixed the leak, but did not address mold that had begun to grow on her floor.

The Oakland Post contacted McShane by phone, who declined an interview request for this story and suggested contacting VPM’s corporate phone number. While The Oakland Post called, no one from VPM returned voicemail messages requesting comment. This reporter also emailed detailed questions to VPM CEO Philip H. McNamee and Regional Manager Rose Palmer but received no response.

City Towers tenants, in turn, have been outspoken in their complaints about VPM. In four interviews with tenants and 14 written statements shared with this reporter, 18 City Towers residents claimed mistreatment from the company. A dozen of these tenants complained of mold, 10 of broken appliances, seven of security mistreating residents and/or providing insufficient services, six of mice and/or roach infestations. Six tenants also complained of urine and/or feces in elevators and/or stairways, which they say occurs because security does not stop outsiders from entering their buildings. During onsite visits, this reporter walked through unlocked entrances in all three City Towers high-rises and was not asked by security to check in, or who they were visiting.

Of the 18 tenants who complained of mistreatment, 11 mentioned that their requests to VPM to fix issues were ignored or not responded to for long periods of time, while two said they were afraid to file complaints for fear of retaliation.

“Everything is broke,” said City Towers tenant Ali Boutte. “It takes four to six months for them to fix something here. That’s ridiculous.”

“I hate this place,” said City Towers tenant Tamara Hubbard, who shared complaints of mold in her apartment that have not been addressed. “I’ve been having a lot of asthma attacks. I wake up coughing in the middle of the night.”

City Towers tenants have begun taking their complaints directly to VPM Management Inc in a unified manner.

“We are tired of mistreatment of low-income tenants and this is only the first step towards uniting people against the day to day injustices,” reads a petition that over 90 City Towers residents signed since March and was delivered to VPM on April 1.

The petition complains of neglect and demands better maintenance and security measures in common areas, as well as relocation of elderly and disabled tenants from floors near the top of the buildings, which residents say pose safety issues in the event of an emergency evacuation.

Such an evacuation was needed when a fire struck one of City Tower’s high-rises during the afternoon of Feb. 15. A report from the Oakland Fire Department shows two City Towers tenants and three firefighters were hospitalized that day.

In a written statement, Melvin Parker, an older City Tower’s resident who lives on the 10th floor, described escaping the fire as “a nightmare,” as “people were bumping into each other,” because “there were no lights in the stairwell so you couldn’t see.”

While the fire put residents in danger, the event garnered attention that helped bring them together with the surrounding community and each other. Katie Latimer, who lives near City Towers and is part of The United Front Against Displacement, an anti-gentrification organization which has recently organized with low income tenants living in Boston, Harlem and San Francisco, said the incident motivated the organization to get involved.

Aware that a fire killed 17 tenants of a Bronx high-rise when a space heater malfunctioned last January, and that residents of that apartment had complained that their landlord had failed to provide central heating shortly before the fire, Latimer and other UFAD members wondered if neglect had played a role in the fire occurring at City Towers, and if residents were facing issues they could organize around.

“We know people in low-income housing are going through a lot of [stuff] that’s not right these days,” said Latimer, “and that it’s easier to organize when there’s a large number of people with the same landlord and similar complaints.”

Five members of the organization started knocking on doors to learn more about residents’ experiences. When they found out that many were facing problems, they started meeting every week with residents to unify tenants and organize responses. The group has been sharing printed information at the high-rises, such as possible continuing onsite fire hazards and information about the companies behind City Towers. Jones, along with fellow City Towers tenant Loucrita Johnson, have joined UFAD’s outreach efforts to bring in more tenants to organize.

“I’ve learned not to be afraid to fight back,” said Johnson. “I want to continue to work on this with other tenants until something gets done about City Towers.”

In April, UFAD and tenants filed complaints to Oakland’s Inspection and Code Enforcement Services which resulted in the city sending KDF City Towers LP, the Newport Beach-based company that owns City Towers and has hired VPM Management Inc, three “notice of violation” letters. The letters accuse KDF of code violations on three units and common areas in two City Towers high-rises including inoperable heaters and electrical outlets, as well as leaks and damage to bathtubs, lights, and cabinets. KDF must now fix the issues, file an appeal, or face fines.

The Oakland Post sent multiple emails requesting comment on this story to co-founders Marquis E Hyatt and Paul Fruchbom of KDF Communities LLC, the company that owns KDF City Towers LP, but did not receive a response.

On April 18, City Towers residents received a note from VPM Management Inc. that stated “Due to the COVID Pandemic, Management has been unable to perform annual unit inspections for over 2 years. Because of this, many of the apartment homes have many maintenance items that need to be addressed.”

The note also said that VPM was hiring a company to help them with repairs that would start on May 2. On May 10, City Towers tenant Ali Boutte told this reporter VPM had recently taken photos of things in his home that needed to be repaired and told him they would soon be worked on.

UFAD has been continuing to meet with tenants and on May 7, they showed films about tenant organizing in an informal gathering in an effort to bring City Towers residents together. Members of the organization and tenants told this reporter that they feel their work has caused a response from VPM Management Inc, but that there is still a lot of work to be done to adequately address all the issues.

“We all have the same stories, and the tenants want change,” said Jones. “I’m not going to stop. I’m going to fight for tenant rights and not be silent.”

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