By David Siders
dsiders@sacbee.com
Published: Thursday, Oct. 14, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 1A

When Meg Whitman accuses Jerry Brown of failing Oakland’s schools, he typically mentions the two charter schools he started and says they are doing “quite well” or are “very, very successful.”

By some standard performance measures, however, they are not.

Despite benefiting from Brown’s high profile and political connections – he has raised millions of dollars for the schools through donations made at his behest – both the Oakland Military Institute and Oakland School for the Arts are designated by the federal government as needing improvement to meet federal standards.

And while the arts school enrolls a smaller proportion of poor students than the districtwide average, as well as a smaller proportion of children whose first language is not English, its students’ test scores are only middling. Compared with schools with similar demographics, its scores ranked recently among the worst.

Testing is a controversial and in many ways one-dimensional way to measure school performance, and Donn Harris, the art school’s executive director, said the school, by more qualitative measures, is succeeding. Enrollment has doubled to about 600 students in three years, and 98 percent of graduates go to college, he said.

“An arts school is about innovation and creativity,” Harris said.

He called the school “a major civic event that I’m really proud to be a part of, and it’s doing really good things for kids.”

Brown remains highly involved in both charter schools, discussing curriculum and performance with teachers and administrators. In 2006, he requested a four-year review of the arts school’s performance, apparently concerned about measures used to evaluate classes and curriculum, according to a memorandum obtained by The Bee.

Jo Ann Somerville, an Oakland city employee, said in the memo that Brown wanted an assessment of the school, and she listed concerns raised by teachers and staff about subjects including teacher qualifications, grades and management.

“We have some disgruntled teachers out there with some of this information,” Somerville wrote. “We also have a responsibility to protect the Mayor who is running for a state office.”

Brown that year was campaigning for his current office, attorney general. Somerville on Wednesday declined to comment, referring questions to Brown’s campaign.

Brown spokesman Sterling Clifford said any political concerns were not Brown’s.

“I think, if given a choice between the success of the schools and the success of his own political career, Jerry would choose these schools in a heartbeat,” Clifford said.

Harris said he was aware of the memo, though it preceded his arrival at the school. He said Brown put no political pressure on administrators.

“There were some management issues that needed addressing, and that’s, I think, what Jo Ann was brought in to analyze,” he said.

At the center of Whitman’s criticism of Brown’s record on education is that Brown, while campaigning for mayor, said he would help improve Oakland’s troubled school system, and he backed a successful ballot measure allowing him to appoint three members to the district’s governing board.

But Brown, mayor from 1999 to 2007, never controlled a board majority, and his influence was limited. Early in his tenure, before the state took over the district in 2003, Brown turned his attention to the charter schools.

The arts school’s location in Oakland’s historic Fox Theater is the product of a complex financing arrangement involving the theater’s renovation and the sale of billboard advertising.

In September 2005, Dave Grenell, then an aide to Brown, said in an e-mail to school officials that a payment of $275,000 to cover payroll had been delayed, according to a copy obtained by The Bee. Less than three hours later, he wrote, “The Mayor took care of the OSA payroll problem – worked some magic.”

According to a tax return, Brown’s family foundation that year granted $565,000 to the school.

Brown’s detractors say Brown abandoned the majority of Oakland’s public school students to dote on his charter schools.

When Betty Olson-Jones, president of Oakland’s teachers union, saw Brown at a Labor Day event this year, she said, “I went up to him and he said, ‘I know I’m not very popular with you guys, am I?’ And I said, ‘No, you’re not.’ ”

Olson-Jones said, “Our concern always was, ‘Why aren’t you working for all the schools? Why the charter schools?’ ”

Dan Siegel, a former Oakland school board member, said the military school, despite the funding made possible by its benefactor, “didn’t even do a very good job.”

But the military school enrolls a greater percentage of poor students and students learning English than most Oakland public schools, and its test scores are about average when compared to schools with similar demographics. Like the arts school, 98 percent of graduates go to college, said Mark Ryan, the school superintendent.

“It’s remarkable,” he said. “But you know, not enough of our kids are proficient on state tests in math and English. It needs to be more.”

To read entire story, click here.