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Oakland's new superintendent of school, Tony Smith, is introduced on his first official day of work on the Think College Now Elementary School campus in Oakland, Calif. on Wednesday, July 1, 2009.(Laura A. Oda/Staff)

OAKLAND — Tony Smith started as Oakland's new schools superintendent on Wednesday with no shortage of Bay Area officials on hand to welcome him to the challenge.

As BART trains squealed past Think College Now, an elementary school in East Oakland's Fruitvale district, officials and staff members from San Francisco Unified — Smith's previous school district — the Oakland and San Francisco mayors' offices, Alameda County and the state Legislature stepped to the podium to sing Smith's praises and wish him well.

"All I can say to Oakland is 'Fasten your seat belt, because you're going to have a fun ride,'"‰" said Carlos Garcia, superintendent of San Francisco schools.

Jumoke Hinton Hodge, a new school board member who represents West Oakland, went so far as to call Smith, 42, "the greatest superintendent in the nation."

Smith led the East Bay's two-school, 800-student Emery Unified for three years before becoming deputy superintendent of instruction, innovation and social justice in San Francisco under Garcia in late 2007. Though Smith has worked with schools for years, mainly through the influential Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools nonprofit, he hasn't been a classroom teacher.

The Oakland school board, which unanimously selected Smith for the position over a more seasoned front-runner from Southern California, is banking on his rave reviews from San Francisco and Emeryville and his fundraising and networking abilities, engaging leadership style and local connections. Smith lives in Oakland, and his oldest daughter, 6, will attend Crocker Highlands Elementary School in the fall.


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"It feels like my life's journey has brought me to this moment," Smith said, urging everyone to pull together to create "a revival like we have not seen" in Oakland.

Smith, who will earn about $288,000 in pay and benefits this year, takes over during a momentous and challenging time for Oakland's public schools. Oakland Unified emerged from state control this week, six years after accepting a $100 million emergency line of credit from the state. This means Oakland's elected school board will again call the shots, although the district's former state-appointed administrator, now a full-time state trustee drawing a $250,000 salary plus benefits, will have veto power over fiscal decisions.

Smith will also inherit an $18 million budget hole for the 2010-11 year, even without further state cuts. The state administration used that much in cash reserves and one-time federal funds to balance the current year's budget, money that won't be available a year from now. And on Friday, as his last big act as state-appointed administrator, Vincent Matthews declared an impasse in negotiations with the teachers union. This means a third-party mediator will step in once bargaining resumes in the fall.

"We are going to find our way through this," Smith said Wednesday, when a reporter asked how he planned to ease labor relations. "We'll work it out."

Reach Katy Murphy at 510-208-6424 or kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com. Read her Oakland schools blog and post comments at www.ibabuzz.com/education.

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Laura A. Oda/Staff
Tony Smith, Oakland's superintendent of schools, is introduced Wednesday, his first day of work, at Think College Now elementary school. Smith last worked for the San Francisco school district.