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Oakland Unified School District Superintendent Tony Smith listens to public comments at a board meeting, Wednesday, June 27, 2012, in Oakland, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron/Staff)

OAKLAND -- As a white man who talks about white privilege and institutional racism, the superintendent of Oakland's school system is not your typical school administrator.

In countless public and media appearances since his appointment in 2009, Tony Smith, 45, has transmitted a radical message, not only about Oakland, but about the expanded role he believes a school system must play in society. He argues that schools can -- and must -- help to transform entire communities through love and a sense of collective responsibility for children, especially the disadvantaged.

"I think he's an incredible evangelist," said David Kakishiba, an Oakland school board member. "He's brought that to the forefront in a way I have not seen in my lifetime -- that, as a district, we're going to be very focused, diligent and relentless on eliminating these disparities for children with less means and the legacy of racism."

Smith has certainly energized the city. Mobilizing a fractured system under the constant threat of education funding cutbacks is proving to be much harder. Teachers are on their third year of an imposed contract. Parents are still protesting the closure of elementary schools. And members of the NAACP have publicly illustrated, through statistics and anecdotes, the grim reality that persists despite Smith's initiative to raise the achievement of African-American boys.


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"I'm hearing people's upset. I'm hearing their discontent with the current outcomes," Smith said. "People are angry, hurt, sad -- I get it. The change isn't happening fast enough for anybody."

During his first three years in office, Smith has spent much of his time in the public eye. He's had to, he said, to restore trust in an institution notorious for its 2003 state financial takeover.

"That was a very public failure," he said. "So how do you build public confidence in a system that was so bad it had to be taken over?"

For that reason, Smith's message emphasizes stability as well as transformation: Despite the state budget crisis, he said, Oakland Unified has nearly wiped out its structural deficit; it has avoided teacher furloughs and, this year, permanent teacher layoffs.

Smith also has stressed his own plans to stay in Oakland, lest people assume the latest strategic plan is destined to join its predecessors in the district archives. "We're not going anywhere," he said in an interview shortly before he was hired. "This is where my kids are going to grow up."

Though never a classroom teacher, Smith has been a district administrator since 2004 -- first as superintendent in Emeryville, then as a deputy superintendent in San Francisco. He lives in Oakland with his wife and two daughters, who attend Oakland Unified's Crocker Highlands Elementary School.

Smith earns a $265,000 salary, about five times that of an average teacher in his district. He hasn't always lived comfortably. Born in the Central Valley to teenage parents and into an unstable childhood, he went on to graduate from UC Berkeley, where he played football.

Tall and broad-shouldered, Smith has an air of sincerity, calm and boyish enthusiasm. He is an intent listener.

"He is creating a positive atmosphere in the district," said Maria Ku, whose children go to Montera Middle School and Oakland Technical High School. "His children go to public schools. He seems to be walking the walk."

Smith's outreach campaign seems to be paying off. Likely voters recently surveyed in April by Gene Bregman & Associates gave the district higher approval ratings than they had in 18 years of polling. An April opinion piece in the Oakland Tribune by Joseph J. Haraburda, president and CEO of the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, credited Smith with taking "local schools to a level of respectability that hadn't been seen for years."

Still, his critics say the administration hasn't done enough -- or that Smith is undermining his own vision through his actions. They've questioned his recommendations to close four majority-African-American schools and to balance the budget with funds once designated for adult education programs. The adult education decision has left barely a shell of a program that once served 25,000 students a year, many of them English learners and school dropouts.

Protesters who occupied the closed Lakeview Elementary for nearly three weeks listed the superintendent's resignation as one of their demands.

Another challenge for Smith has been the school board, which has begun to vote against some of his team's recommendations. Last week, over his objections, the board voted 4-3 to restore a $1.75 million cut to special-education programs.

Then there is the administration's strained relationship with its teachers union. The two sides have yet to settle a contract since the union aired its proposal in January 2008. This year, Smith -- who says he doesn't believe staffing decisions should be made on the basis of an employee's years of service -- tried in vain to change the contract's seniority provisions so that principals and others at a school would have more of a say in who filled their job openings.

Shortly after his proposal fizzled, Smith announced a plan that, he said, didn't need to be negotiated: Teachers at three struggling high schools would need to apply for a newly created, 11-month teaching position if they wished to remain on their campuses.

David Orphal, a teacher at Skyline High School, said while he feels Smith's leadership has been generally positive for Oakland, that decision disappointed him.

"The biggest hurdle that he has to get over in the next stage of his career is to repair the relationship with the teachers union," Orphal said. "The relationship has gotten so toxic, if Tony Smith said, 'Apple pie is good,' the union may be like, 'No, it's not.'"

Minh-Tram Nguyen, principal of EnCompass Elementary in East Oakland, said for all of the district's challenges, she senses progress. She said she feels buoyed by Smith's plan for schools that address children's physical and emotional needs, as well as academics. Her school's holistic approach was stifled by previous administrations, she said. That's changed since Smith came to Oakland Unified.

"It's never as simple as one leader," Nguyen said. "But you very much know that if a leader doesn't support this kind of work, it won't happen."

Urban school district superintendents aren't known for their longevity. But Smith says -- if a bit less convincingly, now -- that he plans to stay. Last year, his contract was extended through June 2015.

"As long as I have the support to continue to serve children, I'm here," he said.

And he feels that he has that support now?

"No," he responded. He paused for several seconds. "We need to build it."

Read Katy Murphy's Oakland schools blog at IBAbuzz.com/education. Follow her at Twitter.com/katymurphy.

Oakland school district, then and now
Much has changed since Tony Smith became superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District in July 2009.
  • Number of noncharter schools: 110 in 2008-09; 86 in the fall
  • Charter schools in Oakland: 32 in 2008-09; 38 in the fall
  • General fund: $468 million in 2008-09; $380 million in 2012-13
  • Composite test scores (out of 1,000 points): 695 in 2009; 726 in 2011
  • Structural deficit: $40 million in 2009; $1.1 million in 2012
    Source: Oakland Unified School District, California Department of Education