OAKLAND — When word got out last year that Tony Smith was in the running to be the next superintendent of the Oakland school district, friends urged him to reconsider. He said some told him it would be "suicide" to take the job at the fiscally rocky and notoriously unstable school district.
Not only was the district emerging from a six-year state takeover with a massive long-term debt amid the worst economic crisis in decades, but it was in the throes of a deadlocked labor dispute with its teachers.
The year since then has been as tumultuous as promised.
In August, Smith's wife left her high-level job at BayCES, a local education nonprofit, after a conflict-of-interest ruling by the district's legal team. In April, the school board unilaterally imposed a contract on the teachers union, which staged a one-day strike. In June, the district slashed $120 million to balance its budget and decided to gut its adult education program, if necessary, to keep some of its preschools open.
Teachers might strike again in the fall.
"Did I anticipate having a teacher strike in my first year?" Smith asked with a laugh. "Absolutely not."
As volatile as the past 12 months have been, Smith says he has emerged with clarity.
"I can see a path to managing this organization," he said.
Many still are waiting to see what changes Smith will bring about, and when; he spent much of the first year listening and observing. To some, the personable and visible leader — whose young daughters attend Oakland's Crocker Highlands Elementary School — offers a sense of hope during a most discouraging time.
School board members have commended Smith's administration for presenting clear, in-depth information to the public, especially on how the district spends its money. Eric Adams, a student-leader who worked closely with Smith, said he was impressed by the superintendent's unthreatening candor and his openness.
"When that man says 'transparent,' he means see-through," Adams said.
Celia Davis, whose children will attend Bret Harte Middle School in East Oakland's Laurel district and Oakland Technical High School in North Oakland this fall, said she likes what she has seen and heard of the new superintendent.
"Because of who he is and his presence, I think there's potential to overcome some of the divisions in this district," she said.
It's too early to measure Smith's impact, Davis said. Much will depend on whether he can translate his strategic plan — which the board unanimously passed in June — into the improvements the school system so desperately needs. Such a transformation will happen only if his staff does a good job of involving parents, teachers and others, she said.
Ann Nomura, a parent at Kaiser Elementary School in the Oakland hills, said she wished Smith had spent more time tackling practical problems, such as discipline, school safety and the state of the district's middle schools, during his first year. She said she was disappointed he wasn't able to forge an agreement with teachers — or a consensus on a school parcel tax.
"It's all marketing and no meat," Nomura said of Smith's leadership style.
Mark Triplett, principal of Urban Promise Academy, a small middle school in East Oakland, said his teachers sometimes ask him what the new superintendent is really all about.
"I have a lot of respect for Tony," he said. "He stepped into an incredibly difficult position. "... Within that climate, I've been really impressed with how he hasn't lost sight of how to move forward with a vision for improving this district and this city."
Until now, the school district has been formally divided into networks by region and by school-level. Middle school staff have shared ideas and practices with other middle school staff, for example — but not necessarily with the elementary school or high school down the street.
Smith's plan will require preschools, elementary schools, middle schools and high schools to work together more closely. It will split the school district into three regions with the goal of creating "full service community schools" within each. Staff will be expected to share successful practices, including the use of community resources.
"We need a definition of what good education looks like," Smith said. "That conversation, that's coming. It has to be, 'What do we expect our kids to know and be able to do?' "... The fact that we have 20 percent-plus unemployment in East Oakland, that's everybody's problem."
The ideas contained in Smith's blueprint would be ambitious for any school district, especially for a central office whose ranks have thinned by about 10 percent. (The more than 50 non-unionized managers who remain, including Smith, will take furloughs next year.) It calls for the creation of 10 task forces with such goals as defining and improving teacher quality, boosting achievement of African-American boys and finding inefficiencies in the budget.
To help lead the effort, Smith hired Maria Santos, a former New York City schools administrator, as deputy superintendent of instruction, leadership and equity in action.
If done well, Smith's plan to turn schools into holistic community hubs could help to make services more accessible to schoolchildren and their families, especially those exposed to violence and chronic stress.
Such a change can't come soon enough. At a school board meeting last month, Smith announced that 20 youths had been killed in Oakland, nearly all as a result of gun violence, since his first day in the district's headquarters.
One child, a 13-year-old boy, was shot during that very meeting.
"We have a massive problem in our city when children are dying at this rate at the hands of other children," Smith said. "These are our kids who are killing our kids "... over issues of respect, turf, retaliation. "... We have to be an organization that holds this city together in ways it's not being held together. I believe honestly and fully that if we educate, connect with and care for our children, we can end this violence. "... The adults in our city have to be doing a hell of a lot more to take care of the children in our city."
Betty Olson-Jones, president of the Oakland teachers union, said Smith's message has been consistent since day one — that children's progress shouldn't be measured solely with test scores, that a healthy school environment is vital and that the root causes of violence cannot be ignored.
"My members want to see more than words," she said. "The jury is still out as far as real, concrete actions to make those words become a reality."