BACK in 2003, the picture at the Oakland Unified School District was downright scary. "Ghost" employees were collecting fake substitute teacher paychecks. School district officials were hiding tens of millions of dollars in deficits by cooking the books.

Eventually, the gross fiscal mismanagement came to light. With Oakland Unified on the verge of bankruptcy — and the educational future of 48,000 students at stake — the state had no choice but to loan the ailing district $100 million. It was the largest school bailout in state history. Oakland Superintendent Dennis Chaconas was given the boot and Oakland Schools were put under state receivership.

Now, four years later, some local and state officials — as well as Oakland community leaders — are clamoring for the return of local control. The question is, have district officials proven that they're ready to take back the reins?

We believe the answer is "no." While Oakland Unified has made progress in certain areas — the state earlier this year returned control of community relations to the district — district officials have yet to demonstrate that they are capable of handling their finances in a responsible manner.

In fact, the County Office Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team — a task force that conducts regular audits on the district's performance — has consistently given Oakland Unified poor marks when it comes to its handling of money.


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Since financial mismanagement is what led to the current crisis in the first place, it is imperative that Oakland Unified establish a track record of financial responsibility before the state can even consider returning local control.

Assemblyman Sandre Swanson, D-Oakland, has authored a bill — AB 45 — that aims for a gradual return to local control. It would require State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell to return various aspects of school administration to the district in piecemeal fashion.

If schools were to meet certain improvement targets, O'Connell would be bound by law to gradually return local control.

The problem with AB 45, is that it would leave control of the district's purse strings in state hands. In our view, it makes no sense to separate the finances from the rest of school administration.

How can a local board be in control of community relations, curriculum, personnel, facilities or pupil development, when the state still has the final word over spending?

Given the past, we agree with local businessmen who have raised millions of dollars to help improve the schools and believe returning local control prematurely would be disastrous.

There is no reason to do so hastily. Another year would give local officials a better chance to prove they're ready to take on such responsibility.

AB 45 will perhaps appease some members of the community. But beyond that, we see little value in a bill that generally skirts the larger issue of financial accountability.

For that reason, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger should veto the bill this year and take another look at it in 2008.