OAKLAND — The battle-weary Oakland school system will soon have a fresh, new face.
Late Thursday night, after hours of deliberation, the school board unanimously decided that Tony Smith, 42, will be the district's superintendent of schools — the first permanent, locally chosen leader since the 2003 state takeover. He starts July 1.
"We all agreed that Tony is the best choice for Oakland," said school board president Noel Gallo. "What Oakland needs now is someone who can reach into all circles, not just to talk about the issues, but to get people to work together."
Smith is the deputy superintendent for instruction, innovation and social justice in the San Francisco Unified School District, and he led the 800-student Emery Unified School District as it emerged from state receivership in 2004 until late 2007. He is also an Oakland resident with ties to local organizations and institutions, such as UC Berkeley, where he earned his doctorate. Board members said they believed he would be able to galvanize a broad base of support for the district.
"There are huge possibilities for partnerships, and the urgency of the moment is real," Smith said Friday from a San Francisco event where he and other leaders met with United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. "We're going to do really good things in Oakland."
Smith will soon be an Oakland public school parent. His oldest daughter, who is 6, will attend Crocker Highlands
As the news of Smith's appointment trickled out Friday, people responded, by turns, with great enthusiasm, skepticism and hope for the future of a school district that has experienced a revolving door of central office leadership, including three state-appointed administrators.
"He's hungry, he's young, and he's from Oakland, which makes me think he's going to stay," said Brian Rogers, director of the Rogers Family Foundation, which supports local schools. "The excitement is higher than I've seen it in Oakland for a long time."
Smith will need all of the energy and passion he can muster. The district is working to close a multimillion-dollar deficit in the face of additional state cutbacks. Academic progress has stalled at many of the district's high schools, and students drop out of the system in droves. Less than half of last year's high school graduates were eligible to attend a state university. A recent transcript audit showed dramatically different course-taking patterns between students of different racial groups.
Smith has said one of his goals is to address such systemic inequities — including the distribution of school fundraising proceeds, a controversial topic he raised at a Wednesday night candidates' forum. "The disparity in fundraising by school is pretty significant," he said afterward.
School board member Jumoke Hinton Hodge said the board chose Smith, in part, because he is passionate about education and willing to take risks to change the status quo.
Betty Olson-Jones, president of the Oakland teachers union, said she was hopeful about what Smith's selection will mean for the school district, although she wished he had been a classroom teacher. "Tony Smith said all the right things," she said.
During an informal meet-and-greet Wednesday in an Oakland Technical High School classroom, Olson-Jones asked Smith about his views on No Child Left Behind, the landmark education accountability law enacted in 2002.
"I think No Child Left Behind has been soul-stripping for students and for teachers," Smith responded to Olson-Jones and the others gathered around him. In San Francisco, he added, "We define student achievement as engaging high achieving and joyful learners. ... There are metrics for joy, as silly as that sounds."
Pat Williams, an active Oakland parent who attended the Wednesday night forum, said Smith struck her as thoughtful and dedicated. She said she hoped he would prove to be a highly visible leader capable of making difficult decisions.
"We need a face," Williams said. "We need both a face and a voice."
Alexandra Grant, a 17-year-old Oakland Technical High School student, cheered when she heard the news. She and other student leaders from across the district met Smith at the town hall meeting and, she said, they were impressed by what they saw.
"I felt like I could talk with him, one on one, and not feel uncomfortable about the situation, and that my words wouldn't go in one ear and out the other." she said.
Tony Smith meets with community members at a public forum Wednesday in Oakland. Smith was named the next superintendent of Oakland schools Friday.