OAKLAND -- In a move that stunned colleagues and parents, Oakland Unified school Superintendent Tony Smith announced his resignation Friday after nearly four years marked by a fractious school board and precarious finances.
His resignation will be effective June 30.
But Smith said the challenges he faced as superintendent didn't factor into his decision to resign, contrary to rumors circulating for more than a year that the superintendent was seeking to move on from Oakland. Rather, he and his family are moving to be near his wife's ailing father. He has no job in Chicago as yet.
"Kathleen and I have decided to move closer to family in Chicago so that we can be there to help and so that our daughters can spend time with their grandparents," he wrote in a letter posted on the OUSD website.
Hired July 1, 2009, Smith is the first superintendent to resign of his own accord in 50 years. His current annual base salary is $265,000.
"I feel very privileged to have been part of bringing quality and stability back to Oakland Public Schools," he wrote in the letter dated April 4 addressed to Oakland school board member David Kakishiba.
Smith unexpectedly informed the board of his departure during the closed session of a special board meeting Thursday night, taking trustees by surprise.
The decision came "completely out of the blue," board member Chris Dobbins said Friday afternoon.
Smith began his tenure the week the district emerged from state control, having accepted a $100 million emergency line of credit from the state. He inherited a $25 million budget deficit for the 2010-11 year and negotiations with the teachers union frozen.
Smith had never served as a teacher but worked with schools for years, mainly through the influential nonprofit Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools. He had 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 in late 2007.
The Oakland school board, which unanimously selected Smith for the position over a more seasoned front-runner from Southern California, banked on his rave reviews from San Francisco and Emeryville and his fundraising and networking abilities, engaging leadership style and local connections.
Smith was equally optimistic.
"It feels like my life's journey has brought me to this moment," Smith said the day after he was hired, urging everyone to pull together to create "a revival like we have not seen" in Oakland.
Smith spent much of his time in the public eye during his first three years in office trying to restore trust in an institution notorious for the state financial takeover.
By 2012, Oakland Unified had nearly wiped out its structural deficit, avoided teacher furloughs and, that year, permanent teacher layoffs.
"I can tell you I'm really sad because we've worked together since he came to Oakland," said board member Gary Yee. "I've appreciated his work and supported it."
Trustee Jody London said, "One of the things we are really happy about is the stability with having him around for so long.
"Also, the fact that we're very focused now that programs serve all of our students -- particularly African-American and Latino students."
However, he never lacked for critics.
"I'm glad he's leaving," former trustee Alice Spearman said. Stability is good but the schools are failing miserably, she said, blaming Smith's emphasis on using funds to pay for inexperienced staff instead of putting money into the classrooms and veteran educators.
His relationship with the board improved after the November elections brought in new members. But the administration's contentious relationship with its teachers union continued in part because of controversial maneuvers such as forcing teachers at three struggling high schools to apply for a newly created teaching position if they wished to remain on their campuses.
Possibly the most controversial decision came in 2011 when he closed four majority-African-American schools and balanced the budget with funds once designated for adult education programs.
Protesters who occupied the closed Lakeview Elementary for nearly three weeks listed the superintendent's resignation as one of their demands and marched on his home, unsettling Smith.
Philippa Barron, whose children attend school in the district, said the decision made her lose faith in Smith because he bowed to pressure from more affluent families.
The board will begin the process of filling Smith's seat at its April 10 regular meeting.
Continuity will be important in deciding on a replacement.
"Everything's not perfect," Dobbins said. "but we're on the right track."
Staff writers Katy Murphy and Serena Valdez contributed to this report.