By Patrick Hoge
After a superintendent brought in from the outside left the Oakland Unified School District in debt and disarray, a coalition of angry parents, teachers, and community organizers demanded that the school board appoint an executive with strong local ties. This spring, the board responded by hiring Kyla Johnson-Trammell as the district's new schools' chief. She officially took command of the 37,000-student district on July 1.
Now, Johnson-Trammell, an 18-year veteran of Oakland schools and third-generation resident of the city, must get those same varied interest groups to support her in what is likely to be a painful restructuring of a school district that some fear could be teetering on the brink of insolvency and state receivership. It is a daunting task likely to involve further budget cuts on top of $11 million slashed in spring, and possibly the closing of some schools, which are more numerous in Oakland than in other districts that have more students.
"It's a very challenging job. I'm not going to lie," Johnson-Trammell said recently, declining to say how long she would commit to the position. "But I'm enjoying it. I keep telling everyone, 'My success is your success. We have to work together.' "
Johnson-Trammell initially was not even one of the four finalists for the superintendent's job, according to a coalition of interest groups that claims credit for raising such a ruckus that the Oakland school board changed gears and tapped Johnson-Trammell for the job. (District officials declined to comment on the coalition's claim.)
Johnson-Trammell's mother and grandmother were both educators. She was born and raised in East Oakland and attended Oakland schools until high school, when a program for minority youths sent her to the exclusive Branson School in Ross.
A full scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania led to a degree in education leadership from UC Berkeley, and Johnson-Trammell subsequently worked in Oakland schools as a teacher, principal, and administrator. She and her husband and two children live in the Glenview neighborhood.
Hopes are running high that Johnson-Trammell can now stem the tide of declining enrollment and the long-term exodus of students to public charter and private schools.
The widespread expectation is that Johnson-Trammell will have the necessary background knowledge to be effective and that she will be invested in Oakland's long-term success in a way that some of her predecessors may not have been.
"Her chances of success will rely on her being able to navigate a lot of different interests," said Trish Gorham, president of the Oakland Education Association teachers union. "Being local will help her in that regard. She does know who's who and what's what. She does have the institutional knowledge. We're hopeful."
Even Johnson-Trammell's many supporters, however, say she is facing a bumpy road.
"It's going to require some really hard decisions," said Gloria Lee, executive director of Educate78, a nonprofit that supports public education in Oakland. She has faith Johnson-Trammell will support teachers and principals to the utmost. "She's not superhuman. We need to make sure that leaders across the community are supporting her."
On a personal level, Johnson-Trammell's many admirers say she brings key qualities that bode well for the future: an unwavering focus on student welfare, a level head, a consultative and collaborative approach to problem solving, and a lack of disruptive ego.
"I cannot think of anyone I'd rather see in the job. She is one of the most intelligent and compassionate people. She embodies integrity," said Chabot Elementary School principal Jessica Cannon.
"She's very, very well respected. I don't know anyone who doesn't feel positive about her being in the position," Cannon said. "If anyone can do it, she can do it."
Kim Miyoshi, executive director of Oakland Kids First, said one challenge Johnson-Trammell faces is that so many people see her as their ally. "You would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the district who has anything negative to say about her," Miyoshi said. "That makes the job harder. Everyone feels they can talk to her."
In a welcome diversion from other superintendents who were perceived by many as instituting sweeping initiatives without local knowledge in order to further their own careers, Johnson-Trammell has said she cannot be the "savior" or "hero."
Though Johnson-Trammell has more institutional knowledge than many, she said she wants to gather as much information from as many people as possible—ranging from students to former superintendents—before any "rash" decisions get made. "What I need to be doing and what I am doing at this time is a lot of listening and learning," Johnson-Trammell said.
She has studiously avoided giving answers to questions seeking specific plans for restructuring the district, although she said further reductions are likely given flat state funding and rising employee benefit and pension costs. The district also needs to keep repaying the $100 million bailout loan that the state made in 2003 after officials discovered flawed accounting had masked tens of millions of red ink.
Critics have called in particular for cuts in the district's central office, where they say spending on administrators has mushroomed out of proportion in recent years. "What can Oakland do to rein costs in? I'm going to be honest. I'm not going to have a solution in two months or three months for that," Johnson-Trammell said.
"Will we probably have to make some cuts this school year? Yes," she acknowledged, adding they would occur "as far away from students as possible."
Johnson-Trammell has articulated three broad priorities that include getting the district fiscally healthy, increasing access to quality schools, and developing a more "resilient" organization, particularly by reducing turnover of teachers and administrators.
While some want the district to crack down on charter schools. Johnson-Trammell is noncommittal, saying the district and charter programs must work together to get the best results for children.
She said the district needs to offer more programs that parents are requesting in order to stabilize enrollment, and it needs to do a better job "marketing" improvements it has already made, like adding language or computer science programs. "I think we can do a better job of telling our own story," she said.
Johnson-Trammell told educators at a recent gathering, where she received a standing ovation, not to expect any big changes in the first year. "Stability I think begets success," Johnson-Trammell said in an interview, referring directly to a "revolving door of superintendents," the most recent being former Denver assistant schools chief Antwan Wilson, who left Oakland in February after 2.5 years on the job to take over public schools in Washington, D.C. As Wilson departed, a deficit of unexpected magnitude prompted the school board in April to freeze the budget, immediately slash $11 million in spending, and cut non-teaching positions.
Gorham and others said that crisis reflected the secrecy and opacity that district officials have demonstrated about financial matters. They want Johnson-Trammell to bring more transparency to budgeting, though her expertise in the past has been in matters of curriculum and teaching.
School board member Jody London, who represents North Oakland, questioned whether data supports the notion that locally grown school superintendents like Johnson-Trammell really perform better than those recruited from elsewhere.
Regardless, London said people who for years have been distrustful of the district can make the job difficult for anyone. "This community does not have a history of being nice to superintendents," London said. "Sometimes, it's the union; sometimes, it's parents. I don't like to be in such a negative space."
London nevertheless said she has "a lot of confidence" in Johnson-Trammell. "A lot of people want to help her be successful," London said. "We're really going to need to work out some hard issues as a community. The issues are not easy. If the system is not financially sound, it's going to go back into receivership."