There are too many answers to this question, and in a sense, THAT’S what’s wrong. I used this ‘headline’ as a cheap trick to get you to read my little story. I have a specific partial answer to this question in mind, which I would like to present to you by way of a little story that perhaps elucidates something not quite right about our public institutions – and about the state of our modern society.

In late March, my eight-year-old granddaughter Leila’s Oakland, California public school was torched by an arsonist. This school was a typical cheap-construction, low-slung wooden affair, not exactly architecturally complicated. No bricks or mortar were involved. About half of the classrooms and the administrative offices of the school were damaged in the fire. Peralta School’s teachers and staff and all 250 kids were out in the street for a week, until the school parents joined them with brooms and mops and hedge clippers to clean up a nearby abandoned middle school, which the district said they could use for their exclusive use as long as was necessary. In a demonstration of how they felt about the school, parents and friends raised a nice extra fund to make the New School just a little bit better than the Old School. The casino run by a nearby local Native American tribe generously pitched in another hundred thousand dollars. Things looked pretty bright, within a week or two after this fire, for the Peralta School Phoenix to quickly rise, better than ever, from the ashes.

Nearly three months have gone by, and not a hammer has been raised or a nail driven home at the derelict school site. Immediately after the fire, a volunteer group from Home Depot raised everyone’s spirits by saying, in essence, that they’d go to the school with workers and materials and take on school reconstruction as a kind of ‘Habitat for Oakland School Children’ project. Of course they were rebuffed by Oakland “Unified” because, alas, our society has advanced well past the stage at which it would allow mere volunteer citizens – the word for them is “neighbors” — chock full of sympathy and good will, to play any role in such an effort. Barn-raising, be damned! Strictly old fashioned stuff, out of the question!

Although the reconstruction job of these band-box classrooms can’t be terribly difficult, it took 2 months for the District and State to commit funds, and for the blueprints to be submitted to the State Architect. Word has it that THIS IS RECORD SPEED. It took another 3 weeks for the State Architect to agree to meet with representatives from the district to discuss those plans. Meanwhile, the school is 60 days away from the start of the 2007-2008 school year, and the Oakland School District has just told the school for the first time that they doubt that the building materials can be obtained – and the project completed — in time. How would THEY know? They’re not really working on a timeline, they haven’t got an approved plan, and they still have to go through a competitive bidding process. And in the meantime, the Secretary of Education for the State of California, Jack O’Connell shows up at the temporary school for a photo-op, because he is proud of how wonderfully everything is progressing on rebuilding Peralta School, and is happy to take some credit for it.

In the meantime, the school district has co-promised (spelled a lot like ‘compromised’, isn’t it?) the temporary school site (which is not so temporary, after all) to a new high school. You might remember that Kimberley Statham, the chief honcho appointed to run Oakland Unified by the state, assured the school that they would have use of the middle school “for your exclusive use as long as you need it”. She did not tell the truth, exactly – or to put it another way, when she made this promise, she had already promised a new International High School that they also had rights to use the site — but maybe forgot.

How is a citizen supposed to interpret these shenanigans? Why is it so unthinkable that you or me or my neighbor might go down there and participate in an old-fashioned barn-raising? With a good Habitat for Humanity foreman and crew, we could get this job done in a week or two! Why CAN’T the bureaucrats at Oakland Unified or the State work a little harder, and act a little faster, for the benefits of these children? Why ISN”T this more important to them? Why CAN’T they develop a time-sensitive plan that assures that the job will get done? Why IS the state-appointed administrator unwilling to just tell people the truth: “Sorry, moms and dads and kids. I promised this middle school to two constituencies, because I cannot add to two. My bad.”

It is frustrating for a parent (much less a grandparent) to see a simple job turned into a complex mess with attendant delays because of poor planning and inefficiency. If the same fire had occurred at the local Walmart, they would be back in business within a month BECAUSE IT REALLY MATTERS TO THEM. If I was a Las Vegas oddsmaker, I think that it would be a pretty even bet that this school will not reopen in less than a full year after the fire. Sorry, Charlie, and you too, Alice, but it is illegal to take your bet over the Internet.

I’ll let you know, at this site, just WHEN school DOES open. And if they get the job done before school opens, or not too much later afterwards, I’ll eat my words, publicly! I’m NOT afraid!!