Friday, September 12, 2014

Oakland Poll: Rebecca Kaplan Whips Jean Quan in Mayoral Election

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
Bay Area News Group

OAKLAND -- Mayoral candidate Rebecca Kaplan would win the race over 14 challengers, handily beating runner-up incumbent Jean Quan if the election were held this month, according to a telephone poll of 400 voters released Wednesday. 

The poll, commissioned by the nonprofit Jobs and Housing Coalition from Sept. 2 to 8, shows Kaplan getting 61 percent of the vote to Quan's 39 percent in a ranked-choice voting scenario. 

Ranked choice comes into play when none of the candidates receives 50 percent of the vote plus one. 

"A lot of people know Kaplan and a lot of people like her as a person and now they need to decide if they like her as a mayor," said Gregory McConnell, president of the Jobs and Housing Coalition. 

The poll's margin of error is a plus or minus 4.9 percentage points. 

He said none of the candidates are saying anything really original or groundbreaking because, in addition to trying to get votes for themselves, they also are trying to get the second and third choices of people voting for other candidates. 

"You are looking to hold on to your base and trying to secure the second-place votes of your opponents, so the strategy is not to say anything with clarity because you don't want to offend anyone," McConnell said. "All 15 of them say we gotta address public safety, and you ask them how and they say 'we'll get to that later.' If you ask them how many cops we should have they will say 800 to 1,000, but when you ask them how they are going to do it, the conversation ends." 

More revealing about Quan is the question asking voters if they would vote for Quan or someone else. Just 16 percent said they would re-elect her and 69 percent said they would replace her. Fifty-seven percent said they disapprove of her job performance and 31 percent said they approve. 

The poll shows that people think Oakland's quality of life has improved a little bit and people are a little less worried about crime, but "nobody gives Quan credit for that. Everybody is running a popularity contest and with Jean Quan, a lot of people don't like her," McConnell said. 

Just 31 percent of those polled said Oakland's quality of life has improved in the past few years, but last year that number was even lower at 16 percent. In an open ended question asking what are the major issues facing Oakland, 63 percent said crime, which is down from 70 percent last year. The economy followed crime with 37 percent and education with 29 percent. 

In general, the poll showed 44 percent of those contacted said Oakland was going in the wrong direction, while 41 percent said it was going in the right direction and 15 percent didn't know. 

Of the five candidates running for City Council in District 2, the poll has Dana King winning with 52 percent of the vote followed by Abel Guillen and Andrew Park, both with 17 percent of the ranked-choice votes. 

In a ranked-choice vote for the three candidates of the District 4 race, the poll predicts Jill Broadhurst winning with 52 percent of the vote over Annie Campbell Washington, who gets 37 percent of the vote. 

And in the District 6 election, Desley Brooks takes the seat with 57 percent of the vote over runner-up Shereda Nosakhare who gets 22 percent in a ranked-choice scenario. 

Teachers and Social Media: Trekking on Treacherous Terrain

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
Bay Area News Group

When news broke last month that Newark teacher Krista Hodges used Twitter to express her desire to stab some of her students and pour hot coffee on them, the questions arose quickly: Aren't there rules about that? Why wasn't she fired? 

The answer is that teachers who use social media are living in the Wild West: Rules are few and far between, and discipline for stepping over the line is a hit-or-miss proposition. 

In Hodges' case, she acknowledged receiving a written reprimand from her school district. After this newspaper's disclosure of her tweets, local police initiated an investigation into the matter. In other cases, teachers have been fired for much less. 

"We're not given any guidelines, really," said Carissa Weintraub, a science teacher at Ygnacio Valley High in Concord and a Twitter user. "At this point, it's sort of a free-for-all and we're learning as we go along. I've heard horror stories across the country about people losing their jobs after posting stuff on Twitter or on Facebook." 

Weintraub added that teachers need to be trained how to use social media "the same way students need to be taught how to use it." 

Newark Unified School District Interim Superintendent Tim Erwin said the district, like many others, has no policy on teacher use of social media nor does it have written guidelines for dealing with teachers who go too far. 

Eric Goldman, a law professor and co-director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University School of Law, said the drafting of policies is not easy. 

"Some school districts are making rules," Goldman said. "But it requires careful thought. The policy has to navigate between legitimate use of social media and the free speech rights of employees. School districts basically have to tell their teachers not to do anything stupid online. That's the gist of it." 

Or as Ligia Giese, a Berkeley mother of two students in public schools, put it, it's about respect. 

"I think if you're talking about your job, whether it's in public, on the Internet or in any other forum, I would like the teacher to have respect for the students," Giese said. "I couldn't pinpoint the wording of the rule, but I would expect a teacher, like any professional, would speak with a modicum of respect." 

While teachers have the protections of free speech, when they post things on the Internet, be it in blogs, emails or social media like Twitter and Facebook, they need to know they are giving administrators information about their job performance and responsibilities that they would not otherwise have, Goldman said. 

"We all joke about the ways that we could maliciously behave in our jobs," Goldman said. "That's gallows humor. Going online gets problematic. With (Hodges) it was not just a joke, it was a running theme. At some point it crosses over from being a joke to a warning sign." 

Other teachers have been fired for posting much less offensive things than what Hodges wrote. 

Just this summer, according to Goldman's Technology & Marketing Law Blog, a judge upheld the firing of a Pennsylvania teacher who used a blog to call her students "frightfully dim" and "rat like" and said the parents were "breeding a disgusting brood of insolent, unappreciative, selfish brats." 

The court said her speech was not protected because her comments were not a matter of legitimate "public concern," an oft-used standard in cases of free speech rights of public employees. 

"When it comes to government employees, we need to believe they are exercising their discretion properly because they are acting on behalf of the public," Goldman said. 

Last year a New Jersey teacher was fired for posting on Facebook that "I'm not a teacher -- I'm a warden for future criminals!" She sued, asking for her job back on free speech grounds, but was rejected. 

Here in the Bay Area, school districts are grappling with the problem regularly, but none contacted for this story have established a formal social media policy. 

However, the board of the Mt. Diablo Unified School District has written a draft policy that says teachers will be disciplined for posting "inappropriate threatening, harassing, racist, biased, derogatory, disparaging or bullying comments toward or about any student or employee." 

The Berkeley, Oakland and San Jose Unified school districts have not put anything in writing. Nor has the Fremont Union High School District, which runs schools in San Jose, Sunnyvale and Cupertino. 

"We researched this specific issue because of questions from teachers, and the best advice we can give them is use common sense and remember you are a public sector employee," said Cathy Campbell, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers. "We also encourage them to not engage in a lot of social media with their students. There are no laws or court cases that clarify exactly what they can and can't do. That's the biggest challenge right now." 

Marisa Hanson, president of the East Side Teachers Association in San Jose, said the California Teachers Association counsels teachers not to have minors as Facebook friends. 

But Newark Unified's Erwin said social media, "when used appropriately, can be a very helpful tool in communicating with students, because that is where our students are a lot of times." 

The more common social media issue, Hanson said, is students posting inappropriate comments online about a teacher -- a situation that may produce a conversation between district administrators and parents. 

In Oakland, school district spokesman Troy Flint said he hasn't heard of any teacher being disciplined for inappropriate social media use, and the district offers "very little guidance." 

"Right now, it's a hodgepodge of practices that vary from school to school," Flint said. "Creating a more universal standard that gives teachers guidance is something we should do. In the meantime, we've trusted teachers as professionals to use social media responsibly." 

Fast Food Workers Block Oakland Street, Demand Higher Wages

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
Bay Area News Group

OAKLAND -- At the risk of irritating his employer or worse, Burger King manager John Jones left his restaurant Thursday Sept. 4 and joined a group of protesters on Broadway demanding $15 an hour and a union. 

"It's a real risk for me because I have kids to feed, but I'm also not afraid to speak the truth," said Jones, who noted the nationwide movement to unionize is hampered by workers scared to speak out. 

He watched as 14 fast-food workers and their supporters in front of the Burger King where he works were arrested by Oakland police for blocking a roadway and refusing orders to move. About 100 people blocked Broadway at noon between 12th and 14th streets. 

"The majority of my co-workers don't speak English well, and the idea of walking off the job is not financially feasible," Jones said. "We're parents who are very dependent on this money." 

Before the arrests, protesters chanted, "Hold the mayo, hold the fries, make our wages supersized." 

The protesters and those arrested were part of an initial group of about 100 who gathered at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza in front of Oakland City Hall and then went to the Burger King restaurant at 13th and Broadway. 

They apparently hoped to meet with management representatives at Burger King, but the restaurant closed down. After that, they returned to the plaza, and the streets were reopened to traffic. 

Similar protests were underway across the country, with organizers hoping for walkouts in up to 100 cities. Some arrests were reported in New York. The national movement is backed by the powerful Service Employees International Union, which represents 1.9 million workers, including janitors, home health care aides and city employees. 

The movement to unionize, which started in New York in 2012, got some traction last month when the National Labor Relations Board said McDonald's could be named as a joint employer in charges filed on behalf of workers over unfair labor practices. 

That move will force McDonald's corporate brass to sit down with workers and their organizers instead of passing the responsibility to franchisees, union members said Thursday. 

McDonald's and "other industry players have tried to sidestep workers' calls, inventing a make-believe world in which responsibility for wages and working conditions falls only on the shoulders of franchisees, not the corporations that control how food is served and priced," said an SEIU California statement announcing the Oakland action. 

At the same time, a bill in the California Legislature could soon give franchisees a leg up on corporate restaurant chains by enacting stricter rules on when companies can decide to terminate their agreements. 

"The idea is that workers need to be organized because they face abuses, wage violations and health and safety violations," said Gary Jimenez, East Bay vice president of SEIU Local 1021, who was on Broadway with workers and protesters Thursday. "They haven't been able to because of corporate aggression and pushback." 

The desire to unionize fast-food workers is simple, Pamela Hall, Oakland secretary of Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, told the lunchtime crowd. 

"We need to unionize and earn $15 an hour," she said. We need to be able to afford rent in the Bay Area." 

The Associated Press contributed to this report

Free Flu Vaccines for At Least 30,000 Oakland Kids

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
Bay Area News Group

OAKLAND -- The largest ever seasonal flu vaccine program for Oakland youngsters will roll out Oct. 1, with the Alameda County health department targeting 60,000 elementary school students with free vaccines at 130 schools.

The program likely will get vaccinations to about half that number though, said Dr. Erica Pan, director of communicable disease control and prevention in the Alameda County Public Health Department.

And one of the better parts of the Shoo the Flu program, besides keeping kids and by extension older folks healthy, is that most kids won't get a shot. 

"Ninety percent of the vaccines will be the nasal spray," said Pan. "It's the preferred method for kids ages 2-8 because more and more data show it is more effective than needles." 

She said the county health department is collaborating with the California Department of Public Health and Oakland schools to offer the free vaccines in schools. All parents have to do is fill out a consent form. 

Pan said the county health department has offered free flu vaccines to Oakland youngsters before but never on this scale. Flu clinics will be set up in every Oakland Unified School District elementary school, most private schools and all the elementary schools of the Catholic Diocese of Oakland. 

Pan said the health department is targeting pre-kindergarten through fifth-graders because they are considered "super spreaders" of flu. Owing to their underdeveloped hygiene practices, kids often spread it to older folks who are more vulnerable and kids' immune systems respond very well to the vaccine. 

"The recent data show that if you vaccinate a large portion of children in a community, you are protecting the rest of the population because they are not spreading it to grandparents or caregivers or the elderly," Pan said. 

Getting the flu is no fun. Symptoms can include fever and chills, sore throat, muscle aches, fatigue, cough and headache. It is spread by people coughing, sneezing and just being in close contact with others, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

She said the health department would like to turn this large-scale vaccination program into a model and expand it to other parts of the county. The department is focusing on Oakland right now, Pan said, because it already has a good working relationship with the public schools and Oakland is a city with a large number of kids who don't have easy access to health care. 

School Bus Company A No-Show for Special Education Students

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
Bay Area News Group

OAKLAND -- The school district is apologizing to parents of special education students who were left on the side of the road during the first week of school when a new school bus vendor failed to pick them up, calling the situation "embarrassing and unacceptable." 

Buses run by First Student didn't even show up for at least 200 students on Monday Sept. 1, and an unknown number got to school late, said Oakland Unified School District spokesman Troy Flint. 

The number of students not picked up by Thursday was down to 11, Flint said, but some travel times for those who did get picked up were more than two hours. The school district had to hire an additional company, American Logistics, to run shuttle buses to pick up the students First Student could not handle. 

In a letter to parents of 1,600 special education students who are supposed to be bused to Oakland schools each day, Flint promised the problem would be corrected by Monday. 

Paulina Gonzalez, who has an autistic child in the fifth grade, said no bus came on Monday for her son. She drove him to school on Tuesday and Wednesday, and by Thursday the bus did come, but it took 2½ hours for him to arrive at school. 

"Nobody told us this was going to happen," Gonzalez said. "I don't want him to go on the bus if it's going to take 2½ hours. He can't be happy sitting on the bus that long. And some parents don't have the luxury of driving their kids to school." 

Flint said the district emailed a letter to parents late Tuesday evening and sent out automated phone messages telling them of the problem. The district will reimburse parents for costs related to driving their students to schools, Flint said. 

The school district didn't allow enough time to work out logistics of routes, buses and drivers between the time it approved the $8 million contract for First Student in May and the first day of school on Monday, Flint said. 

"The level of service we've provided to start the school year is both embarrassing and unacceptable," Flint said in a letter to parents. 

First Student won't have enough drivers to do all the routes on time until late September, Flint's letter to parents stated. 

"Although our partnership has gotten off to a rocky start, we still believe that First Student will represent a significant upgrade once we've resolved these issues," Flint's letter stated. 

Flint said the school district canceled a contract with Durham School Services after receiving numerous complaints about rude bus drivers who were consistently late and lacked sensitivity "towards students with particular needs." 

"One of the reasons we chose First Student is they have an emphasis on welcoming behavior," Flint said. "That was a concern with the previous vendor." 

Part of the problem with getting First Student buses running and on time was that many of the new drivers they are trying to hire for the Oakland routes are not passing tests that screen for good manners and sensitivity toward special education students, Flint said. 

"We're not trying to make excuses," Flint said. "This has definitely been a colossal crisis. We need kids to be in school every day. And we do apologize to those families." 

Newark High School Teacher Gets An 'F' In Social Media

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
Bay Area News Group

NEWARK -- On her Twitter feed, a Newark Memorial High School teacher described in explicit terms her desires for her students. She wanted to pour coffee on them. She wanted to stab them. Some of them, she said, "make my trigger finger itchy." 

Alerted by one of her colleagues to the tweets -- which are laced with profanity and racist remarks -- the district disciplined teacher Krista Hodges with a written reprimand, and she continued to teach. Hodges has apologized, saying she meant none of it seriously. In mid September school district officials said Hodges took a paid leave of absence. 
Newark police also started an investigation into the Tweets to determine if they were real threats.

Among her Tweets them: 

* "I already want to stab some kids. Is that bad? 19 more days," Hodges tweeted on June 23, under the name Mrs. Hodges and the handle @kree49. 

* "I am getting Starbucks for sure before school tomorrow. That way I'll be refreshed AND have something to dump on the little a-holes," said another June 23 tweet. 

* "So happy to be done w/school for 10 days, but especially to be away from the ones who truly try my patience & make my trigger finger itchy," she tweeted on April 24. 

* "The problem w/teaching summer school is I'm gonna get all the (expletive) who failed my class, 2 of whom I wish would get hit by a car," she offered on May 5. 

In an interview with this newspaper, Hodges conceded she handled herself "unprofessionally." But, she said, "Everyone knows I'm one of the most liked teachers on campus. And that's because I form meaningful and long-lasting relationships with my students." 

But the school's athletics booster club president, Stacy Kelly, whose children graduated from Newark Memorial, said the tweets are "not OK." 

"If you feel that bad about your job and your students, maybe you should find a different career," Kelly said. 

Tim Erwin, interim superintendent of Newark Unified School District, confirmed there was an investigation into Hodges' online messages. Erwin would not detail the discipline, but Hodges confirmed she received a written reprimand. 

"The only thing I can say is we were made aware of it, and we followed our policies and procedures and that investigation has concluded," Erwin said. "I cannot get into any specifics as to any steps that were taken due to the fact that it's a personnel matter." 

He added that he consulted California education law, school board policy and the teacher's union contract to guide him in deciding discipline for Hodges. 

When told about the tweets, school board President Nancy Thomas said, "I'm speechless. Oh dear." 

She said Erwin told her about the disciplinary measures Monday, nearly two months after the fact,¿ but did not tell her what the tweets said. Thomas declined to comment on whether the written reprimand was appropriate, saying the school board lets administrators handle personnel issues, unless they come before the board. 

"But I would go so far as to say we take very seriously the safety of our children," Thomas said. 

Hodges said she deleted her account and is not posting messages on Twitter or other social media. She said a colleague copied the offensive tweets and brought them to her principal. The anonymous colleague also provided the tweets to this newspaper, and Hodges confirmed they are hers. 

In an email, Hodges said she "deeply regrets" the messages and continued: "I never expected anyone would take me seriously. If I had thought for one moment that someone would read anything I said on Twitter and take me seriously, you'd better believe I would have been much more careful with what I've said." 

In a subsequent telephone interview Hodges said she "would never touch a student" and that the tweets probably came out of frustration with troubled high school students who often bring outside problems in to the classroom. 

One psychologist said that people who express threatening thoughts through social media aren't necessarily inclined toward violence. 

"When people go online, it doesn't feel like the real world; it's almost an extension of their imagination where they can say almost anything they want," said John Suler, a professor and specialist in cyberpsychology at Rider University in New Jersey. 

"It's a drama in your head that plays out online, and people lose the sense of perspective that there are actually real people listening to this and watching what I am saying." 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

New Financing Scheme Approved for Green Energy Upgrades

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
Bay Area News Group

EMERYVILLE -- When Jeff Silver decided to redo the heating and hot water systems in his Emeryville home, the $32,000 price tag seemed way out of reach. 

But through CaliforniaFIRST, a new state-sponsored program for energy efficiency financing that went live Tuesday in 17 counties, Silver was able to buy and install the equipment he needed with no money down and tack the payments on to his yearly property taxes with payments spread out over 15 years. 

In the Bay Area, the program is now available in Alameda, Marin, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Contra Costa County should join by the end of the year. 

CaliforniaFIRST allowed him to buy and install two natural gas heaters, one for his upstairs tenants and one for his unit, and an on-demand water heater. Financing can be extended to 20 years. 

"I couldn't have come up with $32,000," said Silver, who was part of an earlier pilot program, as officials announced the formal launch of CaliforniaFIRST at his home. "There was one heater for both units in this house and the temperature was controlled by the tenant upstairs, so now we each have our own heater. This is great. It allowed me to do all the upgrades at once." 

The new program is overseen by a consortium of local governments and financed by Renewable Funding of Oakland, which has $300 million to lend to homeowners at rates slightly less than a home-equity loan, or about 7 percent a year, said Cisco DeVries, CEO and co-founder of Renewable Funding, the financing company that manages CaliforniaFIRST. 

A homeowner needs a minimum of $5,000 in projects to get financing. There's a long list of allowable projects homeowners can finance through the program, but they include solar panels, electric car charging stations, drip irrigation systems, home insulation projects, fans, new doors and windows, skylights and heating and air conditioning. 

DeVries came up with the idea while working as an aide to Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates in 2008. He said he told Bates he had a crazy idea for making green energy more affordable. Bates backed him all the way. 

With DeVries' idea, Berkeley started a small program with 13 homes and got projects financed with the idea of taking the program statewide. But then the mortgage crisis hit and federal and state regulators put it on hold because they were wary of approving any kind of new home financing schemes, DeVries said. 

Since then, DeVries continued working on it, convincing 17 counties in California to join the program and working with state and federal regulators to make it happen. Some other counties were already doing similar programs, he said. 

"It's been a long time coming," DeVries said. "We just kept at it." 

The program also is available to businesses. 

State Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, on hand for the rollout Tuesday, said she is pushing a bill through the Legislature that will make it "cheaper and quicker for them." 

Bates was also at Silver's house to roll out the program. 

"It was really creative thinking on Cisco's part and it made a lot of sense," Bates said. "We cooked it up in my office. I saw it as getting financing in an affordable manner."