O’Connell closes book as schools chief

At the end of this month, the curtain comes down on Jack O'Connell's tenure as state schools chief, an eight-year run that included some of the most trying political times in state history.

O'Connell, a credentialed educator who once taught high school in Oxnard, can also look back on two decades as a member of the Legislature serving in both the Assembly and the state Senate.

Among the long list of accomplishments that includes participation in nearly every major education policy decision since the mid-1980s - O'Connell said he is most proud of his role in getting voters to approve a ballot measure that reduced the threshold for passing school bonds to 55 percent.

He noted it took some time to get it done.

I'd authored a bill for 13 straight years - it made it to the ballot on my legislative vehicle in 1993," he recalled. "We were defeated but we came back again in March, 2000 and got 49 percent of the vote - barely lost. Then in November of '00, we came back again - it was Proposition 39 - and we were successful."

O'Connell said he would like to see the same change come to the passage of parcel taxes for schools. "The logical extension is that we do that for the operational side - which could be a parcel tax measure," he explained, noting a bill by state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto.

O'Connell grew up on the central coast and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in history from California State University Fullerton and later got his teaching credential from Cal State Long Beach.

His first political post was on the Santa Barbara County School Board in 1981-82. He won election to represent the 35th State Assembly District in 1982 and served in that position until winning a seat in the state Senate in 1994.

In addition to helping spearhead the lowering of the bond threshold, O'Connell was also instrumental in getting class-size reduction money set aside for kindergarten through third grade - a program that still survives despite the state's fiscal troubles.

He created the Beginning Teacher Salary Program and authored the legislation that created the High School Exit Exam as well as a bill that extended tax deduction for donations of high technology and computers to colleges and universities.

He was chosen by leadership to head the Senate's Education Committee and to serve as Speaker Pro Tem in the Assembly.

O'Connell said he's also very proud of his efforts as state superintendent to close the achievement gap and the creation of the P-16 Council.

"That brought together business, labor, public officials, the foundation community and every aspect of the education community," he said. "Everyone needs to have a well-educated work force - we have to invest in higher education and a system that prepares students for problems that yet exist."

Under his leadership, the state also increased the number of A-G career and technical classes from 288 in 2003 when O'Connell took office to nearly 8,000 today. "We did it not by lowering the standards for UC and CSU, but by raising the standards, raising the bar for the career technical education programs," he said.

Like incoming superintendent Tom Torlakson, O'Connell had little experience managing an agency the size of the California Department of Education when he was elected. But he said the department's leadership was a good one then and Torlakson has already found that key players are ready to help him with the transition as well.

As the curtain comes down on O'Connell - but what is unclear is what his next act will bring.

"I've got no immediate plans," he said. "What I've told all my friends is - let's talk in January."

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