Former Councilman John Roberts wants to ‘drain the swamp’ at SCUSD
John Roberts really wants to serve on the board of the Sacramento City Unified School District. The dining-room table of his home, in a circa-1915 fourplex on 17th Street, is crowded with stacks of paper and old press clippings from his long, active and controversial history in the city.
The 71-year-old Roberts, recently retired from his job as a teacher at Thurgood Marshall Alternative School/Sarah Jones Continuation School, made a big splash in local politics when he was elected to the Sacramento City Council back in 1978. After a single term, during which he attracted much attention and was described (in a Sacramento Magazine article penned by a much younger Bob Sylva) as “John the Giant Killer,” Roberts left politics and returned to his life as a businessman.
“My tenure on the council was a new experience,” he said, “but I was able to give them a taste of J.R.” He realizes that he was considered an “outspoken punk” 25 years ago, but even after spending the intervening decades in business and teaching continuation school, he still has a knack for candor: “We need to be focused on what we want and quit all this bullshit.”
Likewise, there are some aspects of politics Roberts says he hasn’t missed. “I really didn’t like reading about myself in the paper,” he said. “When I proposed tearing up the [K Street] Mall, everyone thought, ‘Oh, he’s crazy.’” Roberts also proposed what he called a “historical trolley” system for Sacramento, which eventually became the current light-rail system. While other members of that city council have gone on to higher positions in political life—Bob Matsui went to Congress, and Phil Eisenberg and Lloyd Connelly went to the state Assembly—Roberts bailed on his nascent career in politics. “I wasn’t interested in any of that stuff. I just simply wanted to make my neighborhood better for me when I went home at night,” he said.
Although Roberts regrets that the K Street Mall is still, in his words, “a war zone,” he readjusted to life after politics. At various times, he has owned and operated Harlow’s, JR’s, and the Blue Parrot Bar & Grille, in addition to teaching in the Northern Sacramento School District as well as at Thurgood Marshall/Sarah Jones.
His provocative way with words, combined with a “Why the hell not?” visionary attitude, is not a typical political strategy. But then Roberts isn’t exactly a career politician. He figures he doesn’t have to watch his words, because he plans to use the office to accomplish things, rather than letting it use him to perpetuate what he calls “the broken-down political machine.” In fact, he is openly disdainful of “career politicians,” especially those who use school boards to get into politics. “They’re all sandbox politicians,” he said, “and I want them out of the sandbox. Every vote on that board should be independent.”
Independence has been a recurring theme in the life of Roberts. He cut classes at Lowell High School in San Francisco, while he found other, more intriguing ways to spend his time. “My mother was in the principal’s office all the time,” he recalled with a laugh. It wasn’t until he joined the U.S. Army in 1951 that he realized the importance of a solid education, when, as he says, the officers’ toilet was not open to him. This basic lesson in social hierarchies motivated him to enter college once he left the Army in 1953. “It took the Army for me to realize the inequities that exist for most people if you don’t have an education,” he said.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of California, Berkeley, Roberts moved to Sacramento in 1963 as an employee of Douglas Aircraft Corp., where he worked until his first teaching job in 1965.
He is openly critical of the current school board, accusing its members of using it to propel themselves into higher political positions with little attention to the job of education.
He’s especially critical of the California Administrative Services Authority (see “Sac High struggle still raging,” by Chrisanne Beckner; SN&R News; July 17, 2003), a retirement program for educators that, according to Roberts, was never properly understood by the board. “They didn’t do their homework,” he said, questioning the wisdom of the $6 million bond used to finance what he sees as a cozy arrangement that put board members in a position to make themselves financially comfortable at the public’s expense.
Roberts also believes that too much money is spent on school administration at the expense of the needs of students. “That swamp needs to be drained, and some money sent back to the classroom. I think 80 percent of the school budget should be used on students,” he said.
Roberts cites his own teaching experience as one of his strongest qualifications for this new challenge. He talks about walking into the continuation-school classroom and finding a group of young people who had been “rejected socially and academically,” only to become “the most memorable, respectful students that I’ve ever seen.” By giving students individual attention, he said, “you could see the transformation in their soul.” He proudly recalls the class that placed second in the state for mathematics.
He expressed similar feelings for his former employees at places like Harlow’s. “I respected everybody that worked for me, from the dishwasher on up,” said Roberts. “I don’t care how good the food is, if you have a dirty dish, ain’t nobody gonna eat off of it.”
Although Roberts’ candor has ruffled feathers throughout the years, his friend Anne Rudin figures he’s well-suited for the school-board position. “Everything I’ve seen him do has demonstrated a clear vision of what needed to be done and a determination to do it,” said Rudin, who became Sacramento’s first female mayor at the end of Roberts’ tenure on the city council. “He worked very hard for his district. He involved himself in helping to resolve the district’s problems, and he has continued to be involved in the improvement of the city.”