Why OUSD is Making So Many Changes to Schools

The board is about to vote on Cohort 2 of the Blueprint for Quality Schools. Cohort 1 included a merger or CUES and Futures, a merger of Elmhurst and Alliance and the closure of ROOTS and expansion of CCPA. The Superintendent's recommendations for Cohort 2 (as presented last week) are:

  • To merge Oakland SOL Middle School and Frick Impact Academy on the Frick campus.
  • To expand Melrose Leadership Academy (K-8) to the Sherman Elementary campus in order to accommodate their growth in enrollment.
  • To merge Kaiser Elementary with Sankofa Elementary on the Sankofa campus.

Though I have concerns and disagreements about approach for North Oakland (I shared at last week's meeting that I think we will be more successful merging the North Oakland schools on the Santa Fe campus and including Peralta, given that a group of Peralta parents have expressed willingness to make a merger work, while Kaiser parents are vehemently opposed), the fact is that OUSD used to have 15k more students than we do now, with nearly the same number of schools.

I didn't vote to open any of the charter schools that now exist in Oakland, but because I am part of the board, I am jointly responsible for addressing the impact of the loss of enrollment that has resulted, and this Blueprint work is part of how we are doing that.

Everyone dislikes the budget cuts, staffing shortages, and teacher strikes that have been part of OUSD's recent history, but in order to get away from that cycle of cuts and underfunding, we have to do something different.

Reducing the number of sites so that we can better resource the remaining ones is part of the strategy (which has also included layoffs in the central office, improving our facilities rental process to generate more revenue, launching Saturday school this year to recover funds from the state for missed days of school, reducing the number of contracts/consultants and soon, changing key vendors to cut costs).Everyone in the community wants to stop the cycle of dysfunction and chaos in OUSD, me especially. Doing that requires us to stop spending money we don't have, and reducing the number of school sites is part of that equation.

The other reason for the school changes is to focus on expanding access to OUSD's quality school programs, both by improving school quality (which is happening at many District 6 schools, including Burckhalter, East Oakland Pride and Futures), and expanding access to existing quality schools, which we are doing with the expansions of CCPA, MetWest, Melrose Leadership Academy, Elmhurst and others. The reason that school quality matters is that it drives enrollment (which in turn determines our budget) and allows us to better compete with the variety of options Oakland families have: charter schools, private schools and schools in other districts.

Unless we can offer a quality OUSD program in every neighborhood, we are going to stay stuck in the cycle of bleeding enrollment and losing revenue, leading to budget cuts, understaffing, strikes, etc.

The mergers and other changes we are going through are painful, but they are temporary, and necessary in achieving our goal of a stable and thriving district.

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Time to End the Strike

My statement of support for our teachers:
 
Dear Oakland School Communities,
 
Since the strike began, I’ve been asked where I stand by countless residents of District 6 and Oakland.  The answer is I stand with Oakland students, parents and educators.  I share the deep feeling of urgency about improving pay that is completely insufficient given what it costs to live in the Bay Area, and our students’ needs for a stable teacher workforce. 
 
I have spent the last two years studying our budget. Despite my fears of another state takeover, I believe we can do more to reprioritize our spending.  I support our Oakland teachers’ reasonable demands to reduce class sizes and ensure our teachers a living wage.  It is time we end this strike and bring our teachers and students back to our classrooms.
 
I remain committed to budgeting responsibly and to seeking more adequate state and federal funding for our schools.  But responsible budgeting must also mean grasping all of the flexibility possible from our existing resources.  I agree with OEA that our budget structure therefore needs to shift away from overspending on administrative costs and outside contracts and consultants. I believe re-working our current budget from that perspective is critical in reaching an agreement with OEA.  I will therefore support a budget restructuring that puts students and their educators first.
 
It is important to state, the school closures and consolidations called for in Board Policy 6006 have so far been implemented with insufficient community engagement or feedback.  That was a mistake.  One of my key goals as a Board Director has been to expand democratic and participatory engagement in our schools.  We missed the mark. 
 
I look forward to working with my colleagues and the Oakland community to build more engagement around future choices in our district and support a pause on additional school closures until that happens. Although AB 1840 lists school closures as one strategy to reach fiscal sustainability, it is not required. We need to be more creative.
 
The support of our entire Oakland community in fighting for Oakland schools has been inspirational. I am grateful that our teachers, principals and community understand that we need to both seek additional resources and better use the resources we have, so that California is not in the bottom five states for per-student funding.
 
I plan to work together with OEA and other community organizations to win reform of Prop 13 next year, so that we can better staff our schools and better compensate our teachers.
There is no question we face challenges ahead.  For my part, I will do everything I can do to support OUSD meeting our community’s reasonable demands.
 
Shanthi Gonzales
OUSD School Board Director, District 6
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Update on Blueprint for Quality Schools

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Me with parents and members of the design team for Oakland Sol Middle School. Katherine Carter, right, is the Principal.

At the November 14 board meeting, the board will be taking up the second cohort of Blueprint schools. Though I knew the risks of embarking on a process to rethink our school offerings given OUSD's history, I was supportive when we kicked off this work because too many students aren't getting the education they deserve, and because the excessive number of schools is leading to underinvestment in each student (too much is spent maintaining an excessive number of underenrolled facilities and unnecessary administration costs). If we can focus on fewer schools, we can invest more in each of them.

It was my hope when we started this process that the focus would be on ensuring that students' needs would be the focus; that we would ensure students will benefit from any changes that are made, and that we do everything possible to mitigate harm to students, families and staff.  What this means to me is involving school communities in the decisions affecting them, going slow enough to mitigate the impact on students and staff, giving schools adequate time for planning, avoiding closing schools down suddenly, ensuring that we don’t accidentally destroy our quality schools by expanding too hastily, and ensuring that we don’t facilitate charter school growth by giving vacated facilities to charter schools. Most importantly, it means making decisions that are centered on expanding opportunities for students.

Having spent the last year learning from staff and parents who were affected by the last round of school closures at three different community forums, if we don't take the steps above, we will be in for disaster. This is because there is no way to know whether these changes will lead to cost savings for the district. That is why we have to treat school mergers and consolidations as a long-term process focused on increasing and expanding our quality schools. It is not a reliable tool for any short-term budget reductions.

I am sad to report that I am hearing that the direction the Superintendent is heading with the Blueprint is going to be much more aggressive than I am comfortable with, and I do not have confidence in the plan that is coming to the board. I support our Superintendent, but I do NOT support the plan for the next three years, as it stands today. I am hopeful that working with the Superintendent and fellow board members, that we can still get a plan that addresses the fiscal reality but also keeps students' needs at the center.

It is inherently risky to make large-scale changes to our schools, but I think that is our job, if students aren’t getting the education they deserve. However, how we do it is critically important. Those who were around during the last round of school closures under Tony Smith may recall that only five schools were slated for closure, and two of them ended up being converted to charter schools, and we lost 1500 students the following year, making our financial situation even worse. This could very easily happen again, if we are hasty and believe that we can address the budget crisis with school closures.

No doubt some members of the board and the staff will say that we must go this fast in order to be eligible to receive the AB 1840 allocation to help us transition over three years to a more sustainable budget picture. Having spent over two hours questioning officials from the Alameda County Office of Education, FCMAT, the state Department of Education and our State Trustee on October 24, I disagree that there is any prescribed number of schools they are expecting us to close or merge.

They were very clear that their expectations are based on the commitments that we ourselves make as a board (not that they assign to us), which means that we can decide the right pace for our district, our students and our staff. Then, once we set a reasonable pace that is good for our students, we must stick to that pace and meet our commitments.

There is still time to slow our roll as a district, and refocus on what is right for our kids (increasing quality). The plans that we adopt now are what we will be held accountable to by the county and the state, so let’s adopt a plan that moves us toward sustainability while minimizing disruption of our students and staff, and most importantly, ensuring that students will be made better off by any changes we make. I cannot support disruptive change unless there is compelling evidence that students will get a better school as a result.

If we can make changes that focus on long-term expansion of access to quality options, that will drive increased enrollment, which is the real fix for our budget woes. A short-term focus is only going to make things worse.

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Candidates I'm Excited About

This year we have an exciting crop of candidates running in Oakland. I am encouraged by these candidates, who all share my commitment to do better for Oakland's working families, who are suffering from the high cost of housing, growing economic inequality and homelessness, and an inadequate response from our city. Only new leadership is going to change the fundamental lack of urgency that we have observed. I've shared a little below about what inspires me about each of these candidates, and why I am supporting them. 

Clarissa Doutherd is running for School Board in District 6.

Clarissa Doutherd is an OUSD parent, a seasoned parent leader and the Executive Director of Parent Voices Oakland, which organizes parents around the issue of expanding access to affordable child care. I met Clarissa when I first joined the OUSD board; she reached out to help me learn about OUSD's role in early childhood education, and what we could be doing better. Partly because of her advocacy, we have expanded our slots for early education in OUSD, and have filled the existing slots that we had, giving more families access to this critical resource.

Clarissa is a special education parent, and an expert on early childhood. This is expertise that our board critically needs, and she has relationships with our families that I think our board would greatly benefit from, because most of us aren't working with OUSD families on a daily basis. She is committed to public schools for the common good, and like me, she believes that we have to make our district schools stronger, rather than abandoning public schools in favor of alternatives that remove schools from democratic control. You can learn more about Clarissa here.

Sheng Thao is running for City Council in District 4.

If elected, Sheng Thao would be the only renter on the Oakland City Council, in a city where 60% of the residents are renters. We need leadership that is reflective of our city, and I believe that is what Sheng represents. Sheng is currently Chief of Staff for Councilmember At-Large Rebecca Kaplan, and is a seasoned policy leader after several city budget cycles. Her priorities are to address our homelessness and affordable housing crises, which she has personal familiarity with, having been homeless after leaving an abusive relationship. Sheng would bring a badly-needed perspective to the City Council, and I am excited to see the change that her leadership could bring to our city. 

Sheng has also agreed, if elected, to collaborate with OUSD around the ways the city can support our efforts better, rather than making decisions that affect us without consulting with us. This would be a major win for OUSD students.

 

Cat Brooks is running for Oakland Mayor.

While Cat is known for her work around police accountability, her platform for her Mayoral campaign was developed in collaboration with community, and is focused on affordable housing, building a more fair economy and good jobs, real public safety and collaboration with OUSD to improve education in Oakland. Her campaign is a response to the lack of urgency we have all witnessed in responding to the growing inequality in our city - the growth in homelessness and the way that growing wealth has not benefitted all Oakland residents. 

I believe that Cat is our best shot at addressing these problems. She has also agreed, if elected, to work with OUSD in real partnership around the ways the city can support our efforts better, rather than making decisions that affect us without consulting with us. This would be a major win for OUSD students.

Nikki Fortunato Bas is running for City Council in District 2. I have dual-endorsed Nikki and current Councilmember Abel Guillen. 

Like me, Nikki's background is in the labor movement. She was a garment worker organizer for many years, before going on to work for regional and national organizations on the issue of worker rights. She has served Oakland through campaigns to raise the minimum wage and ensure good jobs as the Oakland Army Base is redeveloped. In her platform, Nikki has prioritized affordable housing and addressing homelessness and tackling the growing inequality in Oakland, and I think we would be very lucky to have her on our City Council. Like Cat and Sheng, Nikki has agreed if elected, to work in closer collaboration with OUSD to support our work with students.

Our city deserves leaders who have fresh ideas and deeper urgency about the affordable housing crisis and growing inequality in our city, and I think these candidates have a lot to offer and I am proud to support them.

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My Vision for OUSD's Fiscal Future

A parent asked me at a recent house party about my vision for OUSD's future fiscal vitality, and so that is what this blog is about. Parents, principals and teachers are fed up with budget cuts and of having to scramble to adapt to them, and as a board member, I am tired of living like this as well. No one decides to run for School Board so that they can reduce funding for schools.

So I am going to lay out some of the puzzle pieces that I see as being critical to us getting out of the current cycle we are in, and I think it's also important for parents and community to understand that much (but by no means all) of what is happening in Oakland is a result of state-level decisions, and therefore state-level remedies are required. I look forward to working with all of you to win the structural change we need to better resource our schools.

My Vision for OUSD's Fiscal Future Involves:

1. More funding per student. As this article from EdSource details, prior to 1978's passage of Prop 13, California had some of the best-resourced public schools in the country. Over time, we have declined to one of the worst, when you factor in the cost of living in California. States like New York, Alaska and New Jersey literally have twice the funding per student that we have, which allows them to have better-paid teachers, lower class sizes, more counselors, nurses, more enrichment and simple things like transportation to school, which Oakland does not offer.

In 2020, we will have an opportunity to vote to approve the Schools and Local Communities Funding Act, which will reform Prop 13 to protect homeowners but require corporations to pay their fair share of property taxes to support schools and other public services. Passage will bring a lot of new, ongoing revenue to OUSD and other school districts, but still will not restore funding to the level it was at prior to the passage of Prop 13. Ultimately, we need to build the political will in our state to adequately fund public education, whether that be through higher income taxes or some other source of revenue. This is the most important investment we make as a state, and we need to fund it like it is.

I helped to collect signatures for the Schools and Local Communities Funding Act, and I look forward to working for its passage, and voting for it in 2020.

2. A change in the funding formula for Special Education. Local school districts currently pay 62% of the costs of providing Special Education services, a proportion that has shifted increasingly onto districts over time, and shows no signs of stopping. However, while the state recognizes that the number of students requiring Special Education services is growing, and that the severity of disabilities is growing, the state has not provided additional funding to reflect this. What is more, we are funded based on total enrollment, not on the number of students with disabilities.

This is done to remove incentives to overidentify students as having disabilities, but in our context of declining enrollment, it has been disastrous. We are getting a double hit in OUSD because at the same time that our enrollment is declining, our number of Special Education students is going up, because charter schools aren't serving their fair share of students with disabilities. A revised funding formula must account for the presence of charter schools in districts like Oakland, because it is well known that they do not serve special education students of the same severity, and usually, not in the same numbers either.

A revised formula must fund according to the number of SPED students (nearly 20% in OUSD), not the overall number of students, and account for the severity of disabilities, which varies across the state. In Oakland, we have a high rate of more severe disabilities like emotional disturbance, intellectual disability, autism and multiple disabilities.

My own feeling is that the current formula basically forces districts like OUSD, where there has been unchecked growth in charter schools, to subsidize charter schools that are refusing to serve high-needs students. It is very unfair for our high-needs students to be forced to live with less in order to subsidize the lower-needs students in charter schools. A revised funding formula for SPED could help to compensate for this.

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This graph from PPIC shows how funding for SPED has fallen even as the number of students with disabilities has increased.

If you want to know more about how Special Education is funded in California, here is a good primer from the Public Policy Institute of CA.

3. Relief on the pensions front. Oakland and many other school districts and cities statewide are reeling from a state-imposed increase in pension fund contributions, from 8% to 22% of payroll, with no corresponding increase in funding to pay for the required increases. We must make reductions in other areas in order to be able to pay for the increased pension fund contributions.

The truth is that the state has a huge surplus right now, and some of that could be used to provide relief to local governments, and reduce the impact of the increase in pension contributions.

4. Local Control Over Charter School Growth. We need to be able to decide (without the possibility of being overturned at the county and state levels) how many schools, where, and of what type, will exist in Oakland. The state law does not allow that right now, and it is another factor undermining our fiscal vitality. Changing the state law to allow for real local control will allow us to focus on improving our schools without constant shocks to enrollment (and revenue) caused by new schools opening.


Those are some of the things that need to change at the state level. Now there are things that we need to do differently in OUSD to ensure a more stable and vibrant fiscal future.

5. Improving Our Schools. Enrollment is the key driver of revenue for any school district, and the key driver of enrollment is school quality. This is the goal of the Blueprint for Quality Schools. I understand that people are fearful about the possibility of school closures, but our responsibility is to educate students. We need to expand or create schools that are doing that well, and phase out or merge schools that aren't, so that students get the education they deserve. That is the long-term way that we are going to bring enrollment, and thus fiscal vitality, back to OUSD. Our plan is a long-term plan that we expect will take 10-15 years to fully implement, and the reason to go slowly is to mitigate negative impacts on students, families and teachers.

6. Building Our Reserves. This one is really very simple. Things happen unexpectedly, and we need to have a reserve fund in order to be able to respond timely. One example was finding lead in some of our older buildings' fixtures and faucets this year. We don't have a reserve fund, and have not had a routine maintenance fund since I've been on the board. Therefore responding took longer than it should have. We have passed a Fiscal Reserves policy with the goal of building a reserve of 10%, however, it is going to take a great deal of discipline to monitor and enforce this policy. Policy monitoring and enforcement are not strengths of our board.

7. Long-Term Planning. As long as I have been on the board, OUSD has budgeted in one-year cycles, and staff have provided very little by way of forecasting to the board. This has not served us well, as it has neglected long-term planning. We need to know and plan for the expiration of union contracts and parcel taxes, replacement of capital purchases like computers, the expenses of elections and other major purchases. The need for more long term planning came up recently during a board discussion of text book replacement. This is something we have not planned for, which is why so many of our textbooks are in shambles. I will be bringing the board a Long-Term Planning Policy for consideration this year. If it is adopted, it will also require discipline to enforce.

8. Improving Internal Controls. We have a very capable new Chief Business Officer, and our outgoing Interim CFO has provided us with a long list of avenues to pursue to improve internal controls so that we can better forecast revenue and especially expenses, and prevent misuse of resources and abuse of poor internal controls, for example, the hiring of people that were not budgeted for. We also have a new financial system which should make it easier to prevent errors, but ultimately, this is about creating a culture of fiscal discipline, which doesn't exist yet.

We can't say yes to things if we don't have the money, and this message has to come from the top, from the School Board and the Superintendent, from Network Superintendents to Principals. Ultimately we all want to provide students with what they need, but saying yes to something always means saying no to something else, and in this case, what we have said no to is fiscal sustainability, and the certainty that we will be able to maintain local control of the School District.

9. Being Relentless About Getting Good Value for Student Money. One of the things that has been persistently alarming and frustrating for me on the board has been the cavalier way that OUSD uses large sums of money without sufficient evidence that we are getting a good value for students. There is no way of knowing because large sums are regularly awarded without competitive bidding, without information about whether previous contracts were executed faithfully (whether deliverables were completed), and without any evidence that students are benefitting from any given investment. Since our primary mission is student achievement, this (the impact on student achievement) should be the focus of all our investments, and while this will feel new and threatening to some in OUSD, it is necessary, whether we are in a time of resource scarcity or not.

10. Board and Staff Capacity Building. We have underinvested in the capacity of both the board and the staff to capably oversee and manage the budget of the district. Board members are essentially volunteers, with no paid staff, but we are ultimately responsible for the fiscal stability of the district. This takes time and training. Bringing back a standing Budget & Finance Committee is an important step, and I am definitely more skilled in budget monitoring and oversight than I was when I joined the board, but we need to invest more in training board members and staff in this area, especially given our high rate of staff turnover, especially on the Finance team.

11. Narrowing Our Focus and Stabilizing Our Leadership. Having too many priorities is the same as having no priorities, and I would argue that this is our chief problem in OUSD. If you were to ask 12 different OUSD staff what the focus of the district is, you would get 12 different answers. In successful school districts, everyone can tell you what the priorities are.

This is partly due to the frequent leadership changes in OUSD, but it's also related to the issue I mentioned earlier about saying yes to everything. We need to move from being like McDonald's (having an extensive menu with a lot of unappealing options) to In-N-Out, where we do just a few things, but we do them really well. In my vision, we will have fewer central departments, fewer schools, but more focus and quality as a result.

We also need stable leadership, so that we can sustain our focus on our priorities, but also to create a desperately-needed culture of accountability. The frequent leadership changes in OUSD have led to a culture in which some staff have become accustomed to doing their own thing, whether in alignment with district goals or not, and whether aligned to better outcomes for students or not. When staff believe that another Superintendent will be along any day now, there is no accountability and little incentive to conduct themselves in the best interest of students.

So there you have it. Fiscal vitality for OUSD will require some major changes at the state level, and a lot of focus and stability in OUSD, on the part of the board and the Superintendent and her staff. It's a tall order, but I'm up for it, if re-elected.

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Four More Years

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With Nidya Baez at Fremont High's Womens' Empowerment Rally for students to celebrate Womens' History Month

Over the last four years, I have spent my time doing three main things.

1. I have built my capacity to oversee OUSD's budget and finances. I now have a strong understanding of our problems and concrete ideas about how to solve them, and both the courage and the familiarity with the tools now, to take action on those ideas. A few examples include:

  • I authored an Enrollment Impact Analysis policy that requires the board to be given data that details the revenue impact of decisions the board is asked to make, such as authorizing a new charter school, closing a school, co-locating a charter school via Prop 39, etc. Since enrollment is the primary driver of revenue for OUSD, this tool is helping us to make better financial decisions on behalf of the district.
  • I authored a resolution requiring staff to devise a plan for stabilizing OUSD's enrollment, which has been falling steadily for nearly 20 years. A lack of planning and implementation tracking is one of the key issues facing our district. This plan called for (among other things) moving to online registration, which is already boosting the number of families participating in our enrollment system, which should lead to increased enrollment. 
  • Through serving on (and now chairing) the Budget & Finance Committee, I am bringing forth policies that will help to stabilize our district financially, such as the Fiscal Reserves policy that requires us to rebuild our reserve, an insurance policy against future budget cuts, and a Structurally Balanced Budget policy, which stops the long-term, irresponsible practice of using one-time funds to hire staff and commit to long-term expenses.
  • Building the capacity of the entire board when it comes to fiscal oversight was identified as an issue in the FCMAT report. There is very little investment of time or money in this currently. I believe that we need a staff member to support the board's efforts in this area, but the board voted down the position I proposed, so I have a resolution before the board now requiring the Superintendent to come up with a plan for building the board's skills in this area. I have built my skills through meeting frequently with mentors, through serving on the Budget & Finance Committee and through training from the Government Finance Officers Association, but this has been on my own initiative, not through training provided to the board as a whole. I hope to change this by dedicating more staff and board time to intentional skill-building around fiscal oversight.

2. I have educated myself about our district and built strong relationships at every level. I know that the things that have happened before I was on the School Board created the culture and practices in the district today, and are therefore important for me to understand. I also know that strong relationships, even with people that I disagree with, are critical to the success of the school district. Therefore I have spent a lot of my time focused on these things. Some examples:

  • I hold monthly community forums that bring in (mostly) Oakland experts to share their expertise on issues such as Special Education, Family Engagement, Improving Attendance, the Impact of Common Enrollment Systems in Other School Districts, Learning from the Small Schools Movement, Oakland's History with School Closures, and School Mergers, What we Can Do about Teacher Turnover, and lots more. These sessions have helped me to understand our challenges, and also ways to address them, and have given voice to parents, students, teachers and other staff, folks who often feel left out of district decision-making.
  • I hold monthly office hours to make myself available to constituents to talk about any education issue they want to, with no fixed agenda or time limits.
  • I meet regularly with teachers, administrators, principals, parents, students and community members, just to build the relationship, understand their hopes for our district, what brought them into education, and how we can work together to do better for our students. These relationships provide me with information that I would not otherwise get about how things are working in the district, and allow me to better serve my constituents. 

3. I have organized to get more people involved in the school district, and to protect the common good, our democratically-controlled schools. I believe in democratically-controlled schools, but the system only works if people are asked to participate, and have sufficient information to participate. I am proud that much of my time has been spent organizing with parents and others to improve the quality of our schools, as well as to preserve the common good in our public schools. Some examples include: 

  • Organizing with parents and community members to prevent Frick Middle School from being turned over to a charter school. These efforts not only kept Frick under democratic control, because of the redesign process and new leadership, the students are getting a better education now, too. 
  • Organizing with parents, teachers and community to prevent our previous Superintendent from creating a common enrollment system between OUSD and charter schools. In other school districts, this has led to rapid declines in enrollment in the public school system, causing serious financial problems for public school districts like Newark, NJ. 
  • Organizing with special education parents and teachers for a better experience for SPED students and the teachers who teach them. This is a heavier lift because the challenges in just filling all of our SPED teaching positions and addressing the rapid growth in the SPED population make it hard to find time to reflect, plan and organize for change, but we are slowing doing it anyway.
  • Organizing with OUSD parents for more equitable schools. Most of the parent organizing at the district level in OUSD has historically not focused on middle class parents, who have instead tended to focus on the needs of their own students or schools. Several of these parents reached out to me about their desire to work together across the district for more equity between and inside schools, and we have been working for nearly two years now on efforts to improve equity and integration within OUSD. Our next event is on June 2 - stay tuned!
  • Organizing with teachers and administrators for greater charter accountability and to prevent the growth of charter schools. For two years now, I have been organizing with Educators for Democratic Schools for change to the state laws that govern charter schools to foster more local control and greater accountability, and to build the political will locally to protect and preserve democratic control of schools in Oakland. This work is important because the growth of charter schools negatively impacts OUSD's financial ability to serve our students, and undermines the common good (one system responsible for serving all students equitably). This work is starting to bear fruit, which is exciting. 

There are things I wish I had done differently for sure, but all in all, I'm proud of how I have used my first term on the board, and believe that I am poised to be much more effective now that I know the ropes (writing and monitoring board policies, attempting to amend wasteful contracts that come before the board, understanding our budget and the drivers of revenue). I hope District 6 voters and others will support my campaign for four more years.

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Yes on Measure D!

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With library advocates from across the city, the night the City Council voted to place Measure D on the ballot. A great night, many years in the making!

On June 5, Oakland voters will have the opportunity to expand library hours and improve job quality for Oakland's librarians, by voting yes on Measure D. I am supporting this ballot measure (and serving on the committee) because Oakland families and youth depend on libraries, just like my family did when I was a kid.

One of the ways that the city balanced the budget during the recession was to cut library hours, get rid of the Bookmobile and to reduce the number of library staff with full time jobs and benefits. What this means is that now, the library is only open one evening per week, and only 5 days/week everywhere except the Main branch.

This means less time for Baby Bounce for kids (see photo below), less time for community groups to meet, less time for Lawyers in the Library, Free Tax Prep, and less time for other cool things like kids reading to certified therapy dogs. It means kids don't have the same access to literacy materials and help with homework assignments that I did as a kid, and fewer safe spaces to hang out after school and during the summer.

It also means that as the cost of living has increased in our city, we are having a harder time retaining library staff because OPL is not offering the same benefits and job security as other library systems in the East Bay. We have to do better to provide good jobs, so that our dedicated staff can afford to live in Oakland.

Oakland is an amazing city in so many ways, but a world class city needs world class services. It's why I ran for School Board and why I am serving on the Yes on Measure D committee - our youth and families need and deserve world class libraries. I hope you will join me in supporting Measure D.

You can support Measure D by voting yes on June 5, and by contributing online here to help us get the word out to Oakland voters, to buy lawn signs and pay campaign staff.

Yes on Measure D for Oakland libraries!

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Helen Bloch is the Childrens' Librarian at the Main Branch downtown. This photo is from a packed Baby Bounce, on a recent rainy Monday.
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Learnings from Oakland's History with School Mergers & Consolidations

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Attendees were able to learn from the experience of (right to left) Matin Abdel-Qawi, Beverly Jarrett, Nidya Baez and Alison McDonald

Last week, I held a community forum that was focused on learning from OUSD's history with school mergers and consolidations. The last round of school closures happened in 2011, and the speakers at the forum were all teachers or administrators at the time of the last closures. Matin Abdel-Qawi was Principal of EOSA, a small school on the Castlemont campus, and is now Principal at Oakland High. Beverly Jarrett was the Principal at Far West, which was merged into Oakland Tech. Nidya Baez was a teacher at Youth Empowerment School, and then came to Fremont as the small schools were merged back together. Alison McDonald was a Network Superintendent at the time.

What was most striking for me was, all these years later, there was still so much hurt and pain on the part of the leaders whose schools were merged together. I learned that school mergers are never easy, and that there is a lot that we can and must do differently as we try to create sustainably-sized schools, and eventually, fewer schools overall.

Here are some of the things that our speakers shared:

  • Transparency was a major issue that all of our speakers mentioned. Every one of the leaders on the panel, including Alison McDonald, who worked in the central office, was taken by surprise because they were not involved in any planning or decision-making process about consolidating their school with another school or schools. They were also given different reasons for why they were being merged together, with some being told it was performance-related and others being told it was budgetary. However, some of the schools that were showing remarkable progress in student achievement were the ones that were told that the merger was related to poor performance.
  • There was little or no voice for students or for staff in the decision-making, or the planning for the mergers, as well as little to no effort to engage or communicate what was going on, so people felt that something was being done to them rather than with them.
  • There was too much haste, and not enough time for staff and students to grieve, process and plan for wrapping up and celebrating their separate schools while planning for a new, combined school. As a result, students and staff felt disrespected and dishonored.
  • The experience that families and staff had led many people to leave OUSD - several schools left to become charter schools, many families left for the charter sector and we lost many dedicated staff and administrators. The schools that became charter schools only worsened OUSD's financial position, as we lost both control of our facilities as well as the state revenue that students bring to the district.
  • We need to think through all the logistical and operational implications of merging schools. There were difficulties for students in getting transcripts for schools that had been consolidated, and they were left feeling that were was no plan to ensure a smooth transition for them.
  • We have to support principals better going forward. Principals all remarked that once they were informed that their schools were being merged together, they were left alone to figure out how to do it. There was little to no support from the district, and no additional resources made available to them during the transition.
  • It was especially disruptive when the small high schools on the Fremont campus were merged back together because all teachers were forced to reapply for their jobs. This exacerbated the disruption and made it harder to rebuild, because the school was not able to hold onto many of its experienced teachers.
  • It does not work to forge ahead with a merger without a strong leader in place to see the work through. This made difficult situations even harder, because many of the reconsolidated schools floundered for years without stable leadership when long-term leaders left during or after mergers were finalized.
  • Finally, all of our speakers reported that there was a lot of planning, intention, celebration and fanfare when their schools were launched, but nothing to mark when their schools were consolidated. The lack of recognition of their work and school communities made the situation even more painful.

Any process of change this complex is emotional, and messy, but hearing about the experience of our staff helped me to reflect on what we must do differently going forward. Already we are going slowly and being more more deliberate about community engagement, and making plans to help schools resource planning and transition.

I have the same fears that many community members do about the harm that this process may cause, but I am also afraid of the alternative, which we have been living with for many years - students without nurses, PE, music, dance, counseling, sports, libraries, etc. Having so many schools forces us to spread our resources incredibly thin, and many students are not getting what they need. If we can concentrate more resources in fewer sites, I believe we can do better for our students.

I have heard many community members say that we need to spend less in central, which is true, and we have begun, and will continue to, restructure the central office to spend more in schools in the years to come, but this is not going to be sufficient. We can no longer afford to operate so many underenrolled schools.

I will continue to create spaces to discuss these issues with community members, and the next opportunity will be on March 27 at 5:30 pm at Acorn Woodland Elementary School (1025 81st Ave), where Director Harris and I will be talking about with parents and others from elementary schools in Districts 6 & 7, and hearing community ideas about how to create a more sustainable, higher quality mix of elementary schools in Deep East. I invite you to be part of the conversation.

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My Accomplishments During my First Term on the School Board

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Robert and Kweko are students and organizers with Californians for Justice, and consistent collaborators with me in my work on the board.

Well, that was fast. I can't believe I am already in my fourth year on the board. Time seems to pass in quadruple time when you are in elected office. It has been a tumultuous first term, but even with all the drama, there is a lot that I am really proud of having done in my first term. I am going to use this blog post to share some of those things.

  • I am super proud of all the venues I have created for learning about the issues facing OUSD, both to educate myself, but also the community. Just about every month, I host some kind of community engagement meeting, and they have focused on everything from how to communicate about public education to how to inform OUSD's budget, special education, the impact of common enrollment in other school districts, improving teacher retention and the needs of newcomer students to what we can learn from OUSD's past efforts to redesign schools. This month we'll be learning about OUSD's previous efforts to merge schools together. In addition to these community meetings, I hold monthly office hours and also send out a newsletter to keep constituents informed. 
  • In the planning for most of my events, I have collaborated with students, parents, teachers and the Oakland community, (and also in writing legislation and other board work I have led), which has meant that more voices are being included in formulating the agenda and policy solutions for the school district. As an example, CFJ student organizers have participated in numerous conferences and programs I have organized, on the Superintendent Search, Taking Action on Attendance and Organizing for Equity and Integration. I wish that School Board members had staff because that would make collaboration easier. With just me, I don't always have the capacity to collaborate with community as much as I would like to. However, I am proud of the efforts I have made to bring a broader range of experts to lend their experiences and ideas to my work on the board.
  • I have supported parent and community groups in their organizing around many issues including special education, creating a more equitable school district, preventing the growth of charter schools and trying to win a more equitable legal framework at the state level to govern charter schools. This level of deep collaboration is slow and time-consuming work, but over time I believe that developing new leaders will pay dividends for our public schools. I see this as an important part of my role, helping to channel the energy and commitment of people who are passionate about public education, and I'm really proud of creating more avenues for people to become involved.

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This forum in January was focused on collecting input from District 6 parents and educators on some of the Blueprint options for District 6.
  • It may not look like it from the outside, but we have made progress during the time I have been on the board to improve OUSD's finances in some important ways. For example, I was a proponent of bringing back board committees, which were abandoned prior to my time on the board. Bringing back the Budget & Finance Committee (which I currently chair) has been critical to the efforts of the board to provide adequate oversight to OUSD's budget, and to ensuring that we have adequate information about OUSD's finances. Through the committee, we moved a Financial Reserves policy that will help us to rebuild OUSD's reserves and avoid state receivership, and we are more closely monitoring the work of the staff to change the practices that have led to overspending and having to make severe mid-year cuts. This is another area where our work would be much more manageable if we had staff to support the board.
  • I have also consistently advocated for changing our practices around the use of no-bid contracting and our consent agenda, and have voted down millions of dollars in wasteful contracts. While many in the community are still upset about the mid-year budget cuts in 17-18 and 18-19, I have worked hard to center students and equity in these decisions and I was able to get a better deal for our low-wage employees and our students. It has been frustrating to be part of a collective body that often does not vote the way I would like them to, but I am still proud of the leadership I have provided to bring more fairness, even if I have not always prevailed. I also believe that, over time, my willingness to vote against the budget and other staff recommendations has challenged the culture of complacency on the board (rubber stamping) and led to a much-needed, emerging willingness to provide more vigilant oversight.

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Me with some of Skyline's teachers and administrators. I attended a conference with them on strengthening the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program at Skyline.
  • I am proud of building relationships with principals, teachers and parents in District 6 and around the city. It is only through these relationships that I can learn about the site-level impact of the decisions that we make at the board level, and also how I verify whether the information we receive from central staff about what is happening in schools is accurate. These relationships (and trust) take a long time to develop, but are the only way to really get a sense of what is happening in our schools and what we need to do to build stronger schools. This is one of the most important things for me to do as a board member and also one of the hardest since there is no deadline to do it. I still have some principals that I don't know well, but I'm working on it. As almost everyone knows, it is not easy to get time on a principal's calendar.
  • I am also proud that while I am very clear about my values and who I am working for as a board member, I try to be willing to talk with anyone in our city who wants to talk with me. Oakland has many groups who disagree about education policy (among other issues) and don't speak with one another. I have reached the conclusion during my time on the board that this approach is not very helpful. I think it is possible to remain committed to my beliefs and still be willing to hear what others have to say, even if I disagree with them. We all love this city and have to be able to talk with one another.

My role on the School Board takes a lot of time. What constituents see at board and committee meetings is only a small fraction of what we do. We meet with staff, constituents, principals, parents, attend school events, review board meeting materials, and those of us who chair committees also write materials for board agendas, we do research and write legislation, plan and convene community meetings, respond to parent complaints, attend professional development training, and some of us are involved in national or regional bodies concerned with education, in my case, the Network for Public Education and Local Progress, a national body of progressive elected officials with a School Board caucus. 

The expectations that the community has of its School Board members are justifiable; we are entrusted with massive amounts of public money and the education of Oakland's children. But this role would be more manageable if it were my paid job, or if I had staff to help with the workload, but I don't. So while there is more that I'd like to do, I am often not able to do this job to the standard that I'd like to.

For example, I would like to collaborate with teachers, parents, students and community in the planning for all that I do. I'd like to become an expert on budget and finance, and am trying, by participating in Government Finance Officers Association conferences and spending more time with finance staff and by serving on the Budget & Finance Committee, but it's not the same as getting intensive training in finance. I'd like to be able to take on all the things that community members request of me, but it's not realistic given my other roles as the breadwinner for my family, the daughter of a frail father, a spouse, sister and friend. I constantly have to prioritize, and the choices about what falls off my plate are often hard ones.

But I am still proud of what I've spent my first three years on the board doing, even given all the other demands on my time. I hope to continue serving District 6 families for another term. 

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My Hardest Vote to Date

The December vote on mid-year budget cuts was probably the hardest vote I've made since I've been on the board. I ran for the School Board in order to make our school district and schools stronger, not to inflict budget cuts on schools and the district. I wanted to share my reasoning and some reflections with constituents because I know my vote in particular was disappointing and surprising for many people.

At the end of the day, my vote was based on my belief that what happened to our school district during the period of state receivership was overwhelmingly negative for OUSD: the rapid growth of charter schools, the hasty, careless and disrespectful closure of schools and the exclusion of Oaklanders from decision-making about our schools, which still affects the culture of our district to this day. Worst of all, the district was in no better shape when we regained local control than when the state took over. The problems identified by FCMAT are the same problems we face today, only now we have to pay the state back for the loan they gave us at that time.

I believed (and still believe) that the mid-year cuts that I joined the majority of the board in voting to authorize were necessary to avoid putting our students, staff and families through that experience again. In addition to that, I had several other considerations to weigh.

OUSD has a new Superintendent, and the mid-year cuts were the first big thing she has had to do since becoming Superintendent. Several long-time observers have told me, and I have felt myself, that OUSD is poised for major progress for the first time in a long time. We have a Superintendent with a long-term, demonstrated commitment to Oakland, a board with experience under their belt, and a shared focus between the board and the Superintendent on shifting our budget to meet our priorities for student achievement. I had to weigh my desire to show support for her in this first big decision against my desire to avoid cuts to schools.

The Superintendent made several changes to the composition of the cuts to address several concerns that I shared with her and with constituents: a concern about an inequitable distribution of layoffs (the original list would have left managers and executives largely untouched while greatly impacting lower-paid workers), a concern about the lack of connection between our goals for student achievement and who was initially slated to be laid off, and a concern about a maldistribution of cuts to schools relative to the central office. The final iteration of the cuts was better in all of these areas, even if it was not the way the cuts would look if it were only me that had to vote to approve it. I had to weigh whether to support a deal that was much improved because my input around equity and "students first" was meaningfully reflected in the final version.

Every document and decision approved by the board is the result of compromise. I provided input to the Superintendent and so did my colleagues and hundreds of community members as well. On the final list of cuts and layoffs were several positions and cuts that I personally object to, for instance I hoped all along that cuts to schools would be avoidable, and some of the central positions are positions (and people) that I like and support. I had to weigh whether to support the deal, knowing that each of my colleagues has their own set of people/positions they care about, and different ideas about the contributions of central staff relative to school site staff, and whether my objections might have tanked the entire package of cuts. It is not easy for a Superintendent to come up with a compromise package the entire board can live with.

Finally, I felt that we have to start operating differently as a district. The culture of our district has been to avoid the hard decisions, to put them off for another day, and the end result of that has been chaos: two subsequent years of mid-year budget cuts, an unaccountable district where people have been allowed to "do their own thing" financially and there have not been consequences, and ultimately, a serious threat of state receivership hanging over us constantly. The vote for me was largely, yes, about avoiding state receivership this year, but also about putting a stop to the culture of "we'll figure it out later." I don't want to wonder in June if we'll be in state receivership; I want our staff and students to know that we have taken the necessary steps to retain local control.

It is important to me that constituents know that I really looked at these cuts from all the angles. I went back to staff numerous times with different proposals and requesting information, for example, about what could be saved if all non-essential staff in central were reduced to 80% time for the rest of the school year, what the cuts would look like if we were to focus on management employees rather than the line staff who work directly with students, what it would look like if the cuts were mapped to our student achievement goals, and what it would look like if the cuts were directed solely at the central administration. None of these proposals were workable, either because of a lack of political will on the board, or because it wouldn't get us to the number that we needed to reach.
Input from the community was also incorporated in the final version of the cuts; some consulting/contracts were cancelled or reduced, and I will be using the Budget & Finance Committee in the coming year to continue to examine this issue, as well as the issue of central staff salaries, the Police budget and, most importantly, what do the central offices look like in other districts with 36,000 students? I have heard from our new State Trustee and numerous others that we have layers of staff that other districts of our size do not have. I look forward to continuing to work with the community through the Budget & Finance Committee to identify additional areas of improvement and work to make OUSD into the district our students, families and staff deserve.
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