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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My Record on Budget Oversight & Where We Go From Here

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Oakland High students speaking about the impact of budget cuts at a Town Hall I hosted in November, along with Director Eng & Director London

As OUSD moves closer to what all agree will be devastating mid-year budget cuts – the board will vote on December 13, 2017 – all segments of our community are rightfully outraged at the situation in which we find ourselves. And much of that outrage is directed at the school board. To be sure, the board as a whole bears final responsibility for the district’s financial health.

I’d like to share some of the ways in which I’ve endeavored to tackle a couple of the primary challenges we face:  the need for greater fiscal discipline and transparency in spending decisions, and the need to reverse our declining enrollment. It’s my hope that as we move past this time of drastic cuts, the board as a whole will provide stronger oversight when it comes to asking difficult questions and committing long-term to changing the harmful culture and practices that have led to this situation.

Financial Oversight

When I was sworn in as an Oakland School Board member in January of 2015, Antwan Wilson had been the superintendent for about six months, having been hired by the previous board. From the time I took office I was concerned about what seemed to be a culture of complacency about wasteful spending and have spent countless hours reviewing financial documents, seeking to understand where the money is going, and asking (often only to be ignored) for the additional information I need to make the best decision. In many instances, and often alone or in a small minority, I opposed wasteful expenditures. For example:

  • I have read every item on every consent agenda that comes to the board and have voted against millions of dollars in wasteful and unnecessary contracts. Those who watch or attend board meetings know that at virtually every meeting I pull wasteful contracts from the consent agenda so that I can vote no. I call on the whole board to scrutinize these contracts more carefully and be willing to reject them.
  • I have served on the Budget and Finance Committee since its inception and have been the board liaison to the Audit Committee since I joined the board, one of the ways I try to be a knowledgeable and committed steward of our students’ resources. Since I don’t have a background in finance I took extra steps to educate myself, by attending training offered by the Government Finance Officers Association, and have sought (and received) mentoring from many members of our community with experience in school district finance. All of us should take these responsibilities seriously and educate ourselves further.

  • During my first year on the board, the board did support my advocacy for adding Fiscal Transparency Tools to the work plan for the year, and now as a result the public has easier access to OUSD budget documents and information.
  • I have not supported recent questionable expenditures such as the decision to hold board meetings in City Hall last year, which cost over $2 million and was not budgeted for; I voted against that proposal but was overruled. I similarly voted against many unbudgeted six-figure contracts for positions in central administration, and against land giveaways to charter schools.
  • On many occasions I have suggested bringing work in-house to save money on consultants; my suggestions have not prevailed.
  • I have pushed to award large contracts only on the basis of competitive bidding; as a rule this advocacy has met with defeat as well.

As a result of my ongoing concerns about our financial practices, I have voted "no" on the last two budgets. Finance staff refused to provide simple information about staffing (positions) year-to-year. Without that information I could not trust the budget numbers from staff; consequently I voted against the budgets for both 2016-17 and 2017-18. I hope that the entire board will demand the information we need to fulfill our fiduciary responsibility.


Declining Enrollment

OUSD’s student population has been declining over the last decade (although currently we see hopeful signs of it stabilizing). We will not be able to exist as a healthy school district if this trend continues. The main reason for the decline is the proliferation of charter schools in Oakland. We have California’s largest share of charter school students and they are draining resources from our public schools. We need to resist the growth of charter schools and stop the bleeding.

  • Since I have been on the board I have not voted to approve any new charters and have worked to help the community understand the financial harm they do to our public schools.
  • When Superintendent Wilson attempted to create a “common enrollment” policy to include charter schools in our enrollment system, thus further undermining public schools, I joined with parent leaders to organize house parties to educate the community and mobilize opposition. As a result the common enrollment idea was dropped. (The board never voted on the Superintendent's subsequent decision to include charters on our district's enrollment website this year).
  • I authored the Enrollment Impact Analysis policy that the board passed earlier this year; it requires staff to analyze and report on the impact on revenue that would result from any change in district programs, use of facilities, grade reconfiguration, opening or closing of new charter schools, etc. Until this policy was in place, these decisions were made with little or no consideration of their effect on enrollment, even though enrollment is the primary source of OUSD’s funding.

Being a member of the Oakland School Board is a labor of love; for me the role requires spending at least 20 hours per week on OUSD business and often more. Each board member receives $9,000 per year for our service, so financial gain is clearly not a motivation.

I am not proud of the situation we are in – we should not be facing the devastating cuts that are in store. But I am proud of my record of struggling to steward the district’s finances well and provide the oversight our students and the public deserve. On the other side of this crisis, the board as an institution has to ensure that we make decisions on the basis of complete and reliable information and refuse to accept anything less.  

 

Why are Mid-Year Cuts Necessary?

The question I am hearing a lot from the public is why it is necessary to make such large mid-year cuts. On paper it looks as though we only need to come up with $1.2M to ensure that we stay out of state receivership at the end of the 17-18 school year (the state requires every district to have a reserve for economic uncertainty of at least 2%).

However, the $1.2M figure is very misleading because in three of the last four school years, expenses have outpaced revenue by millions of dollars, which is referred to as a structural deficit.

The reasons for the structural deficit are complex, and some of them were detailed above (growth in executive salaries and positions, large no-bid contracts, declining enrollment, board approval of large expenses like the City Hall move that were not budgeted for) and others that are not as unique to Oakland, like the growing portion of retirement contributions school districts are required to make, without additional resources from the state, the growth in OUSD's share of special education students, without additional resources from the state or federal government, and the cost of living in Oakland outpacing the meager additional state funding we receive.

Last year, these and other factors led to us going over budget by about $14M. The only reason we did not end up in state receivership at the end of last year is that we received $5M in one-time funds unexpectedly from the state, and we had a larger balance in our self-insurance fund and reserve fund at the time. In order to close the books without going into the red, staff essentially depleted the self-insurance fund and our reserves. Now we don't have those resources to fall back on. There is no margin for error.

The Superintendent is working with staff to improve internal controls and avoid going over budget this year, but we have had a deeply problematic culture around fiscal practices for decades (as evidenced by Superintendent Wilson being able to hire dozens of people with no budget allocated for the positions, and vendors routinely being paid without a required purchase order).

The reality is that these issues that emerged over years are not likely to be addressed in a matter of a few months. We have years of data to demonstrate that we are likely to go over budget by millions of dollars. If we do not plan for that, and make mid-year cuts to address it, we will end up in state receivership again.

I agree with the critique that it is ridiculous to have to plan for going over budget by millions of dollars, but if the alternative is to lose local control of our schools, I choose budget cuts. It would be foolish to ignore years of data that tell us that we need to plan for going over budget again this year.

So what are the categories where we go over every year?

1. Administrative and other salaries. Mid-year and for 18-19, we will be making layoffs, mainly in the central office, which will help to alleviate this issue. Going forward, the board needs to be much more vigilant about preventing unauthorized hiring, ensuring the central administration doesn't become bloated and ensuring that we fully account for the fiscal impact of wage increases. 

2. The Oakland minimum wage increase has impacted Nutrition Services and Early Childhood Education in OUSD, because these were our lowest-paid employees who received raises as a result of the minimum wage increase. The board was not fully apprised of the cost to the district of the minimum wage increase when we were asked to approve the last contract. When workers receive wage increases, their supervisors also get adjustments, which led to inaccurate accounting for the fiscal impact of the last contract. This is the main reason that these two programs have been going over budget consistently. 

3. A growing special education population means growing demand for special education staffing and services, and transportation for SPED students has been part of driving the growth in special education spending. The growth in the student population and need is far outpacing the funding from state and federal sources, leaving OUSD shouldering a heavier and heavier share of the cost. The long-term fix for this is a change in the funding formula for special education, but that depends in large part on the state and federal government. In Oakland, charter schools need to stop discriminating against special education students; this practice is part of why our special education population is growing in OUSD even as overall enrollment has declined.

4. Every year there are unanticipated expenses. This year, we have discovered lead in some of our schools' water fountains, sinks and showers, and so we are unexpectedly spending an unknown but large amount of money for testing and replacement of fixtures. In a district with a larger reserve fund, these kinds of things don't become crises. We cannot touch the 2% reserve fund the state requires us to maintain, and the self-insurance fund is depleted. So this leaves us in the position of having to use mid-year cuts to address this kind of unanticipated expense. 

We need to have more than the state-required reserve in order to address unanticipated expenses like addressing the lead issue; we would also save on the borrowing that we currently do to smooth out cash flow over the course of the year. Not having adequate reserves creates the kind of mid-year chaos we are experiencing this year, and hurts our ability to attract and retain teachers and families. So in addition to salaries, Nutrition Services and Special Education, we also need to make mid-year cuts in order to put aside funds to build a reserve to deal with the lead issue and other future unanticipated expenses.

I agree with the community folks saying that it's unfair to punish students and staff for mistakes made by central staff and the board, and the way I see it, it also is what it is unless we want to end up in state receivership.

I will only vote for mid-year cuts that meet these criteria:

  • are not visited disproportionately on our lowest-paid employees,
  • are mapped to our priorities for student learning, and
  • that are concentrated predominately in the central office. I would like to avoid cuts to schools entirely, but I am not sure that is going to be possible.

When the board passed the resolution requesting staff to bring us a plan for making the mid-year cuts, we asked that they focus on our #1 value, "students first." If I don't feel that "students first" has been at the core of the plan for the mid-year cuts, I will not vote for them. 

I hope this is helpful in understanding why we need to make mid-year cuts that are more than the $1.2M. Based on the trend over the last several years, that is not going to be nearly enough to avoid state receivership. 

I know this is disappointing, and I am disappointed too, because I have worked so hard to avoid being in this position, but it's not enough. The entire board needs to be focused on changing the culture of complacency around fiscal matters, and that is our work for the next several years. 

 

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Learning from Oakland's History with School Closures

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Kimberly Mayfield Lynch (left) was our Moderator for the forum on School Closures. She is Chair of the Education Department at Holy Names University. Celetta Hunter, middle, is a teacher at Castlemont, and Monica Thomas, right, is an OUSD Network Superintendent and the former Principal of Greenleaf K-8, a closed/redesigned OUSD school.

Last week, about 70 Oaklanders gathered to learn about and discuss school closures in Oakland: our history, whether they can be beneficial for students, whether they save money, and how we can mitigate harm to students during the process of school closures. 

Our panel was comprised of parents (Kristen Zimmerman and Cintya Molina), teachers (Celetta Hunter from Castlemont) and OUSD administrators (Monica Thomas), as well as academics from the Education Department at Holy Names University (Kitty Kelly Epstein and Kimberly Mayfield Lynch, who moderated the panel). 

School closures are one of a number of possibilities that may emerge from the ongoing Blueprint for Quality Schools process, which will culminate soon in recommendations to the School Board about changes to OUSD's mix of schools. Other possibilities include merging schools, moving schools, grade expansions, etc.

Since the discussions about each of these options have not been detailed, I wanted to create the space for a more detailed conversation about how school closures have played out previously in Oakland. Holy Names' Education Department and the Community Coalition for Equity in OUSD (CCEO), a parent organization, were co-hosts with me.

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Kristen Zimmerman and Cintya Molina, at right, are Special Education parents in OUSD. Their children were impacted by the closure of Tilden, a former OUSD school that was designed around the needs of Special Education students. Rachel Latta, second from left, is a Peralta parent, and Yolanda Schonbrun, leftmost, is a former OUSD teacher and administrator.

The overall message that I heard is that school closures do not always work out as planned or as intended (they are messy and unpredictable). A reason given for doing them is often in order to save money, but the research shared by Kitty Kelly Epstein during the forum found that districts often encountered unanticipated costs, such as legal battles, security for vacant buildings, and losing more students than was anticipated as a result of school closures.

In OUSD, there was a long and expensive battle when the community resisted (and occupied) Lakeview School after the board voted to close it.

Several schools also left OUSD to become charters after being identified for closure during the last round of school closures. In addition to losing several hundred students, we also lost control of the sites those schools occupy. So I learned that we need to be skeptical of rosy visions of the fiscal promise of school closures; the reality is more complex.

The other questions the panel explored were about whether students can be made better off through school closures and what can be done to mitigate harm to students if the board moves ahead with school closures. 

Most panelists had negative experiences or research to share about the impact on students; I will be sharing the studies that were shared at the bottom of this post once I collect them. Parents who had been involved in the design of Tilden in order to address the specific needs of special education students were especially scarred by the experience of having the school closed. They described the numerous instances in which special education students have seemingly been an afterthought in OUSD's planning and decision-making, and the closure of Tilden was no different. 

Students were scattered throughout the district, based on where there was space to open programs, often at OUSD's most troubled schools that were underenrolled and had space available. This has had the effect of concentrating high-need students in several schools - African American students (often some of our more high-needs students), low-income students, newcomers and special education students are often concentrated in the same schools, which struggle to meet their needs.

This is obviously not equitable, and we are working to more equitably distribute special education offerings across the district, but a big learning for me is that we need to be more intentional going forward about the potential for shortchanging our most vulnerable students through school closures.

Our most vulnerable students should not be made worse off academically by having their school closed, which is what happened to many special education students when Tilden was closed.

However, Monica Thomas, who is currently an OUSD Network Superintendent, had a very different experience as the Principal when former-Whittier Elementary was redesigned to become now-Greenleaf K-8. One way in which the Whittier experience was different was that the school did not just close and disperse the students across the city. Instead, Whittier was phased out gradually as Greenleaf was phased in, and she served as principal for both schools.

In addition to serving the same kids, she also retained most of the same teachers (70%), who were interested in the vision for the new school. One critique of school redesign is often that districts just want to get rid of the existing teachers and students, but because that didn't happen at Greenleaf, the transition was less disruptive to families and to staff.

In addition, the students at Greenleaf are doing much better academically than they were doing at Whittier. The school continues to grow academically, and this year, they have seen double digit growth in literacy. 

So I also heard that with careful thought and planning about how to mitigate harm to students and staff, the closure of a school can lead to better educational opportunities for students. Therefore, a key question would seem to be: if the district pursues school closures again, how do we do it with the care and thoughtfulness that went into the Whittier/Greenleaf closure and redesign? The potential costs are too high if we don't.

One of the big tensions I face as a board member is knowing when to take action. The point of my role on the School Board is to make sure our students have great schools, so I can't do nothing if schools are persistently not getting results for our students. And while it's true that poverty, immigration/language ability, etc affect student outcomes, we have many schools (Greenleaf is one of them!) that are getting great results with students who are 90% low income and nearly 60% English Language Learners.

But sometimes our efforts to improve schools make things worse (as in the case of special education students who were displaced when Tilden was closed). As with most things when it comes to education, it's complicated.

I guess the bottom line for me is that I will need to see very thoughtful, deliberate plans that demonstrate convincingly how students will be made better off by any school closures the board votes to approve. We owe that to our students.

 

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Creating a Culture of Accountability in OUSD

After almost three years on the OUSD Board of Directors, I believe that one of our biggest challenges as a district is that we don't have a strong culture of accountability. 

What I mean by this is that we don't have a culture or regular practice of:

1) Acknowledging our mistakes as a district,

2) Learning from them in any systematic way, and

3) Deliberating publicly about how to avoid making similar errors in the future.  

I have seen this happen repeatedly during my time on the board, in the adoption of major (costly) software programs that did not work, in ill-advised board decisions that led to wasteful and unnecessary spending, such as the move to City Hall last year, in construction project delays and cost overruns (one example is the years of inaction on the administration building which has led to us paying rent at 1000 Broadway for years longer than was necessary), and most recently, the lack of accountability for key staff involved in the 16-17 budget crisis.

I have also seen our previous Superintendent make promises to families about a new academic program without first ensuring that the teachers and staff responsible for making good on the promise were consulted and bought in, that we could sustainably resource the program that was promised, and ensuring that the board was supportive of his idea. In Oakland, Superintendents come and go, and so it's critical that the board believes in an initiative if we are truly committed to it over the long term. 

This lack of a culture of accountability has several consequences. The first is that we send a message to both community and staff (whether intentional or not) that there are no consequences for costly mistakes that waste staff and community time and the precious resources that students need. Whether we intend it or not, that can leave OUSD families, staff and community members with the impression that we don't care about the impact that our decisions have on them.

If our families and other stakeholders get the impression that we don't care about them, it is hard to build trust and attract and retain staff and students. In Oakland, potential and current families and employees have lots of choices. If we want to stabilize staffing and enrollment in OUSD, a necessary first step is to create a culture of accountability.

Secondly, without consequences, irresponsible practices that lead to waste do not change. If there are no consequences for poor decisions and wasting student money, what is the incentive for anyone to change their behavior? 

I truly believe that one of our biggest challenges is staff turnover. It's really hard to run a good school if the staff changes every year, and an obstacle to retention is teachers and staff feeling that there is no accountability at higher levels of the organization, even as they experience accountability for their decisions at their schools.

Third, we are not modeling the kind of integrity that we should expect every OUSD board member, staff member and student to demonstrate. The culture of organizations starts at the very top, in this case the Board and the Superintendent. If we in leadership roles do not demonstrate a willingness to acknowledge and learn from our mistakes, it is unlikely that those behaviors will flourish in the district, and we need them to, in order for students to learn about taking responsibility, growth mindset and willingness to engage with others about the impact of their decisions.

We need to talk about our mistakes not to embarrass anyone, but because that is how we create a culture that encourages risk-taking, but critically, learning from our mistakes, and demonstrating that we are committed to doing better for students in the future.

Finally, the lack of accountability leads to a chaotic environment where mistakes are repeated, morale is low and turnover is high, all of which is bad for our students.

Part of the challenge is that there is not agreement on the board about who we are accountable to. My belief is that we are accountable to our students, and by extension, our families, but I have experienced conflict since I have been on the board with board members who often seem more focused on what our staff or vendors want.

Reasonable people can disagree about what it means to focus on student needs. But what is best for students does not usually mean avoiding discomfort, conflict or change, and that is the culture that has been allowed to persist in OUSD for far too long. 

I am interested in changing this, but it is a major undertaking to change the culture of an organization. I hope I can count on community and staff support. 

We all have a responsibility to act in the best interest of students, no matter our position in the organization or who we report to. I will be bringing a resolution soon to underscore this, and would welcome input and comments as I draft it.

I am also interested in ideas about additional steps we can take as a district to create a culture of accountability. Please share them with me via email (shanthi.gonzales (@) ousd.org) or at monthly office hours. 

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Making Sanctuary Real for Oakland Students & Families

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Left to Right: Sondra Aguilera, who now heads up Student Services, our new Superintendent, Kyla Johnson-Trammell, and me, waiting for the event to start

This past Saturday, OUSD held Bringing Sanctuary to the Classroom, a event for Oakland educators about how to make our Sanctuary District policy real for our students and families. It was well-attended and the families and educators who attended learned a lot about how to create safe environments for our students, and immigrant and refugee students in particular.

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Immigrant students David Contreras (Fremont HS) and Gema Quetzal (Life Academy) (involved in All City Council) kicked off the day, and shared why our Sanctuary District policy matters to them

I am exceptionally proud of the work that OUSD is doing to make our sanctuary policy real for our families. It's one thing to pass a resolution stating our support for our students and families. It's another thing to do what we are doing to provide training to our staff and families on what we are doing to support and protect them. Students talked about what it means to them to be part of a district that is committed to their safety in a very powerful video about our work to create a Sanctuary District. Check it out here.

Staff in the Multilingual Achievement Department have created a wide variety of resources that I encourage educators and families to check out. You can find them here.

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Nicole Knight leads the Multilingual Achievement Department, which has taken the lead on our Sanctuary District work.

In the nearly three years on the board, I have never been as proud as I am about this work. It means a lot to our families and students. I appreciate the work of Nicole Knight and her team in the ELLMA Department and look forward to what comes next with this body of work!

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