Yes on Measure Y!

The November 3rd election will have many measures that could impact Oakland students, but the one I will discuss in this post is Measure Y. I am supporting Measure Y because (if approved by voters) it would provide $735M in new funding for us to make basic repairs and upgrades to Oakland schools. Some of the projects on the list in District 6 are:

  • Melrose Leadership Academy (upgrading the building systems and expanding the Maxwell Park site to allow all students be reunited on one site).
  • Coliseum College Prep Academy (expanding the Havenscourt site to serve more students and improving the athletic facilities to expand athletic offerings and ensuring year-round access to field space).
  • Skyline High School (seismic upgrades, bathroom renovations and more).

There are another half dozen schools on the list as well as $200M that is designated for Districtwide Initiatives (upgrades that all schools are eligible for). This bucket of money is how we can also expand our Living Schoolyards work, which allows us to convert blacktops at school sites to green spaces as we have done at Markham Elementary and Melrose Leadership Academy.

With parents from Melrose Leadership Academy at a work day with Trust for Public Land, to begin the Living Schoolyard work at the MLA campus. (Note: this was taken before the pandemic, hence no masks!)

I also want to share some of the measures the board has taken to strengthen our oversight of OUSD's bond program. With four new members joining the board in November, now is the moment for us to build strong systems to improve stewardship of our bond dollars.

1. We have restored board committees, including our Facilities Committee. When I joined the board, there were no board committees. I think getting rid of board committees was a huge mistake on the part of the previous board, because board committees are how board members can really build our expertise on specific topics, dig deeper on questions and have more interaction with community members and staff. Bringing back the Facilities Committee is giving us more time to focus on our facilities projects and allowing better oversight for the board and the community. This committee will be an important way for new board members to build their familiarity and expertise with our bond projects and play a strong oversight role.

2. We have expanded the oversight role of the Citizen Bond Oversight Committee (CBOC). In the past, the role of the CBOC was to retrospectively report to the board on the expenditure of bond funds, after funds were spent. We have approved changes to the process so that going forward, the CBOC will come forward to the board with recommendations on proposed project budget changes or reprioritization of the bond project list and other major changes, prior to the expenditure of bond funds. Real oversight rather than hindsight, as parent (and School Board Candidate) Sam Davis says. Members of the CBOC also now have a seat at the table when it comes to hiring Facilities Directors and selecting the bond audit firm.

3. We are planning a very robust orientation and training program for the new board, starting soon after the November election. I didn't receive much by way of orientation when I joined the board, and I wish that I had. I am charged with designing the orientation program for our new board, and am planning a whole day focused on our bond program. This day will cover the restricted funding we can use for facilities projects, the bond project list, project budgets and will also introduce new board members to the members of the CBOC. This will allow our new board members to hit the ground running when it comes to overseeing our bond program.

4. We are now planning for facilities updates at least once per quarter for the whole board, to cover project status (budget, timeline, obstacles, etc). This is a big change from the previous practice, which was very seldom status updates. Without a Facilities Committee, this practice did not serve us well in terms of being able to provide strong, consistent oversight.

I believe these changes will better support the board to provide meaningful oversight for our facilities program and as an Oakland homeowner, I will be voting yes to tax myself so that we can create safer and more modern schools for Oakland students. Please join me and vote Yes on Measure Y!

Another important way to help is to contribute to the campaign to help us buy lawn signs, educate voters via mail, hire a Campaign Manager and more.

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What's Happening with District 6 Schools?

MLA's Safety Patrol works to ensure that students arrive safely at their expansion location on the Sherman Campus in Maxwell Park.

I want to use this blog post to share some of the recent changes in District 6 schools. We have made some big moves to expand and improve school quality in District 6, and there are more to come. The Blueprint for Quality Schools is controversial because many in the community do not believe that the changes we are making are necessary.

I have supported most of the Blueprint changes because we have to improve school quality, and expand it where it already exists, in order to address the trends that have plagued OUSD for the last 20 years, such as:

  • Declining enrollment that has resulted from insufficient quality school options,
  • Inadequate staffing and program options at underenrolled schools,
  • Persistent budget cuts as a result of declining enrollment, and
  • High teacher turnover, resulting from low salaries relative to nearby school districts (high turnover is a complex problem, but low salaries are definitely a contributing factor).

The Blueprint for Quality Schools is helping us to address these issues by expanding quality where it already exists and building on the strengths of schools that have room to grow academically. Bringing back some of the 18,000 students that have left OUSD in the last 20 years will allow us to better staff schools and better retain teachers, but bringing families back requires us to build and expand quality school options.

CUES and Futures merger. One of our first Blueprint decisions was to merge two elementary schools on the Lockwood campus on International Blvd under the leadership of a strong Principal, Shelley McCray. This move has allowed us to better staff this program and bring more rigorous academic standards to all the students on the campus. There is also now more collaboration between the merged school, Lockwood, and the 6-12 school on the same block, Coliseum College Prep Academy, which is helping to better prepare our elementary school students and ensure a more smooth transition to middle school.

Expansion of Coliseum College Prep Academy (CCPA); Closure of Roots International. CCPA has the highest graduation rate of any high school in OUSD, with a strong system to ensure that students are engaged in learning year-round (including over the summer). When students leave CCPA, nearly all of them go to college and they leave with money in hand, usually. CCPA provides great supports to help students to apply to college, apply for scholarships and prepare for college. The college-going culture at CCPA is unusual among flatland high schools in OUSD and I am proud of our decision to expand CCPA so that more students have access to this quality program.

Expanding CCPA required us to close Roots, which was a struggling school, because we did not have the funds to build CCPA a new building. In the future, we will need to address their need for additional space, but they have enough space for the next couple of years. Roots teachers and staff were very dedicated to their students and their school, and the closure was traumatic for them and their students. It was the hardest decision I've made on the board, and I believe it was the right one. Many Roots students were able to transition into CCPA, including their special education students. Other students are now attending Elmhurst United or other area middle schools.

A mural being painted at the Sherman campus featuring MLA's famous tiger.

Expansion of Melrose Leadership Academy (MLA). Melrose Leadership Academy is one of the strongest elementary schools in East Oakland (and it's a dual immersion school, providing instruction in both English and Spanish), and the board decided to expand the school onto a second campus, at Sherman Elementary school. The expansion has allowed MLA to expand their early grades (TK and PK) and to continue their work to increase the diversity of the school community, which has changed rapidly as the Maxwell Park neighborhood has changed demographically. You can see pictures above of our MLA Student Safety Patrol and the new mural at the Sherman site. Just like with CCPA, we need to both modernize MLA's building, as well as expand the site so that they can eventually all be reunited on one site. I am hoping that both of these projects will be included on the bond project list for the November 2020 bond measure.

Merger of Frick Impact Academy and Oakland School of Language into Frick School of Language. Frick Impact Academy (FIA) and Oakland SOL Middle School are two small middle schools in District 6, serving some of our highest-needs students, including large numbers of newcomer, homeless and low-income students. This merger and the redesign process brings some really strong staff teams together and will allow all students to have the chance to become bilingual during their middle school years, which is a way to recognize and value a strength that many Oakland students and families bring to our schools, and sets students up well to learn a third language in high school. Additionally, Frick has many elective and enrichment programs and athletics that Oakland SOL students will benefit from. I am so excited for the new school and the richer experience students are going to have.

During my time on the board, several other District 6 schools have made great academic progress, outside of the Blueprint process: Skyline High School, where the graduation rate has increased dramatically, Burckhalter and East Oakland Pride Elementary schools and Greenleaf K-8, all of which have continued to make academic gains in Math and ELA, while decreasing suspension rates for students. In general, District 6 schools have made great strides in the six years I have been on the board.

However, we still have several elementary schools in District 6 that are struggling academically and where enrollment continues to decline. When the board takes up Cohort 3 of the Blueprint in the fall, we will start to tackle this issue. All the options are on the table, and some schools will be redesigned and others expanded, while others will be merged or closed. I will share more about the next phase once the impacted school communities have been engaged.

These changes have been hard for the school communities involved, and they will continue to be hard, but they are critical moves to expand quality, which is the only way we can change the negative trends that are undermining the stability of our school district.

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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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