What I Love (and Don't Love) About Being on the School Board

I did not have a particularly strong understanding of the duties of the School Board before I ran. I believe in public education and I value the powerful impact that public schools have had on my life. I was not happy to learn that the school district had shuttered the Adult School and closed school libraries during the recession, along with closing district schools while approving the opening of charter schools. 

I believe that as a community, we have a responsibility to all students, not just our own students, and was angry by what I saw as the abandonment of the commons, the public school system, by not just by individual parents, but by the School Board that was entrusted with the stewardship of the precious resource of public education.

Little did I know that much of the day to day work of the School Board is spent on tedious compliance and ceremonial duties, not the big conversations I believe are necessary for us to have as a city.

One thing that is challenging about serving on the board is that the culture of the board (and the school district in general) is very conflict-averse. I find most of my colleagues to be very reluctant to have contentious conversations in public (or at all). But it has not worked to avoid talking about issues such as the growth of charter schools, which is causing a slow but serious crisis for the school district. The crises come whether we are willing to discuss them or not, and when we don't acknowledge them, it causes mistrust toward the district.

That is why I have spent much of my time as a Board Member creating space and leading conversations that I think we need to have - about charter schools, special education, common enrollment, integration, our next Superintendent and the district's budget - and trying to bring more people into those conversations. 

What happens in our school district impacts all of us, even those people who don't have kids. Creating space for these overdue conversations is one of the parts of the role that I like best, because it gives me the chance to hear from marginalized voices and to learn about issues from a wider range of perspectives. I believe it has also helped to alleviate some of the anger, mistrust and misunderstanding toward the School District. 

I am especially proud of bringing groups together that do not necessarily find themselves in the same room often. One thing I noticed when I joined the board is that teacher organizing was happening separately (for the most part) from parent organizing, and also separately from community organizing. I have tried to bring more of these groups together to identify and work on a shared agenda. I can't say it's been a success yet because it's a work in progress, but I think there is more collaboration now, and I love this part of my role. 

I love the organizing that I get to do with public education stakeholders via my role on the board. Oakland has the most amazing leaders in a wide variety of movements, and our parents and educators are no exception. If it were not for the parent and educator leaders I get to work with, I honestly don't know if I would have stayed on the board at many points over the last 2.5 years.

I am constantly awestruck at the commitment, passion and brilliance of the teachers, district leaders, parents, students, community and staff of and around OUSD. Oakland is a difficult place to work; our students need so much, we never have the resources we need and politics often come before our students' needs. I love working with the people who care about our students, even the ones that I disagree with about the how. 

I believe that our students are only going to get the schools they deserve when more parents are activated around education issues, so I am especially proud of the number of parents (and teachers and community leaders) who are more involved in the School District because I have asked or encouraged them to be. 

I love to learn, and serving on the board gives me endless opportunities to learn, both content knowledge about education, but also experiential learning about leadership and governance. Honestly if I were to serve 20 years, I think there would still be a lot to learn and as someone who gets bored easily, this keeps me interested and motivated. 

Now some things that are persistent frustrations.

Change is slow in education, especially in a district with the kind of turnover that Oakland has had, both at the very top (in the Superintendent role) and among our principals and teachers. It's hard to get any traction for our students without stable, focused leadership districtwide and at sites, because changing leaders means changing priorities. Some of my colleagues on the board feel that it is the role of the Superintendent to prioritize and bring focus to the district, but I actually think this is the responsibility of the board.

Given Oakland's history (and despite our hopes), we need to plan for another new Superintendent in three years. The only way to avoid losing momentum is for the board to be on the same page about our priorities and only hire people who are aligned with those priorities.

We took an important step by hiring from within during this last search, so that we have a leader who is already familiar with our current work, our priorities, our history and our assets as a district. I hope that we can make this a trend going forward, but I also hope that Dr. Johnson Trammell will stay with OUSD for a long time and bring some stability, and also work to stabilize our principal and teacher leadership. That is critical for our students to make progress.

Despite my efforts over the last 2.5 years, I have not been able to make much progress in building a stronger culture of accountability to our students and for our fiscal health on the board.

When it comes to financial decision-making, our board has a long way to go to make better decisions so that our students have the resources they need. Some examples of practices that I have consistently spoken up against:

  • The board allowed budget cuts for 17-18 to be made largely made based on vacant positions rather than an assessment of our students' needs, because it was easier for the staff to do it that way. If we were serious about "students first," we wouldn't allow for any sacred cows (often the people in high-paid central positions). We would make student need the top criteria rather than preserving high-paid positions that do not touch students, and would be more deliberate about position eliminations.

  • Despite being in a financial crisis as a district, the board is still approving very large no-bid contracts for work that we could bring in-house for a fraction of the cost, or eliminate altogether in favor of hiring more teachers for high-needs student populations.

  • The board has not provided sufficient accountability for staff that engage in (and allow) irresponsible practices that waste funds and financially undermine the district, and over time this has created a culture where some staff do not expect to be held accountable for the consequences of their actions.

  • The board has not provided clear and consistent direction when it comes to the information we need in order to make good financial decisions on behalf of our students. As a result, staff routinely fail to provide adequate information about the fiscal impact of their recommendations. Our students cannot afford for the board to be making high dollar decisions (for example, paying for the site upgrades for charter schools) without sufficient information on the financial impact on OUSD, given the current state of the district's finances.

  • The board has not insisted that our financial decision-making be done in full public view. Most of these poor practices (no-bid contracts, deals with charter schools that are not financially responsible) are not fully vetted by the board because these kinds of deals are almost always put on the consent agenda rather than the regular board agenda, preventing adequate scrutiny from the board or the public. I regularly have to pull items off the consent agenda just to get the staff to articulate what the actual fiscal impact on OUSD would be; that information is often not provided to the board. This happens several times each year, and it is not a responsible way to operate.

  • The board does not hold staff accountable for following the board policies that we do have in place, or commitments made to voters, such as with Measure G1 funds for middle schools, our board-required 3% reserve, our Asset Management Policy, or our Results-Based Budgeting Policy. In the 16-17 school year, the Superintendent authorized spending $12M more in administrative salaries than was authorized by the board-adopted budget. The board consistently allows the staff to do business in this way by sanctioning poor practices after the fact. 

We had to make mid-year budget cuts this year because the district's spending was so out of control, as well as significant layoffs and cuts to next year's budget. We could not have a more clear signal that we need to make changes. I believe this list is a good place to start to make the necessary changes to our financial practices.

The board needs to take our role as the financial stewards of the district more seriously unless we want to end up back in state receivership. Speaking for myself, I will do anything in my power to avoid that.

Race is frequently used when people don't get their way. This is one of the hardest parts of being on the board. I have seen this happen across the board in Oakland - among community groups, board members and staff, and it makes me angry and I believe it is one of the hardest parts of working in Oakland. People need to be able to do what they think is right for our students without fear of being called a racist if their ideas or decisions are seen as threatening to one group or another.

I have been called a racist for opposing large, no-bid contracts for work I think we could do cheaper in-house or better use the funds in direct service to students, for disagreeing with our previous Superintendent, for supporting staffing cuts to the central office rather than cuts to schools and for being willing to invite charter-friendly people to participate in a conference I organized. I have seen it happen to other board members, staff and community members as well, and I think it's unhealthy for several reasons.

It creates a climate that prevents people from being willing to share what they really think for fear of being called a racist. We can't do our high-stakes work if people are unwilling to be honest. It creates an environment where people avoid one another because previous interactions have been so unpleasant. We can't avoid one another because our students need us to work together. It also reinforces a zero-sum way of thinking (my group versus your group) that is unhelpful. The focus needs to be on students' needs.

We talk a lot about being data-driven, but at the end of the day, politics (especially race-based politics) still drive a lot of decision-making in OUSD. If we were truly committed to using data to make decisions, our budget would look a lot different and a larger percentage of funds would be going to schools. The board can provide leadership by not engaging in this behavior ourselves, and by calling others out on it when they do it. This culture has been created by the board, and we have a role to play in putting a stop to it, if we are willing to.

The last thing that is really frustrating is how much power wealthy philanthropists have in Oakland, including many people who don't even live in Oakland. Wealthy donors with an ideological agenda that favors the privatization of public schools spend money on Oakland School Board races, and rather than focusing on improving the schools that are directly accountable to voters, they instead fund a robust infrastructure to develop more charter schools, when we already have too many schools in Oakland.

What is disturbing about this is that these philanthropists don't have to live with the consequences of their actions, like financially backing School Board candidates who are slowly driving OUSD into insolvency through poor fiscal management practices and approving more charter schools than our student population can support. What is worse, they rob Oakland's communities of color of control of their schools by taking public dollars and putting them into private hands, in schools where parents don't have the ability to elect their board members.

These schools often lack accountability to the families that attend the schools, and I know that families suffer from this lack of accountability because they come to board meetings to complain, they file complaints with our Office of Charter Schools and they contact us to seek redress. 

It is also disturbing that people who (mostly) don't even live in Oakland think they know better than the people who do live here who should be serving on our School Board and what is best for our students. It's patronizing and paternalistic, and chasing philanthropic money has often been a distraction from staying the course with homegrown initiatives that have worked and been beneficial for our students. This is not true of all philanthropists, of course, but I do believe it would be healthy for us to take a hard (and long overdue) look at our dependence on philanthropy and what the appropriate role is for philanthropy in OUSD.

I don't know how much time I have on the School Board (I have to run for re-election next year), but these are some of the issues I hope to address in whatever time I have left. If you would like to work with me, feel free to reach out.

 

 

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Join an Equity Allies Working Group

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Jonathan Osler, left, is a parent at Peralta and one of the founding parents of the Oakland Equity Allies (this name may be changed soon).

This week was the first general meeting of the Oakland Equity Allies parent group, made up of parents from across the city who are concerned about the disparities between Oakland's schools, as well as racial and class segregation.

Since the group is still very, very new, we presented a draft statement of principles and then broke into groups so that people could choose what they felt most interested in discussing.

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Nilofer Ahsan, right, is a parent at Crocker Highlands and also a founding parent of the Equity Allies group. Kim Davis, left, is a founding parent of Parents United for Public Schools.

The group I co-led with Rachel Dornhelm from Crocker Highlands was focused on how we should be structured and make decisions as a group. It's the kind of thing I have very little patience for, but also recognize as really important, since transparency about how decisions are made is so crucial in building trust. We mostly shared some questions with our group, and got feedback on them.

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Jonathan Osler (Peralta) and Marie Christine Fox (NOCCS) (at top) drafted the principles and then listened to feedback on them.

There were also groups that discussed: the draft statement of principles, the other groups and organizations that we should work with, and the kinds of actions and activities the group should take part in.

Most of these working groups will continue to meet, and will bring their proposals and ideas to the general assembly before we move forward, including ideas about how we decide on what to do, who to work with, etc (I know, complicated). Feel free to reach out if you'd like to be part of one of these working groups and I can connect you to their leaders.

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After the groups met, they shared out what they had discussed. There were lots of different perspectives represented in the room.

My vision for this group is that over time we can bring the privilege and power that some Oakland parents have into the debates and discussions that affect all Oakland parents, to bring privileged parents into closer relationship and deeper understanding of the issues that impact working class families of color, and have them work more closely together for a more equitable system where all students get their needs met.

We talked a lot at the meeting about the group being predominately white right now, and strategies for addressing that. I imagine that it will continue to be a topic of conversation, and that it will take time and experimentation to address it.

The working group on our structure and decision-making process will meet next on July 19. Let me know if you are interested and I'll provide the details for the next meeting.

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OUSD Principals Share Recommendations to Address Financial Crisis

These recommendations from OUSD's principals were shared with us at the last board Budget and Finance Committee. I wanted to share some reflections on them with constituents.

1. Avoid state receivership and depleting reserve funds. I agree with the need to avoid state receivership at all costs. For those who do not know, state receivership means that Oakland loses local control of our school district. Officials appointed by the Governor would take over, and they answer to the state, not to folks in Oakland. The elected school board has no authority, and initiatives that are not in the best interest of Oakland students can be implemented with no say for Oakland students and families.

Many of the charter schools that exist in Oakland now were created during the period of state receivership, with no say for Oaklanders about whether that was what they wanted to have happen. Self-determination is an important value that I share with many Oaklanders. Whether or not you think more charter schools is good for Oakland, I hope we can agree that Oaklanders need to be the folks deciding what is good for our students, not officials with no accountability to Oakland families.

I also agree that it's important to avoid dipping into our 2% required reserve, because that is the first step toward receivership. It means that the County Office of Education will get involved in our finances and direct the cuts that need to be made to get us back on track.

2. The board needs to be crystal clear on how we got here. I agree with this recommendation as well. I am about 97% clear about why we are in this situation, but I still believe there are important contributing factors that staff have not articulated, or have not articulated clearly, such as the way that they budget for funds they believe will be available due to staff vacancies. As we learned this year, that does not seem to have lent itself to accurate projections, and it's a risky practice that I would like us to stop. One way to use the funds generated by vacancies is to rebuild our reserves, which is discussed more further down. I also want us to publish a report about why we have a budget crisis and the changes we are going to make to prevent it from happening again.

3. Make personnel changes and invest in human capital to ensure this doesn't happen again. High turnover in OUSD makes this recommendation especially important. The last time we were threatened with state receivership, the state's FCMAT team made a similar recommendation, and steps were taken to do training of staff and build capacity. However, high turnover and the resulting lack of institutional memory have contributed to the current situation of very limited capacity in the Finance Department and too much dependency on one person at the top. We need to be fully staffed, but also providing regular training that will ensure that even with turnover, staff are trained on sound practices.

We also need leadership that is committed to ensuring that the board is clear on the financial decisions being made and the consequences of those decisions. No one on the board has a background in finance (and we all have other full time jobs), and so giving us 70 pages of spreadsheets is not the same thing as calling out the financial decisions that we need to make and the possible consequences of those decisions. For example, this year, the former Superintendent and Senior Business Officer decided not to consolidate teachers after our enrollment turned out to be much lower than was projected. This was announced to the board (we were not asked to make a decision), and there was not information provided about the potential impact of that decision. That cannot happen in the future, and we need staff who are committed to the board clearly understanding the choices they are making and the consequences of those choices.

4. Implementing internal controls to prevent budget shortfalls. At the last board meeting, the board decided to bring in a team from FCMAT (Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team) to do a review of our systems. I suspect their findings will largely be the same as last time (you can see a progress report from last time here), but I think an external review is necessary. As discussed above, we have capacity gaps that are going to make improvements to internal controls slower than I'd like, but I agree that this is the work that will prevent us from putting students and schools through this again. Principals have asked that we do regular progress reporting on improvements to internal controls at board meetings, and I think this is right. 

5. Systematic portmortems should occur immediately after financial errors. I think this is important, and it's one thing that I would like us to do right now, but because there are so many vacancies in the Finance Department and so much to do to support the work of the FCMAT team, we have decided to focus all staff energy right now on keeping us out of receivership rather than analyzing how this happened. In general, however, I agree with this recommendation, for the sake of transparency as well as ensuring that we understand root causes and hold people accountable for their actions.

6. Implement a strong reserve policy that articulates the goals and use of the reserve fund. I have thought since I joined the board that our reserve fund is too low. We would ideally have at least two months of payroll on hand at all times, and instead we have about two weeks. That margin is too slim. 85% of OUSD's budget is used for staff salaries, and that is why there is not a lot of adjustments that we can make to the budget without having to lay off any staff. We need to begin to build a larger reserve, so that we have more of a cushion, and can respond to unexpected expenses without impacting students. I agree as well that we need a policy that articulates the goals and uses of the fund, to prevent it from being used as a slush fund that is not used as intended by the board. One way to begin to build a larger reserve fund is to use unused funds that result from staff vacancies to fund the reserve fund.

7. Hire a Superintendent that will prioritize financial sustainability for OUSD. Enough said. It has become so clear to me over the last several months that it is our students (and the staff who work with them) who suffer when we don't pay enough attention to the finances of the district. It is not acceptable for students to suffer as a result of the mistakes of our district's leadership, and I am hoping to hire someone who will take this charge seriously and move quickly to make our systems stronger.

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Recap of Parents Organizing for Equity and Integration in Oakland Schools

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I co-led a workshop on School Choice and Charter Schools, and the impact that has had on segregation in Oakland.

Yesterday was Parents Organizing for Equity and Integration in Oakland Schools, a citywide convening focused on how we can make Oakland schools more equitable and more integrated. It was organized with a group of parents that we are calling the Oakland Equity Allies for now. Attendance was good, (though it is never as much as I would like!) and there were many parents there that do not usually come to board meetings. I am always excited to draw new people into important conversations about our schools.

My main takeaway is that there are things that OUSD can do, and we are looking at our options, many of which revolve around how school opportunity is distributed via the enrollment process. We can also experiment with more magnet schools like Life Academy and Manzanita SEED. Yesterday we heard about an all-girls STEM magnet school in Dallas; that is something I'd like to try in Oakland.

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Marie Christine Fox, left is a parent at NOCCS. Nana Xu, Charles Wilson and Mary Hurley work for OUSD. They were part of a panel about what we can do to improve integration within OUSD.

There are things that individual school communities can do, such as intentional recruitment in their neighborhood or targeted neighborhoods, and some schools like Crocker Highlands are looking at contributing some of their fundraising to a citywide fund for schools with high-needs populations. One of the workshops in the afternoon was focused on strategies for equitable school fundraising, led by Sequoia parent Hilary Bunlert and Brian Stanley from the Oakland Public Education Fund.

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The convening was held at Fremont High School, in their beautiful auditorium. This photo is from the workshop on Equitable School Fundraising.

Parent Claude Crudup has also emphasized that there is a role for the City of Oakland in helping to address the crime and traffic issues that contribute to whether parents feel that their students will be safe at a given school.

But what it comes down to is that we need more parents to be willing to think about the experience of all Oakland students, rather than just their own. This is easier said than done, because it is hard enough to stay on top of your own child's needs, but if we are serious about more equitable and integrated schools, parents are going to have to be willing to consider what is is best for all Oakland students, rather than just their own. The folks in the room yesterday seemed to be committed to that.

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Lamont Snaer, center, is on the design team of Oakland SOL, and was one of the leaders of the workshop yesterday about Community-Led School Integration.

Several parents signed action cards yesterday saying they want to be involved in the Oakland Equity Allies, and when we meet next, on May 15, I hope we will have an even larger group of people involved. There are additional ways that folks can get involved, such as leading a conversation in their school or neighborhood about how to show up for equity and integration for all Oakland students, or talking with other parents about how to support the needs of all Oakland students.

Finally, what was sobering for me to realize is the larger forces at work, and how hard those are to change.  The segregation in OUSD that is even more dramatic than race is by income level. The inequality that we see in Oakland is reflected in the composition of our schools, which is in turn a reflection of where families can afford to live. This is something that I am not clear on what role, if any, OUSD can play in addressing, and that feels demoralizing to me. At the same time, I am heartened that there are people who want us to take on this hard work, and want to build political will among other parents to take action to ensure that school opportunity is being more equitably distributed in Oakland.

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Another workshop was about the pluses and minuses of having more neighborhood families commit to attending their neighborhood school. Moyra Contreras, right, shared about the demographic change at Melrose Leadership Academy, where she is Principal, and the advantages and challenges it is creating for the school.

I am really grateful to all the parents, OUSD staff and other organizations that were involved in the planning for the convening, and my intent is for this conversation to be the first of many about how to better distribute school opportunity in Oakland. Stay tuned for more.

The board will soon be considering some potential changes to our enrollment policy and parents will hopefully be holding more school and neighborhood conversations soon. I'll share those dates when I have them on the events calendar.

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School Reconfiguration Must be Done Thoughtfully

The OUSD School Board recently gave direction to the staff about how to address an anticipated budget shortfall for next school year. It was a difficult decision, but we directed the Superintendent to identify cuts from the central office that will result in the elimination of several positions for next year.

As part of that same resolution, we also directed the Superintendent to begin to plan for school reconfiguration decisions to come to the board next year. Because school reconfiguration, portfolio consolidation, school closures - whatever language you use - is controversial, emotional and destabilizing for families and staff, I wanted to take this opportunity to share my perspective on how I believe this work should be done.

Many Oaklanders are aware that OUSD has more schools per capita than most other school districts in California. This is a result of a few different factors. The first is that Oakland has more charter schools per capita than any other district in California. The most aggressive growth in charter schools happened when OUSD was in state receivership and the elected board had no power, but it is also true that numerous additional charter schools have been approved since the district came back under local control in 2009.

Secondly, we had a small schools movement in Oakland soon after the millennium, with money from the Gates Foundation to create smaller school options for our students. During that time, the number of schools in Oakland grew significantly as schools were divided up and new schools were opened.

While some of the less successful of these schools (both charter schools and OUSD schools) have subsequently been closed, we have never returned to the smaller number of schools we previously had. Small schools are very popular with families because students are better known by school staff and it's easier to create safe environments with a smaller number of students, however the research on student outcomes is mixed. Some of Oakland's small schools provide great opportunities for students, and others, not so much.

It is important to note that not all small schools are small by design; partly as a result of the large number of schools, both charter and district-operated, we have many under-enrolled schools that were never designed to be so small.

Currently, compared to comparably sized districts like Fremont Unified, we have about twice as many schools for the same number of students.

However, I'd say that our large number of schools is also a reflection of the numerous challenges that we strive to address as a district. For example, Oakland International High School is focused on serving immigrant and refugee students in a smaller setting that allows them more personal attention as they adapt to life in the US.

We have a number of small, alternative high school options that afford students very small class sizes and intensive case management that helps them to address behavioral and mental health issues while they earn credits toward graduation. And we have many bilingual families that want their students to continue their education in both Spanish and English, with a number of schools that serve those families in dual immersion language programs.

I personally value the diversity of school programs that OUSD offers, and would like to see us continue to branch out to meet the demands of our families.

At the same time, there are very real drawbacks to operating so many schools. We spend a lot more on school-site based administrators (principals and assistant principals), facilities (it is inefficient to operate under-enrolled campuses) and providing duplicative services. As an example, schools that are located on the same site may have different providers for after school programs (more vendors usually means higher costs for the district), and usually have different administrators, clerical staff and duplicative office expenses and equipment (copy machines, etc). 

All these duplicated individuals and services represent money that schools could use to decrease class sizes, offer transportation for students, increase staffing at school sites, provide better extracurricular activities, art and music teachers and librarians, decrease caseloads for special education teachers or counselors, or improve pay for teachers.

These are difficult decisions because reconfiguring or shuttering a school is extremely disruptive for the families and staff in that school; it breaks up trusting relationships within schools that often take years to build. Community members lose precious space for neighborhood civic engagement. 

Additionally, in the past, school closures have not always gone as intended. In the aftermath of the last major round of school closures, several schools opted to become charter schools, and thus, remain intact in spite of district actions intended to reduce costs. This actually made the district worse off financially, because those students are no longer part of OUSD, and while we lost the funding that those students brought into the district, most of the overhead costs (paying our Superintendent, renting office space at 1000 Broadway, the people who support our Principals) of the district have not gone away.

I think there is a conversation to be had about whether we need to fundamentally reexamine our staffing structure for central administration given that we now have 36,000 students, compared to 50,000+ 15 years ago, but that is not the focus of this blog post, (and that is not only my decision). I do believe the board as a whole has to become willing to downsize central administration if we are going to live within our means as a district.

However, the focus of this blog post is that it is critical that any decision made to reconfigure our schools be done thoughtfully.

There are people on the board who believe that school closures will lead to big cost savings for the district. This is inaccurate for many reasons, but the primary reason is that it is extremely difficult to predict what will happen if a school is closed, or reconfigured. Cost savings projections are made under the assumption that students and families will stay in OUSD following a reconfiguration or school, when in reality, we cannot assume this.

Any disruption to a school community has long-term ramifications that are not always clear immediately. If a reconfiguration leads to a change in the teacher workforce or a school's principal, that will impact enrollment for the following year and likely, several years to follow. If we move a school to another location, that school is likely to lose a large portion of its students, as happened this year when Lafayette was moved to the WOMS campus. We lost 100 students to the KIPP charter school that took over the Lafayette campus.

Making these changes in the school choice context we have in Oakland is difficult because families have lots of choices (even if they aren't always pleased with their choices). When we disrupt schools, we give families reasons to go shopping.

Secondly, if a school reconfiguration makes more space or frees up space at a campus, charter schools have a legal right under Prop 39 to pursue that space for their students. If more charter schools open or expand as a result of school reconfiguration, then we lose students (and funding).

Finally, if we alienate our principals and our teachers through the process of school reconfiguration, we lose students and families. People choose schools because they trust the leadership and the culture that good leaders create, and so losing good educators means losing families.

I have my doubts about whether we will save any money at all through school reconfiguration due to these factors, and it's important to note that we are in our current financial situation DESPITE having already closed 27 schools as a school district.

If it were as simple as just closing schools, we would not be in our current situation, but I also know that we could do a lot more with what we have if we could figure this out. So in short, it's complicated.

It may be worth the strife it will cause IF, and only if, we:

1) End up with more students having access to the programs that our families really want, AND if, and only if,

2) School communities themselves help us make decisions about their futures.

This will not work if we don't give families more of what they want, and if schools do not feel bought into the decisions that the board ultimately makes.

There are three schools in my district (District 6) that consistently receive many more applications than they have open slots. This indicates that there is excess demand for these schools. 

I am suggesting that we focus on expanding access to these specific programs, and make that the focus of school reconfiguration. This will address the bottom line (by increasing enrollment in OUSD) while actually addressing our real problem, which is that we don't have enough space in the strong schools that we do have. 

If we can fix that problem, and fix it in collaboration with our teachers, parents, principals and student, I believe that we will ultimately find ourselves with the resources we need to then make improvements that will strengthen all of our schools.

It is important to state here that being able to make these decisions in collaboration with school leaders takes capacity that I do not believe the district currently possesses. In order for us to do this work well, we will need to invest in community engagement, communications and project managers, and provide funds to the sites to facilitate these processes. These resources and positions do not exist right now.

Finally, while I am clear that I will not vote to approve any school reconfiguration that does not prioritize the two factors that I have outlined above, our district has committed to taking this on within our system. Charter schools need to do the same.

It is not only OUSD schools that are being weakened and undermined by the growth in charter schools; it is also hurting the charter sector, and I believe that they also need to do some reflecting about how to manage the charter school portfolio as we are taking on hard conversations about the size and number of OUSD schools. 

The year ahead will be hard. No one wants to see their school moved, consolidated, or otherwise disturbed, but my role as a School Board member is to ensure that students are getting a great education AND that the district is financially solvent. If we are really committed to doing both things, we have to have this conversation, but it has to be done in collaboration with our school communities, with a focus on expanding access to the programs our families desire.

What we know from the past is that hasty school closure decisions may end up making the district and our students worse off than they already are.

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2017 African American Read-In Was Fun!

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Theresa Clark teaches 4th grade at Community United Elementary School.

Sometimes it's the little things that make serving on the School Board worth it. The big stuff is hard and can feel hopeless and overwhelming. 

Yesterday I got to read to Mrs. Clark's 4th grade class at CUES, for the second time. I read The Book Itch by Vaunda Michaux Nelson, which is about a boy whose family owns a black liberation-themed bookstore in Harlem, and all the amazing black leaders he gets to meet as a result. The book is about how liberation comes through education, and is also beautifully illustrated.

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CUES is one of the most diverse schools in District 6.

CUES is very diverse, with Middle Eastern, Black and Latino students, and a growing dual immersion Spanish-English program.

The kids had lots to share with their School Board member, about the food at the school, the state of the bathrooms, their desire for more field trips, and the cool field trips they have been on. 

I love seeing our beautiful, intelligent and spirited students. Spending time with students and parents is always the best reminder for me about why I serve on the board, what it's all for. 

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Oakland SOL Coming to District 6 in Fall 2017

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Future students of Oakland SOL, who are also part of the design team for the school.

I'm very excited about a new OUSD school that will be opening this fall in District 6, Oakland SOL (School of Language). It has been three years in the making, and was approved by the board in December.

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Simone DeLucchi (center) is the Community Schools Manager for Oakland SOL, and will be working on recruitment in the neighborhood to make sure they are able to fill the first cohort of 60 students in the fall.

The school is comprised so far mainly of families from CUES (Community United Elementary School) and Manzanita SEED. OCO (Oakland Community Organizations) has helped support the work of the design team through their relationships in the school district and the community.

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Families looking at the garden from a classroom and discussing how to use it.

Oakland SOL will be located on 70th Avenue on the campus of what used to be Rudsdale Continuation School. Their focus will be on creating a multilingual school that embraces the vast diversity of East Oakland, and I am personally very excited to expand our multilingual options to middle school. We currently have a large number of Spanish dual immersion elementary schools, with nowhere for the students to move onto for middle school, because Melrose Leadership Academy can only take a few of them.

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Pablo Villavicencio (leftmost) and Joe Dominguez (second from left) came to meet with families on the design team about the next steps on the project.

Oakland SOL will allow us to keep more families within OUSD, but not just that, I know this program is going to be welcoming, affirming and inclusive for our students and families, and I'm proud of the hard work the families have done to bring their dream to fruition.

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East Oakland has a growing population of Yemeni families, many of whom will be part of Oakland SOL next year.

Oakland SOL's design team met this morning at their new campus to talk with OUSD staff about their plans and the next steps and support that is needed from the district. There is a long road ahead; launching a new school is never easy, but I am hopeful that this school is an important step in the hard work ahead for OUSD to build the right mix of schools that will help to stabilize enrollment and build more quality programs inside the district.

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The Rudsdale campus does not have a field or even any play structures yet, so one of the first things they are going to need to figure out is where the kids will be able to play. The half-court basketball court is not going to work when 60, and later 120, kids need outdoor space to play. Many of the questions from kids were about the amenities of the school.

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Working with our super committed families and staff is the best part of my job on the School Board.

 

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Reflections on Budget Cuts for 17-18 School Year

One of the first things I learned about OUSD as a candidate was how top-heavy the administration was. Through the listening tour that I did as part of my campaign, I heard it over and over again, and then I observed it for myself once I joined the School Board.

We will be a lot less top heavy next year, because of the budget cuts to the central administration that we are making in order to balance our budget for next year. While many positions being eliminated are vacant, still I recognize that soon layoff notices will be going out that are going to severely disrupt the lives of many existing OUSD employees, and I feel responsible for that. That is one thing no one tells you about when you decide to run for office; being responsible for decisions that can devastate the lives of employees.

My main focus has been on keeping the cuts away from school sites, which we managed to do, with the exception of some vacant SSO (School Security Officer) positions and of course the mid-year budget freeze. 

Since there is still a lot of confusion about why we are in the position of having to make cuts, I wanted to take this opportunity to explain it in detail.  

The biggest drivers are (in this order): declining enrollment, increasing pension contribution costs, Special Education costs, staff salary increases related to the minimum wage increase in Oakland, the large number of schools we operate, and also the increased spending on cabinet positions. There is also a great deal of uncertainty about the future of Title 1 funds that districts like Oakland depend on heavily. I'll talk about each of them in turn.

Declining enrollment has been an issue in OUSD for years. This year we have 450 fewer students than we did last year, and 900 fewer than was projected. The reason that declining enrollment was not noticeable for the last few years is that we were receiving massive influxes of resources from the state under a new funding formula (LCFF, Local Control Funding Formula).

The new resources masked the impact of the enrollment decline that is attributable to growth in the number of charter schools and families leaving Oakland due to the high cost of housing. The kinds of adjustments that need to be made are never as quick as the loss in revenue (for example, consolidating schools, collecting rental income for leases at underenrolled or vacant sites, etc). Now the new state money has slowed to a trickle.

What is more, where we are experiencing growth in enrollment (in Special Education and especially newcomer/refugee students), the students are more expensive to serve because of their particular needs. There is a need for Oakland charter schools to start pulling their weight more when it comes to Special Education students, and some of them are starting to, but no Oakland charter schools serve the same percentage of special education students that OUSD does, and none of them serve the severely disabled students that OUSD does. Most of the charter schools are not serving the newcomer population to the extent that OUSD does either. These issues are being discussed as part of the Equity Pledge, but it remains to be seen whether there will be any movement on the part of charter schools to address the fairness issues regarding which students are being served in each system.

All school districts across California are going to have to address increasing pension costs in the coming years. The wonky can read this article to learn more about this, but the bottom line is that CalPERS and CalSTRS are not getting the rate of return that they need to be able to fund pension obligations to retirees, and are still recovering from investment losses during the recession. This means that school districts and other public employers are going to have to pay more. This is only going to go up, so we have to be prepared to make difficult choices for many years to come in order to meet our obligations to our retirees.

For those who do not know, special education funding is highly inadequate because the amount that is provided from federal and state sources does not cover the full cost of special education services, but many districts have budgeted for a long time as though those funds alone should be sufficient. On average it costs twice as much to meet the needs of special education students, and Oakland, like many other school districts, has increased the Special Education budget to meet the growing need for many years now. What is more, the amount of federal and state funding is not related to the specific disabilities that students have. So in districts like Oakland, where we have a large number of severely disabled students, we are not getting more per student than districts that do not (for example, the all-charter SELPA El Dorado County). This is something that has to be changed so that we remove the perverse incentive for schools to avoid serving students with disabilities.

In the meantime, the district is working on building an in-house program for many of the students that are currently placed in expensive non-public schools because of severe disabilities, and is undertaking other efforts to provide better services for special education students, like expanding access to inclusion programs. Realistically, I don't think we should expect these efforts to reduce costs any time soon. The focus from my perspective should be on building better special education services, and that will reduce demand for private placements and make it possible to place more students in least restrictive environment settings. What will make a huge difference in special education is stable leadership, and I am hopeful that we will figure that out soon.  It's hard to move major change initiatives without stable leadership.

The part of the budget shortfall that has been particularly frustrating for me has been related to staff salary increases. When the minimum wage in Oakland was increased by voters in 2014, the impact on the district was large, because it affected many of our staff in Nutrition Services, Early Childhood Education and Special Education. Many of these staff are funded through other sources than LCFF, which meant that we agreed to salary increases without any additional revenue to pay them, and we made assumptions about enrollment in ECE and cost reductions in Special Education that turned out to be unrealistic. I believe we should have made more conservative projections given the history of the Special Education budget, and it was foreseeable that we would run into trouble raising salaries without receiving any additional revenue to fund them.  

These are some of our lowest-paid employees, and the raises were long-overdue; we just need to be more careful going forward to ensure that the pay increases we give are sustainable. The reality is that when you agree to raise pay, you are also agreeing to increased pension contributions as well, and I will be more watchful about this going forward.

This year we are going into bargaining with our teachers and staff. I do not know how negotiations are going to go, since we are in such a different financial position than we were the last time we were in bargaining. I am interested to hear ideas from our unions about where we could find additional cost savings, but I am also aware that we are in a much different financial condition now than we were last time.

Oakland has a large number of schools relative to the number of students we have.  This is a legacy of both declining enrollment, the small schools movement that was responsible for the creation of some of our best schools today, and the growth of charter schools. We cannot control how many charter school petitions we get as a district (we can control how many we approve, though we can be overturned by the County Office of Education board), but I believe that there are too many district schools and too many charter schools. In the coming year, there will be planning for OUSD school reconfiguration that will take place in the 18-19 school year. I am not interested in reconfiguring for the sole purpose of saving money. Any reconfiguration needs to expand access to our strongest programs, otherwise what's the point?

We have to be very deliberate about how we do this, because if we alienate families or school communities in the process, we will lose students and end up worse off financially than we are now. I also do not want to see us leave any school sites vacant. I am going to be very interested in this work, and will be focused on how the school communities that are part of those conversations are treated.

This post is getting very long, so I'll just wrap by saying that the cabinet has grown, as well as the salaries of the people who comprise the cabinet. There is a lot of pressure on board members to stay out of hiring decisions, and so I kept quiet when I had real reservations, seeing the number and size of salaries grow, mostly for people who are not critical to the mission of the district. Going forward, if I see that happening again, I will vote against those contracts and will be more vocal about it. I do believe it is part of the reason we are in this situation.

Finally, there is a lot of concern that the new national administration will use Title 1 funds (funds for low-income students) differently, turning them into block grants for vouchers or some other scheme. OUSD relies heavily on this funding, particularly in flatland schools (it's about $16M annually). Part of the reason that we are looking at ways to increase our reserve fund is so that we can absorb some of the blow if we lose Title 1 funding.

Part of what I am looking for in our next Superintendent is strong leadership on the financial front, and a willingness to not only lead the board through making hard decisions, but also someone who will make the necessary decisions in a spirit of partnership with our schools and our community.

Everyone wants the best for students, but it is hard to believe district leaders when there is not full transparency about why we are in the situation we are in.

There needs to be greater transparency going forward about how we got here, the numbers we need to hit, and greater honesty about the trade-offs that can be made, and much more inclusivity in decision-making.  Principals, teachers, staff, unions and parent groups all need to be given the opportunity to weigh in on these decisions. 

If you have thoughts on the Superintendent search, I'd love to hear them. The full board will be doing a town hall on February 11 at 10 am at McClymonds High School, 2607 Myrtle St, in West Oakland. 

If you got this far, thanks for reading!

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Safe Schools Walk-In a Success

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Hanging out with Munck teachers and Denise Burroughs (right), Munck's Principal

Today was a National Day of Action called by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, a day to declare our schools safe spaces for all students and families, regardless of the Trump agenda for education, immigration, or any other threat his agenda may pose for Oaklanders.

The Oakland Education Association invited board members to visit schools and hang out with teachers and parents for a "walk in," rather than a walk-out.

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Munck parents, including Nikki Hai (right, above), were very appreciative of the message that our schools will continue to be welcoming and safe places for Oakland families. The board recently passed a resolution declaring our district a sanctuary district, and I was proud to provide leadership, along with Director Torres of District 5, and with a lot of help from Parents United for Public Schools to come up with the language and rally the community organizations to be involved.

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Carl Munck has some of the longest-serving teachers in OUSD. 

Tomorrow during inauguration, we expect many of our students to "walk out," rather than walking in, but I'm proud of the commitment to social justice in our city and our school district, and proud that our district is committed to safe schools for all Oakland families, whatever may be coming our way from Washington.

It is a scary time for immigrant families and many others. It is scary not knowing whether Title 1 funds that districts like Oakland rely on will continue to exist, but I have faith that our community will come together to weather the storm for our students, and I'm honored to be serving our city and our students at such a difficult time.

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Parents, Students, Teachers Weigh in on Superintendent Search

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Pictured, left to right, Che' Phinessee, parent organizer and a Reach Academy parent, Margaret Cooksey, a Junior at Oakland High School, Joya Brandon, a teacher at ROOTS, and Sharon Rose, a former Adult Education teacher in OUSD and education activist.

We had great turnout yesterday for the community forum on the superintendent search. We started with some basic information on what the superintendent is responsible for, and Director Torres and I shared our thoughts on the priorities.

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Then we had a great panel featuring Joya Brandon of ROOTS Middle School, Margaret Cooksey, a Junior at O High, and Che' Phinessee, a parent at Reach, and a Parent Leader with PLAN. One issue that came up for all three of them was class size, and how difficult it is for students to feel safe, and for teachers to give them the attention they need. Joya Brandon has 36 students per class, and shared her frustration about not being able to teach to the standard she would like to, which is impossible with so many students.

There was universal support for our restorative justice work, and a strong desire for us to bolster that work (ROOTS has one RJ Coordinator, but there is need for a second one); the work they do to support teachers with RJ practices is critical. Che' Phinessee wished that we started RJ work in elementary school rather than middle school; then kids would come to middle school with those practices as habits.

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Language access was a major issue raised by Che' Phinessee, who said that it inhibits parent participation when they cannot communicate with school staff. We need more interpreters and more translators to support greater participation. Joya Brandon shared that there is also need for more supports for Special Education students and Newcomers at ROOTS.

There was also demand for a transparent search process with opportunities for the community to be involved, and in particular, a search committee that community members can serve on.

Joya Brandon called for a moratorium on new charter schools and better oversight of the existing ones and for a reduction in the district's spending on police services.

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Calvin Williams works for the Movement Strategy Center. His group was very supportive of the district's work around equity, and wanted to see it continue.

After the panel, small groups met to share their must-haves and must-not-haves for our next Superintendent.

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Overall, my main takeaways from the program are that:

1. The community wants to be involved in a committee that screens candidates for the permanent Superintendent job.

2. There is strong consensus that folks want someone from Oakland or who knows our district well.

3. There is strong consensus that folks want a Superintendent who will concentrate resources in schools rather than in central.

4. There were many groups that expressed concern about the growth of charter schools/privatization/contracting out for district services.

5. There is a strong desire for a Superintendent who is capable when it comes to managing the budget and the district's finances.

6. Overall, there is a desire for a Superintendent who is accessible, approachable and listens to the community in a warm and welcoming way (a word that came up a lot was 'human.').

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Finally, several people remarked that they really liked having the opportunity to talk with Director Torres and I one to one and as equals (rather than with us on the dais and them down below), and said that it made us seem like ordinary people (which, for the record, we are). I was glad to hear that.

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