My Accomplishments During my First Term on the School Board

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My Hardest Vote to Date

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Financial Oversight

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

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

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

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


Declining Enrollment

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

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

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

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

 

Why are Mid-Year Cuts Necessary?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Learning from Oakland's History with School Closures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Creating a Culture of Accountability in OUSD

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

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

1) Acknowledging our mistakes as a district,

2) Learning from them in any systematic way, and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Making Sanctuary Real for Oakland Students & Families

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 Board 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 our leaders often put politics 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.

The board 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 in OUSD. 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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