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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My Priorities for the Superintendent Search

Since many constituents have reached out to me regarding their thoughts on the Superintendent search, I wanted to share with the community in a transparent way what I will be looking for in OUSD's permanent Superintendent. Of course, I am one member of a seven-member board, but I wanted to be open with folks about what my priorities are.

I look forward to hopefully hearing from some of you about your priorities at the January 14 forum at Frick and at other upcoming board engagements regarding the Superintendent search.

Top Criteria

As we move forward with the search for a permanent Superintendent for OUSD, I am looking for someone who:

  • Knows Oakland Unified extremely well, and has respect for the work and people in OUSD's school communities,
  • Will attend closely to the climate and culture of the district, and focus on reducing staff turnover,
  • Has a strong track record of improving student outcomes in OUSD,
  • Will concentrate district resources in schools rather than in high salaries for cabinet positions,
  • Will stay for five (and hopefully) ten years, providing needed stability to the district,
  • Is committed to democratic schools and will work against expansion of schools that are not under democratic community control, and
  • Can provide strong leadership on the budget and financial position of the district, and in particular, who has a plan for stabilizing enrollment in OUSD.

I realize this is a tall order, but I also believe that we can find someone who meets these criteria and who will serve with knowledge about (and respect for) our culture and history as a community and school district, and a commitment to staying in Oakland for the long haul.

School change is slow, and that is one of the most frustrating things about serving on the School Board. But we need a leader who knows that the work takes time, and is committed to seeing the work through and being a partner with others over the long haul, while also leading with a deep sense of urgency.

I look forward to hearing feedback from many of you on these criteria in the weeks and months to come.

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"Our Schools are Not for Sale," say Oakland Parents

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Oakland parents held a press conference this week to denounce the flood of cash from out of state billionaires in Oakland School Board races.

Parents United for Public Schools and Oakland Working Families held a press conference this week to express concern about the flood of billionaire money in OUSD School Board races, and what it means for their opportunities to shape the agenda for our school district and schools.

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Liz Suk (right) is a mom at Melrose Leadership Academy. She said that Oakland parents know what our students need, and they should be setting the agenda for our district, not billionaires from out of state.

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Clarissa Doutherd, right, has a son at Laurel Elementary. She said that her special needs son is not the priority for the right-wing billionaire donors currently trying to buy Oakland School Board seats, and that we need a School Board focused on the needs of students like her son, not the agenda of out of state billionaires.

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Tony Daquipa, right, is a dad at Sequoia Elementary. He objected to the large number of white billionaires trying to control the destiny of students and a district that is majority students and families of color.

Kim Davis, a founding parent from Parents United for Public Schools (PUPS), concluded by saying that Oakland parents have a vision for our schools, and that vision is the one that needs to be the focus for the Oakland School Board. She and other PUPS supporters are concerned that the flood of cash into School Board races distracts the School Board from the agenda that Oakland parents have for the district, to the priorities of those who fund their campaigns.

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What I Learned at Parker Community Forum

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Aida Olvera is the President of Parker's School Site Committee.

Tonight there was a community forum at Parker K-8 in District 6, the first in a series I will be doing to visit every school in District 6 and learn about their recent accomplishments, their challenges and their plans to address their challenges.

I really liked how this first forum went; the SSC President gave part of the presentation, along with the Assistant Principal Sarah Mehrizi and the Principal Koy Hill (Koy and Sarah are pictured below, left and right).

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Parker's Principal Koy Hill, Network Superintendent Laresha Martin, and Assistant Principal Sarah Mehrizi.

It was well-attended and two students won brand new laptops through a partnership that Parker has with the Oakland Housing Authority.  The students had a lot of questions about middle school electives, and specifically wanting more of them.

I told them about Measure G1, which will be on the ballot in a couple of weeks and will provide more funding for middle school electives, if it is passed, but I also said that schools make choices about how best to focus their resources.  Parker is strong in part because they have chosen to focus closely on academics, and that is part of why they are one of the best schools in the city.

Even before last year, Parker was one of the best schools in all of Oakland. Then last year, they were one of only three schools in the district to make double digit improvement in math on the statewide SBAC tests, which was due in part to the heavy investments Parker has made in technology programs like Eureka Math, which may now be adopted district-wide now that we have seen such impressive results at Parker.  This school year they are focusing on making even more improvements in reading, attendance and social-emotional learning.

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Parker students expressed a desire for more middle school electives at their school.

Parker has also invested heavily in social emotional learning tools for students, in particular one program called toolbox, and this is something that SSC President Aida Olvera shared in her presentation. Toolbox teaches kids strategies to manage their feelings and actions and to handle conflict.

I am excited for the future community forums at the other District 6 schools, and grateful to Koy Hill and his school community for holding the first one at Parker.  I'm really proud of their work and want everyone to know about it.

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Shawna, right, came to Parker in 3rd grade after attending an Aspire school. Her mom said Parker has been much more challenging for Shawna.

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Deborah Temple is a frequent volunteer at Parker. I'm so grateful for volunteers like her who are dedicated to our students!
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Photos from 2016 Latino Read-In

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Me with kids from Ahn De Los Reyes' 4th grade class at CUES.

Yesterday was the Latino Read-In. I read at Community United Elementary School, on International. The book was called Grandma's Gift, by Eric Velaquez. It was lots of fun, and I look forward to the next read-in. 

The time I spend with our students and parents is always a good reminder of why I wanted to serve on the School Board in the first place. Thanks CUES for the invitation!

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Some CUES students are Library Aides, who help out with checking out books and keeping the library orderly.

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Jaymie Lollie is the Community Schools Manager at Frick Middle School, another D6 school, and one of the other readers at CUES for the Latino Read-In.

 

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The kids were very curious about what School Board members do, and had lots of good questions.
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Thank you, Burckhalter Dads' Club

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Palling around with Burckhalter's staff and dads for Walk & Roll to School.

I spent this morning with dads from the Burckhalter Dads Club, who were welcoming kids to school for Walk & Roll to School Day. We were congratulating students and families on riding, walking or carpooling to school. Later on today, kids who brought their skates, bikes or scooters to school will get to ride them around the playground.

I was pleased to learn about the work of the new Dads Club from Eric Butler and Miguel Ortega, who helped manage the kids while they lined up to get their pencil and sticker swag for participating. They invited me to speak at the December 1 Dads Club meeting, so you can see me there if you stop by from 6-7 on December 1.

The Dads Club meets every 1st and 3rd Thursday from 6-7 at Burckhalter, and other dads are welcome to attend.

Thank you, Burckhalter dads for all your work on behalf of our students!

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Racial Justice and Measure G1

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Fellow panelists at the forum were Taina Vargas-Edmond from the Ella Baker Center, Jason Pfeifle from CALPIRG, Gloria Bruce from East Bay Housing Organizations, me, Jacob Bintliff from Oakland Tenants' Union and Lawrence Briscoe from the Coalition for Police Accountability.

Today I spoke at a Racial Justice Voters Forum at St. Cuthbert's Church, organized by the King Estates/Eastmont Hills Dialogue on Race and White Privilege. I was there to provide some information about Measure G1, the measure for OUSD salary increases and middle school improvement, and to discuss the racial justice implications of the parcel tax.

I believe Measure G1 is related to racial justice for three reasons:

  • OUSD students need to have teachers who look like them and speak their languages.  This is part of creating schools that feel welcoming and inclusive for our students and families. Many people of color have been, and continue to be, driven out of Oakland by the high cost of living, and this includes our teachers and other school staff. A salary increase will help us to address the challenge of retaining teachers and other school staff of color.
  • High teacher and staff turnover disproportionately affects our flatland schools, which are most likely to be the schools attended by low-income students of color. Increasing salaries will bring down turnover and support student success.
  • Funds to improve middle school offerings will be allocated according to an equity formula, so that schools with higher needs (more low-income students and English Language Learners) will get more of the additional funding.

I was really impressed with all of the presenters and their analysis of the issues on the ballot with regard to race.  I'm glad that my neighbors have taken this on and look forward to their future gatherings, the next of which will be on November 12 (contact maureen_boyd@sbcglobal.net for more details about the group or this event). I hope you will join us there.

Me with two of my favorite D6 constituents, Tina Fleming, left and Kathryn Sterbenc, right. Kathryn is the Chair of the Oakland Library Advisory Commission.

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D6 Learning Forum Series Kicks off October 19 at Parker Elementary

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Parker students who entered a contest to present entrepreneurship ideas.

I am excited to announce the launch of a monthly series of programs in District 6 that will highlight the achievements, special programs and also the challenges facing our schools.  The first one will be on October 19 at Parker Elementary (7929 Ney Ave), at 6 pm.

I am really proud of the work happening at Parker, especially when it comes to math. Parker students have had the most success in the district over the last year when it comes to math, and I'm eager to learn more about what they are doing in math as well as schoolwide.

I have big hopes for these learning forums.  As a School Board member, it is an opportunity for me to take a deep dive into the plans that each District 6 school has to serve their students better and address the specific challenges they face. It is an opportunity for parents, teachers and staff at the school to become more familiar with the strategies their school has selected to address student needs, and to understand how and why those strategies were chosen.

The school governance team (teachers, administrators, staff, families) will have the chance to present on their work and take greater ownership over the school's achievements and challenges.

Finally, I want the community to know more about the accomplishments of our schools, and also the programs that our schools have to offer.  Over time, my plan is to do a forum at each District 6 school, to learn about their strategies for student success and to highlight what each of them has to offer and make sure that community members and families know how to support what the school is trying to do.

Please join us on October 19, or stay tuned to the events calendar for announcement of the upcoming ones.

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