School Reconfiguration Must be Done Thoughtfully

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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