Me with parents and members of the design team for Oakland Sol Middle School. Katherine Carter, right, is the Principal.
At the November 14 board meeting, the board will be taking up the second cohort of Blueprint schools. Though I knew the risks of embarking on a process to rethink our school offerings given OUSD's history, I was supportive when we kicked off this work because too many students aren't getting the education they deserve, and because the excessive number of schools is leading to underinvestment in each student (too much is spent maintaining an excessive number of underenrolled facilities and unnecessary administration costs). If we can focus on fewer schools, we can invest more in each of them.
It was my hope when we started this process that the focus would be on ensuring that students' needs would be the focus; that we would ensure students will benefit from any changes that are made, and that we do everything possible to mitigate harm to students, families and staff. What this means to me is involving school communities in the decisions affecting them, going slow enough to mitigate the impact on students and staff, giving schools adequate time for planning, avoiding closing schools down suddenly, ensuring that we don’t accidentally destroy our quality schools by expanding too hastily, and ensuring that we don’t facilitate charter school growth by giving vacated facilities to charter schools. Most importantly, it means making decisions that are centered on expanding opportunities for students.
Having spent the last year learning from staff and parents who were affected by the last round of school closures at three different community forums, if we don't take the steps above, we will be in for disaster. This is because there is no way to know whether these changes will lead to cost savings for the district. That is why we have to treat school mergers and consolidations as a long-term process focused on increasing and expanding our quality schools. It is not a reliable tool for any short-term budget reductions.
I am sad to report that I am hearing that the direction the Superintendent is heading with the Blueprint is going to be much more aggressive than I am comfortable with, and I do not have confidence in the plan that is coming to the board. I support our Superintendent, but I do NOT support the plan for the next three years, as it stands today. I am hopeful that working with the Superintendent and fellow board members, that we can still get a plan that addresses the fiscal reality but also keeps students' needs at the center.
It is inherently risky to make large-scale changes to our schools, but I think that is our job, if students aren’t getting the education they deserve. However, how we do it is critically important. Those who were around during the last round of school closures under Tony Smith may recall that only five schools were slated for closure, and two of them ended up being converted to charter schools, and we lost 1500 students the following year, making our financial situation even worse. This could very easily happen again, if we are hasty and believe that we can address the budget crisis with school closures.
No doubt some members of the board and the staff will say that we must go this fast in order to be eligible to receive the AB 1840 allocation to help us transition over three years to a more sustainable budget picture. Having spent over two hours questioning officials from the Alameda County Office of Education, FCMAT, the state Department of Education and our State Trustee on October 24, I disagree that there is any prescribed number of schools they are expecting us to close or merge.
They were very clear that their expectations are based on the commitments that we ourselves make as a board (not that they assign to us), which means that we can decide the right pace for our district, our students and our staff. Then, once we set a reasonable pace that is good for our students, we must stick to that pace and meet our commitments.
There is still time to slow our roll as a district, and refocus on what is right for our kids (increasing quality). The plans that we adopt now are what we will be held accountable to by the county and the state, so let’s adopt a plan that moves us toward sustainability while minimizing disruption of our students and staff, and most importantly, ensuring that students will be made better off by any changes we make. I cannot support disruptive change unless there is compelling evidence that students will get a better school as a result.
If we can make changes that focus on long-term expansion of access to quality options, that will drive increased enrollment, which is the real fix for our budget woes. A short-term focus is only going to make things worse.