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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