What I've Learned from my First Six Months

We passed the budget and LCAP last night, and dealt with many other important matters, and now I have about six weeks until the board meetings resume in August.  I thought I would take the opportunity to share with constituents a little of what I have learned so far, and what I feel I have accomplished in these first six months.

First and foremost, I wanted to be a visible, accessible and strong School Board member who was creating space for some of the neglected and critical conversations that are long overdue in Oakland.  For example, OUSD does not provide training to the general public on understanding how our budget works and how citizens can influence it.  So I held a training, with staff from OCO, PLAN and EBAYC, who know the OUSD budget inside and out.  It was well-attended and family engagement was a priority identified by the group, specifically home visiting, to get families more involved in their students' education.  I am pleased to report that the budget just passed will provide some resources for a home visiting pilot.  It's not enough, but it's a start.

I also held sessions for the community about how public education advocates should talk about education with the general public, what is needed to reduce teacher turnover in Oakland, what the challenges are for special needs families and teachers, and about the strategies different schools employ to foster family engagement.  And I have held numerous meetings of my Education Advisory Committee meeting, to hear from constituents about their concerns.

Another goal of mine is broader inclusion in OUSD decision-making.  When there is controversy about what OUSD does, it often stems from the feeling that the public has not been sufficiently included in decision-making.  I feel strongly that inclusion in decision-making is not just the right thing to do, because we are using public funds.  I also believe that we get better decisions and better policy when we consult more people. 

My commitment to making myself available to constituents is part of how I am addressing this goal, but over time I want to see OUSD more oriented toward seeking out and embracing community voices in decision-making.  The district is investing much more in community engagement staff for next year, but engagement does not always translate into meaningful inclusion in decisions.  It is very evident when engagement is being done to build support for decisions that have already been made.  Part of my job is to ensure that those investments in engagement actually translate into genuine community participation in OUSD decision-making.

I continue to feel that we are underinvesting in the engagement of families, both in terms of the staff that OUSD employs whose job this is, but also when we look at the facts that the majority of OUSD schools do not have a dedicated space for families in the school or sufficient staffing to reach out to families whose students are missing school.  Also, many schools do not have a high-functioning SSC that is well trained, supported and empowered to help make good decisions on behalf of their students.  I feel that we are underinvesting in the training of these parents to support their students' education.  OUSD has made a modest increase in this area for the coming year, but we are not anywhere close to where we need to be.

Another goal is to increase resources for Oakland students.  This is a longer-term goal that has to be addressed at both the local and statewide levels.  There is an exciting statewide campaign called Make it Fair to reform Prop 13 so that California corporations pay their fair share for public services such as education.  I am holding a community meeting on July 7 with organizers from ACCE and Courage Campaign to highlight this work and the need to fix Prop 13 so that schools and other public services get the resources they need.  Please attend!  Details here.

Locally, we will likely be going to voters in 2016 for a bond measure or parcel tax.  We have great facilities needs in OUSD.  Just here in District 6, Skyline High School needs a lot of work to make the campus safer, the old Adult School (Shands) is in need of repairs, we are a doing grade expansion at Greenleaf, and Frick Middle School will be making some upgrades to support the new programs they will be doing there.  The new administration building is also a big-ticket item. 

We also have instructional needs to support, and two areaa that we really need to focus on are vocational training and preparing students for the trades, and making summer school available to all students, not just those who are short of credits to graduate.  The scope of need makes it easy to get overwhelmed.

But I see our long-term fix as internal capacity-building, and this is where I have experienced the most frustration this year.  We will never have enough resources to do all that our students deserve using outsiders/contractors.  However, we can develop our own people's skills and capacities to support students - our staff, families, teachers and administrators - and those skills never go away, unlike when we bring in contracted people.

So that is one area where I will continue to focus in the coming school year, on addressing the reliance on contracting out and increasing our reliance on building internal capacity for the people in our school communities and on our staff. 

Staff are sometimes more expensive than contractors, but they are also more invested in the long-term success of the organization, and they can develop others in the organization if the culture supports it.

Finally, I believe that we need a stronger School Board.  I do not believe that the board ever really recovered from the period of state receivership, and I think that passivity can be dangerous.  We were elected so that there would be checks and balances, and it is not only appropriate to ask questions and pose alternative courses of action, it is absolutely necessary.  I have pushed for additional training, better onboarding, and will be working on a governance manual that I am hoping will get future board members up to speed quickly.  But I am also hoping we will have some new blood in the next few years, people who see the oversight role as a critical part of the job.

So there you have it; my report back after my first six months.

As always, please let me know if you have questions.

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