Unintended Consequences and How NOT to Fix OUSD’s Broken Budget

Oakland Unified’s initial efforts to stem its budget crisis have failed, and unless we learn some lessons from this experience it will get a lot worse before it gets better.  According to the East Bay Times’ recent article “Oakland school district spending ‘limits’ backfire, $10 million in cuts still needed” OUSD’s plan to cut spending,

not only did not yield intended results, but had the opposite effect, resulting in 249 percent more spending for the month of January as compared to the previous year, officials said in a statement. And more purchase requests were made in February and March after the plan was put in place

My guess here is that savvy school leaders pushed additional spending through in the window that was open, anticipating it would close.  It’s a hard lesson in the ways that the system reacts to seemingly logical plans, and undermines them.  And now, we need to cut more, faster.

There has to be another way than autopilot

When I look at the further clamping down on budgets, with blanket hiring freezes, limits on spending and future encroachments that schools were banking on in some cases, and also cuts to some of our most critical departments, I know there has to be another way.

The initial targets for cuts are in departments that serve critical basic needs and reduce achievement gaps: special education, early childhood, and nutrition services, our most vulnerable students and families are threatened with losing the most.

These blanket freezes also tend to stifle innovation and freeze or recede strategic initiatives as things go on autopilot.  Newer programs, or those slated for increases, lose more than established ones.  “Freeze” doesn’t necessarily mean you will get no additional money, it may mean that the additional money you were promised in this or next year’s budget is not going to be there.  So a blanket freeze keeps this big ship going the same direction, and maybe even turns it backwards some.

OUSD has been moving the needle in some of its newer/improved programs and particularly those focused on children who we owe the most; Black children, foster youth,  newcomers, English learners, and underserved students most generally.  There is a long way to go, but we have been making progress.  And again, the nature of newer programs is that their funding is planned to increase—so when a freeze comes, it hits growing programs doubly hard.

We will never nickel and dime our way out of this one, by doing a little less of the same.  And staff make up the vast majority of the ongoing costs, and realistically you can’t really cut numbers  or salaries, nor should you.  If we do take that route and make teaching even harder, staff will vote with their feet, and plenty of other districts are looking.

Putting all the assets on the table

We need to think bigger and expand the options for ways out of this mess, putting all our assets on the table.

And the one asset OUSD has, that actually is increasing in value, is land.  The value of property in Oakland is at historic highs, while enrollment is at historic lows.  We are a declining enrollment district, there is no reason to think that will change drastically, and we have roughly twice the number of school sites compared to similarly sized districts.

More than 55,000 seats and only 37,000 district students

And let me quote from one of the district’s own presentations, developed in 2009 when the district had more students than today, “The district now has more classrooms than to meet 1999 peak enrollment of 55,000 students.”  The current OUSD is now at roughly 37,000 students.  Something has got to give and it seems like it is land.

The District also has undeveloped parcels, often next to schools, maybe we can sell adjacent land for housing with deals for teachers.   And some sites presumably will be shuttering.  I also wonder whether that new central office building on Second Ave is the best expenditure.  Why couldn’t central office take space permanently in underutilized school sites?  That site has got to be worth serious cash.

Old solutions won’t work

These are just some ideas.  But we need to think outside the box.

I am not sure of the answer, but I am sure that blanket freezes, and the historical way of cutting the budget likely won’t work and definitely won’t move us forward educationally.  First as we saw already, the savvy players can game any system, which leaves inexperienced players out in the cold.  And second, when program quality noticeably declines, or confidence in the schools does, parents and staff will vote with their feet.  They will go to private schools, charters, or out of district.

And since the district’s revenues are based largely on enrollment, this decline will further stress the system, which will have to keep cutting.  And again look at the first casualties—special education, nutrition, and early childhood as well as where some money for high needs students got lost somewhere in the system.

I don’t have the answers here, but we need to start changing the question.  We have seen where a blanket freeze gets us.  It’s time for some hard choices and strategic investments to lead us out of this spiral, autopilot won’t.

 

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Even Teachers Think It Should Take More Than Just 18 Months to Get Tenure

I had little interest in being a public school teacher. However, as a new teacher, the first job I was able to find was at a public school. My intent was to gain teaching experience there and then later teach at a private school. I’m thrilled to say I never made the move.

As I worked in the public school system, I was inspired and impressed by how innovative and passionate my colleagues were. I’d never been around people who were so fired up about education. Their energy and relentless pursuit of teaching excellence were contagious. I knew I’d found where I belonged.

After four years of teaching, I helped found a new public school in 2010: The San Fernando Institute for Applied Media (SFiAM). I’m still teaching, but in my new school I also help oversee the hiring of new teachers.

TEACHERS NEED MORE TIME

This experience has shown me that the current Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) permanent placement policy, more commonly known as tenure, needs to change.

The current policy allows a teacher to earn permanent status (commonly called tenure) after only two academic years. This translates to 18 months of actual time in the classroom. There are two main problems with the current tenure policy—both related to the extremely short tenure time frame.

First, 18 months is not enough time for new teachers to receive or implement meaningful feedback that will help them scale the very steep new-teacher learning curve. Becoming an effective teacher is a long process and requires continuous mentoring from seasoned, effective educators.

TEACHERS WILL STRUGGLE IN THE FIRST YEARS OF TEACHING. I KNOW I DID.Teachers will struggle in the first years of teaching. I know I did. But with guidance and support from my school, I was able to improve. This doesn’t happen quickly, however. Teachers require time to absorb feedback, apply new strategies in the classroom and see what works for their students. New teachers should be afforded the time they need to make adjustments to their teaching style so they can be effective over the long term.

Second, two academic years is not enough time for a school’s administration to determine if a teacher belongs in the classroom. Teaching requires a high level of dedication and perseverance and schools need time to determine if teachers are a good fit for the profession.

LEADERSHIP NEEDS MORE THAN 18 MONTHSThe current time frame is too short to determine if teachers have what it takes to grow professionally, learn from constructive feedback and positively impact students. School leadership needs more than 18 months in order to reasonably determine if a teacher has what it takes to be a great educator.

For these reasons, the time frame for tenure in LAUSD should be longer. An extended tenure time frame, such as the one outlined in Assemblymember Shirley Weber’s Teacher and Student Success Act, will provide teachers time to address deficiencies in their teaching and the school administration time to evaluate a teacher’s potential and effectiveness before granting permanent status.

An educator throughout her career, Assemblymember Weber collaborated with teachers to draft legislation to provide new teachers three years to improve before the tenure decision, with up to five years for those who need more time to hone their craft. If lawmakers pass this bill, we will provide teachers with more time to grow their craft and administrators with more time to make decisions about who becomes permanently placed at the helm of our classrooms.

Erin Fitzgerald-Haddad teaches seventh-grade math at the San Fernando Institute of Applied Media, a pilot school she co-founded in 2010. She has served in many leadership roles in her school and is an active member of Educators for Excellence-Los Angeles. FULL PROFILE →

The Little School that Could; How a Relentless Community Fought for Lazear Elementary and Won

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them”Frederick Douglass

“We had to do it, our kids were first, no matter what it took.” Parent Leader, Rocio Gonzalez

In 2012 Oakland Unified moved to close Lazear Elementary School as one of five casualties of enrollment reductions and budget cuts. But the school, and the community that fought for it, are still here and thriving.

Their struggle demonstrates the power of the community to stand up, fight for, and win, against overwhelming odds.  And as we have a déjà vu moment with budget deficits and another round of threatened closures, other school communities should take notice.

A “family” used to fighting for theirs

The Lazear community had gotten used to getting offered the short end of the stick.  50 years ago the campus had burned down.  It wasn’t reconstructed.  Instead, portable classrooms were strewn on the cement foundation, the school sandwiched between a foul smelling highway, a major off ramp, and industrial sites. It was, and arguably is, Oakland’s worst school facility.

But Lazear is not about the buildings, it is about the people.  The difference between Lazear and the other schools that closed was the Lazear community.  Or the Lazear family.  It’s a neighborhood school, where grandmothers, mothers and now children go.  And they call this school home.

The community had a history of activism; strikes, picketing, and marches, drawing the ire and respect of school board trustees and superintendents.

And they would not go quietly.

“Si se puede”

Parent leader Rocio Gonzalez schooled me on some of this history, one of resistance, organizing, struggle and progress.  While Lazear did often initially, get the short end of the stick, they fought for more and usually got it.

The portable classrooms in the 1990’s were unbearable.  Many were windowless, they had doors that wouldn’t close, grit and grime so old that it was uncleanable, the water was brown from sinks, and where there were windows they were often unusable, and who knows what health hazards lurked in 50 year old portables.

The community asked Oakland Unified for help, but none came, so the families went on strike.  They shut it down.  Less than 10% of students showed up for school.  And they got their new portables.

When a teacher repeatedly put children at risk, they shut it down.  When a principal was assigned to the school, and not getting it done or holding teachers accountable, they shut it down.  And they got them out.

The school had to be accountable to the parents, or the parents would fight back.

Demanding voice

But it was not enough to just remove a principal.  The community wanted the power to choose the next one, and they got it.  The parents interviewed all the principal candidates and basically made the hire, and, their preferred candidate, Mr. Weaver chose the school.  He presented the community with a list of what he needed to be successful; more science and a deeper commitment to math and reading.  And a partnership was formed.

Despite challenges the school made solid progress. Mr. Weaver was digging in, the campus was humming with energy, science fairs were igniting young minds and families were again welcomed and building community at the school.  Lazear was back and kids were learning.

Then came the closure notice.  Not even a call, just the name showing up on a public list.

“That’s when our nightmare started”

Mr. Weaver passionately argued that the community had to organize, and there was fertile ground in the parents who really didn’t need any encouragement and were ready to go.  “It was late night school board meetings, where we were always last on the agenda, families and children there until midnight.  It was a very difficult year” Ms. Gonzalez said, and progress with the Board was slow or nonexistent.

Oakland Unified was going to close Lazear.

The one option left was to apply for a charter school, something that members of the Lazear community had experience with.  In fact they had helped create Oakland Charter Academy Middle School, which was the 9th charter school in California.  But the clock was ticking to submit a charter in time to open next year and the process had changed and become much more complex and professionalized.  And if the school was closed and they didn’t have a charter they worried the land would be sold, so they had to be ready to open in the Fall.

These differences in charter process showed when the Lazear families came to a board meeting to present their charter in a slim binder.  They saw Education for Change (EFC), a community based charter management organization, submitting volumes, ”We spoke to them, pulled back our petition and asked EFC if they would help.” Ms. Gonzalez remembered.

“This is crazy”

That was the uniform response from parents, staff, and the folks at EFC.  It was already October, they had no building, and no charter, and hadn’t agreed on a school model.  There were some tough early meetings and frictions.

Meanwhile, parents from other closing schools warned that the Lazear parents would lose their voice by going charter.  And it would take a lot of work to get this charter written and approved, and with no deep pocketed funders, much of that work would fall on the community.

But when it came down to it, the school leadership, and families met with Education for Change and there was no choice, “we had to do it, our kids were first, no matter what it took.” Ms. Gonzalez summarized.

It was never easy, delays and hearings in front of OUSD.  A soft promise that the charter would be approved under conditions, but when the vote came to the OUSD board, the Lazear families lost, with only 2 votes in favor.  The room was awash in tears.   Folks I know who I don’t think of as crying, were.  It was heartbreaking.  But it wasn’t over yet.

California charter law provides a set of appeals when you are turned down, first to the county and then to the state.  And if a charter meets a set of conditions the law states that it “shall” be approved.  So the county looks at the charters fresh.  And the experience at the county was an amicable one, where the school earned approval, spurred by the families, as board vice president Yvonne Cerrato said, “I’ve seen charter schools come and go…but the parents united and want something.”

But being approved and opening a high quality schools are two very different things, and it was getting late to open a good school.

A Relentless community a hard year and real progress

Getting approved was the easy part.  Now they had to open the school.  And given the uncertainty only 1 teacher stayed at Lazear.  Originally they only had 100 of the more than 250 students they needed.  And while they did get to lease their old school site, the district came in and stripped out anything worth keeping, leaving shells of classrooms.

But again the community came together.  They cleaned and painted, and organized the school site.  They walked the neighborhoods recruiting families.  The County helped where it could, and the staff from EFC and the community were on a full court press to recruit families back to Lazear.

By the end of September, the classes were full.  “It was a very tough year, but we had a happy end.”  Ms. Gonzalez summarized, “Now, Lazear is getting a new building, we have good teachers and high quality leadership, all those sleepless nights, all that hard work…it was worth it”

Reading the renewal report for Lazear from Alameda County it’s clear things are moving in the right direction,

“The Review team found the education sound, and in a number of ways exemplary.  When looking at cohort-matched data, Lazear experienced a 10 percentage point increase in proficiency from 2015 to 2016. Furthermore, all grade level cohorts experienced an increase in proficiency with the largest increases in 7th grade and 8th grade cohorts (22 percentage points and 15 percentage points, respectively)… The Lazear Charter Academy academic program is a success for its students.”

“We still have a voice”

Lazear is not perfect, but it is one of those evolving works in progress where the school is accountable to the community, and everyone partners to move forward.  There was a principal during the EFC years who the parents didn’t think was getting it done, they voiced their concerns, and a change was made.

“Before decisions are made, we talk about it, they come to us, and there are structures.  The schools have a parent coordinator, we have a family leadership council that meets monthly and we have two parents we elect to sit on the Board.” explained Ms. Gonzalez.

A tenacious community building family

Lazear is a community school from the community” said teacher Luis Torres, “it was that community feel that attracted me to Lazear and the strength and commitment from families… Every day I am awed by the tenacity, grit and perseverance of the community, that just kept pushing forward”, this was mirrored in the students, “I am amazed by what they go through sometimes, and they show up every day, they see violence and face trauma, but they have that grit and tenacity, they are relentless, and since they don’t give up we don’t give up either.”

And this idea of “home” or “family” came up over and over in the conversation, of a place where all the staff and families feel comfortable and the door is open.  This plays out in packed parent meetings, families constantly on site, and a legitimate partnership.  As Mr. Torres said, “parents are the first ones I go to when I need support.”  And he doesn’t need to go far.

On this afternoon a group of moms are selling nachos to raise money for prizes for a reading club, another set of parents mill in the main entrance and others come and go from the parent center we are speaking in.  Food is another lure, “we love to eat here” Ms. Gonzalez said as she described how both sharing meals attracts families and gives the opportunity to get to know them and for them to become comfortable.

A lesson for other communities

Community voice matters, and when it is unified, strong, and relentless, the game can be changed.

Our city and community are better with Lazear Charter School.  But it took a fight.  We didn’t have the money or the connections, but we had the organization, community, and the will.  And as this next set of axes falls in Oakland, with predictable victims, there are lessons to be learned from Lazear, that are deeper than any political action or decision.

This was voiced by parent, Alicia Rodriguez, she said around earlier strikes “these lessons are lessons for our children, they are getting a lesson in democracy and the power they can have if they assert their rights…I think my son is getting a lesson more valuable than anything he may learn from a textbook.”

I think we can all learn some lessons from this community, and hope we do.

 

Full disclosure the author is board member of Education for Change and is politely requests of the Lazear community not to strike.

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Ending the Prop 39 Charter Facility Fiasco

The way that Oakland Unified allocates facilities is bad for kids, schools, and likely the district’s bank account.  We have all heard about the “too many schools” problem, but here I am talking about Proposition 39 which mandates that districts make “reasonably equivalent” facilities available to public charter school students.

This is an annual ritual fraught with conflict, anger, and lawsuits: a giant game of musical chairs where a couple of district staff are supposed to allocate thousands of charter seats amidst district facilities, smashing large square pegs into a myriad of small round holes.

Practically this can’t be done fairly without, in many cases, disrupting existing OUSD sites in bigger or smaller ways or splitting the charters into multiple sites, and usually both.  It’s doubly bad for the charters, who often don’t know where they will be sited, go through an appeals process and delays, and have to put precious time and energy into a fight for something they have a right to be given.

And it’s hard to tell parents who need to enroll their child somewhere, that you aren’t sure where you will be located in the Fall.

Leases or lawyers

There are only two things the district can do legally; one, they can develop a long term lease outside of the Prop 39 process, or two, they can go through the yearly musical chairs, or I guess, three, they can get sued and lose.

As a lawyer I agree with Dickens, “the law is a ass.”  Going to court wastes time and money and also subjects you to judicial fiat, which even if well intentioned probably won’t come up with the best plan.   I believe that we are better off negotiating our way to good agreements which provide stability and better outcomes for everyone.

And let’s be clear, there is no free ride.  Charters pay for the sites, which otherwise may sit shuttered costing the district money.  And speaking for Lazear Charter Academy, millions of dollars are going into upgrading the site, which is OUSD’s.  And in many cases, charters continue to use the district custodial staff and pay for them.

Meanwhile, the musical chairs game of Prop 39 is a mess year after year, with stupefying results that will likely cost the district money, and further divide the community.  Nobody likes to get sued, but nobody likes to get screwed either.

The absurdity of this process was on full display at the 3/22 OUSD Board meeting, 16 charters requested facilities under prop 39, and the majority of those are going to be a fight.  At the same time another 15 charters did not request sites, because they have long term agreements, so no fight, no instability.  We need more in column B and less in column A.

And let’s look at a couple of the “offers

An offer you can’t accept

The detailed offer proposed at the Board meeting involved moving East Oakland Leadership Academy which is currently at Seminary and Foothill (Emphasize the East Oakland) to Westlake Middle (yeah on the west side of Lake Merrit), that’s 6 miles.  And for a school whose parents walk to school with children, it’s a community killer, maybe a school killer.

And that was a single site offer, so I guess that is relatively good. Though Prop 39 says that charter sites should be “contiguous,” many charter offers are sited across multiple campuses.

American Indian Public Charter II had its students distributed over 5 different sites; Allendale, Skyline, Munck, Howard, and Garfield.  How could a principal manage that?  They can’t.

And I challenge anyone with a straight face to argue this is “reasonably equivalent” to other district facilities.   You can’t.  It’s not.  You will lose in court.

Instability is bad for schools, kids and the district

I know a vocal minority don’t like or agree with the Prop 39, but it was approved by the voters overwhelmingly, and gave public charter school students rights to district facilities, setting rules and timelines.  By all means lobby to overturn it, but until then it’s the law.

Districts have ignored the law to their own peril.  LAUSD lost a $7 million lawsuit last year on Prop 39, and Oakland is poised to lose as well if it comes to that, based on my reading of the law and facts.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  The current approach is administratively very challenging, and leaves few real options.  Meanwhile the district is sitting on undeveloped plots of land, underutilized sites, and other assets to use in reaching agreements with charters before it comes to Prop 39, avoiding the yearly drama, lawsuits, and uncertainty.  And OUSD already has successfully negotiated many agreements.

Schools not knowing where they are going, last minute changes, splitting schools into multiple sites, all these things are bad for kids and learning.  So to advocate for policies that consistently create these conditions is bad for kids no matter whose “side” you are on.  And it’s going to create a bad situation for the district, where they will lose a lawsuit, lose money, and may lose autonomy on these decisions.

There is a better way to get this done, I hope we can sit around a table and agree before we are disagreeing in front of a judge.

 

The Spook Who Sat by the Charter School Door

I am the fly in the school reform buttermilk. An outsider, now marginally on the inside, trying to plot the revolution. 

Young, gifted and Black, I founded a charter school support organization in Oakland at the dawn of the movement in the ’90s, followed Katrina into New Orleans to help resuscitate the (charter) schools, and then was CEO of a $41 million dollar public-private partnership to spur charters in New York City, with Chancellor Joel Klein on my board.

I sat in the boardrooms, and the meetings before the meeting where everything was really decided, and often was there when folks negotiated the futures of these communities in bigger or smaller ways. And I can say, as usually the only brother in the room, that school reformers—and I’m talking about the “deformers” here—can be a little scary. Well, sometimes a lot scary.

I apologize in advance to the good, well-meaning folks who are actually trying to understand and empathize with our kids and families. I love many of y’all—but you gotta admit there are some real pieces of work in the room, too.

Colonial Reformers

Many, many folks have an “other people’s children” problem. They support and applaud the creation of schools that they would never send their own children to. “No excuses” schools where students eat silent lunches and walk in silent halls, where trauma is disciplined into submission or exit.

These schools are usually led by some young, relatively inexperienced hotshot, who has learned a lot in school or in some prep program, but knows very little. But he’s great, they love him.

The natives, not so much. For instance, the veteran Latina educator and school leader, who has a doctorate and decades of experience, starts one of the highest achieving schools in the South Bronx, in the shadow of one of its dropout factories. She’s lived there her whole life and fought and worked in the community. They’ll say, “She’s crazy.” No money for her. These “deformers” might even undermine her behind her back.

I can’t count how many times people of color were called “crazy” for the dreams they have for our kids and their willingness to fight bareknuckled for them, while White folks are called “ambitious” and given money to achieve the same thing. 

And sometimes these people are just racist. One of these Thurston Howell-types (anybody else watch Gilligan’s Island?) walked into a discussion I was having about a weak charter leader. I was running through a number of data points. First question from him: “Is she Black?” No, she isn’t. But why is that the assumption?

And keep in mind, these are the deciders—the authorizers in some cases, the funders in others.

There Are No “Sides” When Kids Lose

Then there are those that cheer or snicker when “the other side” fails. Too many people delighted at the stumbling of a charter school founded by the New York City teachers union. But it was serving kids in East New York, where kids need to be served better. Do you really want to see that school fail?

When you are the spook, there is nothing funny, nothing to be self-congratulatory about, not another “side.” Kids are failing and being failed. When you are the spook, those are your kids.

But to many of them, it’s just another point on the political scoreboard. Something to throw at the union in an adult mudfight. And that’s all it is, because their kids will never go to these schools. They can’t imagine themselves or their kids living where these children and families are.

The Choice Is There Is No Choice

It’s not easy being the spook.

Maybe you know the Black nationalist novel from the ’60s (or the movie it inspired), “The Spook Who Sat by the Door”? The main character is a “spook”—another word for a spy in the CIA. But there’s a deeper political message. The real meaning of “spook” is an old racial slur for Blacks. The early response to affirmative action was to force your token Black employee to sit right by the door, giving the appearance of a “diverse workplace” that still operated on the same system of White privilege and oppression that this country was founded on.

Sometimes I feel like that spook. Sitting in these funders’ boardrooms and closed-door meetings, sometimes I wonder if they’ve positioned me right by the proverbial door, to add some legitimacy to an enterprise that—for the worst of these “deformers,” for the colonial reformers—isn’t really isn’t about empowering communities of color at all.

Late at night I often wonder whether we can dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. Whether being the spook inside is better than being the agitator outside. Whether trying to build institutions and children in the space the system affords us will ever work.

But spooks don’t have too many choices. We see the daily toll taken on youth and the price of inaction. And we’re joined by many other reformers—White, Black and Brown—who are here to do the work, and really believe in the schools we’re building.

In a rigged system where few even get near the door, I am picking up what tools I can, and hope to unbolt the foundations while a smarter and better army of young architects and carpenters develop.

Maybe those who inherit it can finish the job of remaking this system into something better.

 

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