OUSD will not nickel and dime its way out of the budget crisis, and we need to hire a leader quickly to start making the hard decisions. The papers are starting to bleed with stories of seeming valuable programs on the chopping block because they cost more, which is only the start of what promises to be a painful budget season.
This week we saw stories about a highly regarded special education program, the Reading Clinic, with threats of being zeroed out, as well as a small travel abroad program, that returned with strong reviews, Thrival Academies, worrying about future funding. And this is before the budget is even released. Expect to see a parade of other popular programs and staff being cut, and to hear about it in headache-inducing Board and community meetings.
There is an old line about people who know the cost of everything but the value of nothing. We need to bear that in mind, as some programs do cost more than others, but it’s more a question of value. I personally don’t know if these programs could be run more efficiently or whether they are the best cuts, but someone needs to, and to have the courage to make these strategic decisions and stand behind them.
Hopefully, our “permanent leader” will be appointed today, and she can start to right the ship.
New Answers to Old Questions
I have argued before that we need to get out of this short term fiscal crisis, step back, and really re-evaluate what is happening in OUSD and what should happen. This will require some bold plans, and seriously rethinking some assumptions. I know it’s easy as an outsider to say don’t cut special education—but until you are sure, don’t cut special education.
I know there are overruns and there probably is wasted money somewhere in there—like there is everywhere—but on SpEd, you often pay now or pay later, and paying later usually includes legal fees and a moral price tag too.
OUSD has more seats in schools than students. And Oakland’s land values are at all time highs. I would also argue that the schools of the future should not be centered around kids sitting in a building all day, and especially for high schools we should be thinking differently about school buildings. All that is to say that there has to be some way for Oakland to take advantage of the real estate boom to plug its short term fiscal hole, and figure out its future.
Cuts at the Top
The numbers I have seen show that OUSD, has a relatively large central office, with a recent growth in the top salaries and the number of top earners. The Justice for Oakland Students Coalition, has led the charge for central cuts, arguing that the last administration increased admin salaries by 566% while also embedding annual raises. Many of these positions are vacant now as well. So it really is time to think about the value add of central administrators.
For some specialized programs; ELLs, Foster, Homeless, and the Office of Equity, I think we absolutely need a central office administrator(s), but for much of the other work, I think the positions need to be justified. Especially for the newer chief level roles that seem redundant or at least superfluous when weighed against cuts to school sites.
Opportunities in Charters
OUSD has several charter schools that have long term leases—like 40 year leases–the schools do pay rent and maintenance, and I do not know the numbers off hand. But why not offer to sell some of those sites to raise the cash? Charter schools already have a right to use OUSD facilities under Proposition 39, where it makes sense, OUSD should look to sell sites, and take the cash.
Also on the charter facility front, there is a way charters can draw state money for rental reimbursement, SB 740. Charters have to choose between using district space, which is guaranteed under Proposition 39, or to rent private space and request the reimbursement.
Again if we talk between sectors, there has to be some incentives OUSD could give to charters to increase usage of SB740. That would ultimately save space and money. But we have to be able to talk. And the way Proposition 39 is going I think most of the talk will be in courtrooms by high priced lawyers.
Teacher housing and OUSD Land
OUSD also owns land adjacent to school sites and could sell that and provide some teacher housing, as a condition. I saw a great model in faculty housing at a UC, where the housing is reserved for faculty, you pay the mortgage as faculty, and can only pass it on to other faculty. This is very low cost housing. And if we want a relatively simple answer on teacher stability; it is housing.
By all accounts, OUSD has underutilized sites, and there is no reason to think that future years will have more children sitting in OUSD classrooms. Housing and land prices are also at an all-time high. There has got to be a way for OUSD to capitalize on this trend, rather than fall victim to it, but that is going to take leadership.
The OUSD Board needs to make this hire and then stand behind our next superintendent. Rome is burning, and we don’t need no more fiddle playing.