Hard Choices Ahead for Oakland Unified

Recent news of an up to $30 million shortfall in the OUSD budget shadows big changes ahead.  These are critical times for the district and will set its course for years.  So we should all be watching and making our voices heard.

You can see some information about the shortfall and proposed budget priorities on the District’s site, and more details here at the materials for the 1/11/17 Board meeting.  But the short of it is, while revenues have grown significantly (the per pupil spending in 2014 was $5,789 in 2017 it’s pegged at $9,320 which is still very low compared to other states), the District has increased what it spends more quickly than its revenues have grown.

If you were around a couple of decades ago this is sounding like déjà vu all over again.

Higher than expected costs for special education, transportation and food, combined with higher salaries and general investments in schools, pushed up the costs.  Most of the district’s revenues come from the number of students who enroll.  So as numbers decrease so do the revenues,  and OUSD enrollment is over 800 students lower than estimated.

I know more than any civilian should about school funding, retirement cost formulas and charter school enrollment projections in Oakland.  And all of these trends are working against the District’s bottom line.  Retirement costs will spike in the next few years, one time funds from the state will dry up and the State budgets are already getting leaner, and we will have inevitable economic downturns, which will reduce revenues.  And while some charters are inevitably closed for substandard performance, more will open, and existing schools will continue to grow in many cases.

The only factors the district actually control are in cutting costs or in attracting more students either of the roughly 14,000 charter students or almost 16,000 other school aged residents who most likely go to private schools, but don’t show up on the district or charter rosters.

But even with growing enrollment, costs would still outpace revenue at the current pace.

Hard choices ahead

We can’t have it all.  We have limited resources and need to make decisions about where to spend money and correspondingly, where not to.

OUSD commissioned a study on its spending and some of the key findings were;

  • The total per-pupil spend in OUSD is lower than we see in other urban districts nationally. (DUH)
  • Per-pupil funding levels across middle and high schools vary greatly, even after adjusting for differences in student need across schools.
  • OUSD’s per-pupil spend on more Self-Contained/ “Special Day Classrooms” (PEC) is 35% higher than observed elsewhere.
  • The large numbers of under-enrolled schools in OUSD make it difficult to provide students with a complete set of services consistent with the strategic vision and provide teachers with working conditions that foster professional growth and effective practice.
  • Network superintendents supervise a strategically lower number of schools than observed in other districts; their supports are most highly rated by principals,

What to do

We can’t cut instructional or support staff or their salaries.  Oakland has a hard enough time attracting and keeping folks, and we are competing with a host of neighboring districts, so even though that is where most of the money is—we just can’t cut there in any significant way.  And while it might save money in the short term, kids would pay long term.

So the District is proposing cutting central office, consolidating under enrolled schools, and providing more special education services in house.  All of these are areas that seem out of whack with costs in similar districts. They are also proposing  some school smaller site reductions.  But we need to see some more detail and also the capacity to actually deliver on some of these changes.

There are more economic hard times to come in Oakland, and the further we kick the can down the road and defer these strategic decisions, the harder those decisions will become.

Right now we need good data, solid, transparent, analysis, and brave decisions.  Politically it’s always easier to kick the can down the road to the next guy or gal.

This is no time for politics as usual.

What do you think?

One thought on “Hard Choices Ahead for Oakland Unified

  1. There is always politics and politics will determine the budget.

    The politics and spin provided in the Superintendent Wilson’s power point on the budget shows that 2015-2016 regardless of what information the Administration provided it didn’t fund $25.8 million. Now the cuts being proposed are suppose to go to fund carry over of the $25.8 million negative balance from the last school year 2015-2016.

    Here are examples the budget power point provides:

    $9.1 million Educator Effectiveness & Common Core (additional teachers at schools for support). I guess this is funding of teachers to be trained in Common Core State Standards at school sites.

    $3.2 million Newcomers program.

    $2.9 million Program for Exceptional Children. Consequence of charter school growth is concentration of Special Education students in District schools. It is a double hit over time because the Special Education budget is underfunded by Federal Government and that means the money from enrolled non-special education students is drawn down to make up for the Federal Government’s Special Education shortfall. Fewer non-special education students enrolling in charter schools is double hit to the District because its revenue depends on enrollment of non-special education students to fund the Special Education shortfall. But, the District should be able to anticipate loss due to charter school enrollment. Another factor in not balancing the Special Education budget is that the increase in paid for Special Education teachers and instructional support staff may have not been accurately calculated.

    $2.0 million Teacher Assistance

    $2.0 million Intervention for Struggling Schools

    $1.5 million Expand School Cultural programs (e.g. restorative approaches). This expenditure was part of the Consent Decree with the Education Department of Civil Rights and should have been funded.

    $1.2 million Human Capital Data management. I take this to be the ongoing payment for transition to a new District computer system. Again, should have been funded.

    If you read the power point you’ll see four other items that cost less than $1 million.

    Jim Mordecai

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