What We Learned from Our Superintendent’s First Press Conference

It was a strong start for OUSD’s new superintendent Dr. Kyla Johnson-Trammell in her first press conference, mostly for what she didn’t say.  Normally the new superintendent comes in with a new slogan sourced through a marketing firm, 9 point plan that has a smartly created acronym attached to it, a fancy powerpoint, an iconic backdrop and a bunch of prepared bullsh*t that leads nowhere.  That is not what we got yesterday at the press conference.

Dr. Johnson-Trammell, had a restrained approach, listening, focusing on fundamentals, and it was notably devoid of the big shake up, and that’s a good thing.  She reflected on Oakalnd’s history and is a student of it, going back to the iconic 70’s OUSD superintendent Dr. Marcus Foster’s speech remarking on the similarities between the challenges and opportunities then and now.

“We’re shook up a lot in this District,” she noted disapprovingly.   And her focus is on the relatively boring fundamentals, fiscal vitality, access to quality schools, and organizational resilience.  These are the right foci.

Big Challenges, Big Plans, and Little Progress

OUSD seems to teeter on the edge of fiscal crisis every few years, with overruns in predictable categories and somewhat predictable revenue shortfalls.   And it faces a set of structural challenges; underfunding, a very challenging teacher market where OUSD struggles to compete on salaries with nearby districts while housing costs soar, immense achievement gaps, and many students with very high needs.

And yes, schools in Oakland are underfunded, and extra funding for high needs students doesn’t approach the true costs, or the support they deserve.  But that is not changing in the near term.  Similarly the regional teacher market isn’t improving nor are we seeing a decrease in the number of high needs students that come to Oakland.

We have always had to make a dollar out of fifteen cents in Oakland, and that ain’t changing.  So I appreciate her honest responses around the need to make and evaluate tradeoffs in budgeting, and also the need to think of better ways to do things, and to keep moving forward amidst financial constraints.  We have to spend money smarter in Oakland and maybe rethink some of the assumptions that we have long held.

Is a 500:1 student to counselor ratio reasonable in a city whose children are often marked with trauma?

Do we have too many buildings when OUSD once had over 55,000 students and now has less than 38,000?

Do traditional school building even make sense, when our most demanded high schools focus on internships and career pathways, where students’ most important educational experiences happen out in the field?

Why can’t we better utilize the wonderful human resources we have in the community, even in more non-traditional roles?

And many more.

Fostering Stability through Needed Change

This is a challenging balance, to rethink how we best foster learning in students, while building a stable organization and workforce.  But that is the challenge, it won’t be solved in a day, by a slogan or through a superhero(ine), and it will be an ongoing challenge that we will have to continue to adapt and respond to.

But by having a school year start with the boring fundamentals rather than the shiny distractions, we are off to a good start.  We don’t need another shakeup or detour to nowhere, we need a sustained, thoughtful focus on stability and an analysis of our investments to see what is working and what isn’t and how to better target funds to students that need them.

Oakland has long been a city of promise, Marcus Foster’s speech 40 years ago saw the district on the “brink of bankruptcy” full of “dissent and turmoil” and “much that persons of goodwill can disagree on…with chasms between promise and performance.”

As our new superintendent said, those words could apply today as then.  It is on us to bridge that chasm and the superintendent’s first press conference was a small and deliberate start.


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