Tinkering Towards a Takeover in Oakland Unified

It was another appropriately emotional school board meeting in Oakland as the youth, community, and staff dressed down the OUSD board.  Budget cuts are hitting schools and it hurts, with a second round of mid-year cuts to come.  Oakland Unified is on the verge of another state takeover and the decisions the district makes will matter not just for our current students but the future ones.

We sit on a precipice.  And we won’t get off of it without some better solutions.

The road to receivership is paved with good intentions

The district is in yet another budget crisis.  Predictable overspending came in categories focused on serving students (nutrition, transportation, special education), and some unpredictable costs in increased administration.  To lay all blame at the feet of the former superintendent misses the structural nature of our problems and won’t help us solve them.  But the rapid (and un-budgeted) growth in administration did contribute.

We love our youth, we want the best for them, we know that many have high needs and need support.  Nobody wants cuts.  But cuts are coming, and anyone looking further down the road knows that more and more of them are coming.   I sympathize with the speakers who wanted “no cuts to school sites” and its truly painful to hear how nurses and mental health services are being cut from students that need them.

Nonetheless cuts will happen.   We have a simple problem without an easy solution—Oakland Unified spends more each year than it gets in revenue, and it has spent its reserve down below acceptable levels.

Death by a thousand cuts

We will not nickel and dime ourselves out of this crisis.  This regular cycle of reducing school budgets, and reducing student services will not make us solvent in the long term, indeed it may do quite the opposite.  As quality declines, some families who can, vote with their feet and leave the district.  Those enrollment declines further reduce revenue, requiring even more cuts, creating a downward spiral.

One teacher described the recurring cuts. From KTVU

“This is my 5th year teaching at East Oakland Pride Elementary School and every year there’s been less resources, there’s been less support,” said Adarene Hoag, a special education teacher.

This is taking place when the economy is strong and school funding has been rapidly increasing, though levelling out, while other costs like pensions are growing quickly.  It’s not going to get better in the short term, and will likely get worse.

New and old solutions

We need some new (or old but undone) solutions here

  1. Right sizing central administration- OUSD central office has grown while the enrollment has declined and we spend about $400 more per student on central office than similar districts. Furhter, in internal ratings of departments some are valued much more by sites, we need structural changes here.  These are not easy, districts are built to grow and struggle with shrinking, but shrink it must.
  2. Right sizing the number of school buildings- OUSD has roughly twice as many school buildings as similarly sized districts, part of this is by design from the small schools movement, but part of this is a result of declining enrollment. OUSD land and building are at historic high values and could be sold.  We have facilities for over 50,000 students but only 38,000 in the district.  We also have undeveloped plots of land and buildings designated for administrative offices.  And, we need to rethink the idea that schools are big buildings, when increasingly learning is and should be taking place in the community.  The East Bay Express had a solid article examining the “too many schools” issue and its depressing effect on wages, noting,

“other districts pay better because they have far fewer schools. In fact, state statistics show that Oakland has far more schools per student than any other district in the county. Oakland’s schools, in short, are just too small, depriving the district of millions it could save through economies of scale…closing schools may be the most difficult thing the school board will ever have to do. But it will enable the district to pay higher teacher salaries and thus compete with other districts for top teaching talent.”  And beyond the cost savings they could generate (one time) revenue, which would allow the district some time to right its ship.  There should be some deal there.”

  1. Getting creative on revenue- Educate 78 provided some simple solutions to raise district revenues by $10-20 million annually by increasing attendance 1%, increasing enrollment by 1% by growing in-demand schools, and improving SELPA services and engaging charter schools.  There have to be others.

It has to all be on the table right now, or we won’t have a table to put it on—or at least we won’t be sitting at the head of the table anymore, and we will be asking an appointed administrator for our meals, or the scraps leftover.

“Cuts are going to be made, we can make them, the county will make them or the state will make them, but cuts will be made”

We need to get real on solutions, and unrealistic ones, only distract from the issues.  I have heard how we should 1) demand the state buy us out (they already did and we still owe $45 million and they won’t again) 2) demand the rich folks in Oakland buy us out (won’t happen, though maybe we tax them) 3) that all cuts come from central office (it’s not big enough and many costs are required from federal or state funding) and a number of other things that won’t happen or wouldn’t really help.  So we need to start in reality to get real solutions.

The last speaker on the budget issue, Marc Taffola, made one of the most important points, noting the hard realities of our fiscal crisis, and the need for cuts.  “Cuts are going to be made” he said, “we can make them, or the county will make them or the state will make them, but cuts will be made.”

The excruciating choices are ours…at least for now.




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