It’s a tense time for families in Oakland as the OEA prepare for a potentially prolonged strike. A set of largely underpaid and overworked teachers are struggling with a broke ass district and its leadership, who neither caused this problem nor can wholly fix it. As this drags on, OUSD is losing hundreds of thousands a day, underpaid staff are losing money needed to feed their families, and kids who need to be in school and learning, aren’t. It’s a civil war of attrition and we are all paying costs, with the ultimate loss, in the form of a state takeover on the horizon.
The latest bargaining news in not hopeful. OUSD has said it has given the offer it can afford at a roughly 8.5% raise over three years, the union is demanding 12%. The fact finder noted that OUSD might have trouble paying 9%, and the State trustee, who must approve any deal, said that he would rescind a 12% raise. This doesn’t even touch on the class size and other working condition issues. All this is complicated by a mistrust of the district finances by the union.
The saying is that when the elephants fight the grass gets trampled. This is more two starving elephants bumping into each other rather than charging the gates. And while there may be long term benefits to the strike around teacher retention through better pay and working conditions. There will be short term costs as students miss learning time.
In a situation where there is no extra money, a raise for some mean cuts for others. And chants of “chop from the top” won’t change who really pays the cost. Someone else will be cut, whether custodial, or restorative justice, nurses, Office of Equity, librarians or whatever. Its borrowing from Peter to fire Paul.
Everyone deserves more, but in our resource starved public education system, we will all get less, unless we work together to change not just who gets a bigger slice of the pie, but expanding the pie overall. Until we address the State funding system and OUSD addresses its structural deficit, we will be in this dangerous and unstable place of scarcity, hungry elephants fighting for crumbs.
Is there hidden money at OUSD?
Before I dig in, we need to address the issue of the sometimes, admittedly mystifying, OUSD budget numbers.
Do I believe the district’s budget numbers? No. But I think it is financial incompetence and systems failures that is creating the funny math, rather than some well-orchestrated scheme.
When over the last 30 years has OUSD ever even had the capacity to cook the books, to well orchestrate anything financially? Seriously. Sure, they had off the book costs, but when did they ever have tens of millions in revenue hidden, or show the ability to do that? Never.
When have they gotten the numbers right? Just about never.
So, there is not some $30 million in loose change just lying around. However, I don’t think anyone can say with confidence what the exact deficit is. Though, I am pretty sure we are not sitting on a multi- million dollar hidden surplus.
The superintendent is not some evil enemy of schoolchildren, she is trying to avoid a state takeover, trying to make a dollar out of 15 cents, and address the many long neglected structural issues in OUSD. The district has an ongoing deficit, is still in receivership, has roughly twice as many schools as similar sized districts, with long term declining enrollment. It also does pay more on administration and consultants than similar districts. However, we also do more from central office, with exemplary programs for newcomers, language development, restorative justice, and the office of equity to name a few.
Not to say there aren’t cuts there. But its not as simple as “chop from the top.”
The strike math and countdown to takeover
As the strike goes on the hungry elephants will just starve more. Every day a student isn’t in school the district loses $69 in average daily attendance (ADA). If we assume that 2/3rds of OUSD’s 36,286 students stay home, as they did in the strike of 1996, then that is 24,311 kids times $69/day, so they are losing 1,677,501 per day on ADA, roughly. They are probably saving money by paying subs $300/day rather than regular teachers, but I would need more data on average teacher pay per day, and the staffing ratios.
Conservatively the district is probably losing a half million to a million dollars a day. Similarly, many of our staff are living without significant savings (because of the conditions here) and realistically can’t stay out too long, without their own starvation issues. And then there are the youth.
Every day out is a day they won’t get back. And yes, a couple days our won’t matter, but a week, two, three, five? While staff may get retroactive salaries, though not pay for days missed, students likely won’t get retroactive schooling. Each day we lose roughly 7,293,300 instructional minutes for students, what is the cost of that?
Are schools safe for students?
This week the Oakland Principal’s union released a letter asking for schools to be closed due to safety issues. And as Charles Cole, a student in the strike of 1996 stated, “it was pandemonium…there were fights every day…someone got stabbed in a fight that spilled outside…kids were having sex in a back stairwell” where “it was safer to be out the building that inside it.” Like Charles many families can’t just take their kid to work, or pay for child care. They had to go to school.
Everyone is hurting here. The longer it goes on the longer they hurt. And there is a bigger hurt down the line, in another state takeover. By law, the district needs to keep a reserve of 2%, which based on last year’s revenue equaled roughly $8.3 million. As of their last budget they showed just under $18 million in unrestricted reserve. This leaves them about $9.6 million dollars in wiggle room.
A prolonged strike could push OUSD into another takeover, wiping away the school board, firing the superintendent and eliminating local control. So, for the students, families, staff and survival of the district itself, please, both parties, find a way through this, and quickly.