“OUSD’s organizational culture is broken and must change,” that was the overall finding from the latest Alameda Grand Jury Report, “THE OAKLAND UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT’S BROKEN ADMINISTRATIVE CULTURE – MILLIONS WASTED EVERY YEAR.”
OUSD’s problems are not primarily from low student funding (it had the 6th highest funding of 37 nearby districts and was 2nd in Alameda County) or the costs of special education (costs per student were lower than nearby districts). The failure of the district was laid squarely at the feet of the school Board, noting that their lack of leadership has created the conditions for organizational decay. “A detached board and instability in senior management provided the perfect environment for this to happen at OUSD, leading to the profound crisis that the district faces today.”
There is a lot to unpack in the report, but let me focus on a few areas, finances, facilities, and then the culture piece.
OUSD Finances; Board Failures Have Led to the Financial Crisis, Not School Funding
The Grand Jury was unsparing in its critique and OUSD’s persistently blaming everyone else for its problems, noting that almost every other district in the state is solvent and OUSD actually receives a relatively high level of state funding.
“Failure to put into place a strategic plan and have the courage to carry it out will ensure that the district continues to sputter with under-enrolled schools and shoestring budgets. Over one thousand school districts in the state operate competently with the state’s current funding structure. Oakland is not one of them even though it receives significantly more funding than the median district in the region. The Board has “kicked every can down the line” and rarely acted with a sense of urgency on many vital issues. The state of the district today is the inevitable result.”
OUSD is also an outlier in how we spend money—spending the least on teachers and second to least in pupil services of the comparison districts. Central office and contracting expenses were relatively high. Where normally we want to prioritize resources to schools and classrooms
“OUSD ranked 37th (last) on share of spending for certificated teacher salaries; 36th for pupil services (e.g., guidance counseling, health services, psychological and social workers); and 30th for books and supplies (spending only 74% of the statewide average).
By comparison, OUSD ranked fourth on the share of spending for contractors, consultants, and other outside services and third on the percentage of expenditures for administrative, technical and logistical support of teaching. These are central office expenses that are only indirectly related to classroom instruction.
OUSD spent over $55.7 million on professional/consulting services and operating expenditures, which was three times the statewide average per student. personnel (non-teachers) was 45% above the statewide average, and spending for supervisors and administrator salaries was more than six times the statewide average. In notable contrast, spending on teachers and credentialed administrators was only 4% above the statewide average.”
While OUSD does have some exemplary central office programs like the Office of Equity and the ELLMA Office, which concretely support students and address inequality—I would need to see a lot more to make the way we spend money make sense—with the concentration at central and away for teachers and counselors.
Contracting and Facilities- A “district of exceptions” and overruns
I have covered the facility fiascos before and the tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars wasted, and the Grand Jury follows up,
“The previous superintendent cut the scope of many projects in the middle of planning, wasting critical dollars, and then added $172 million in new projects. Years of second-guessing coupled with constantly changing priorities stalled many of the 21 major projects promised in the language of a $475 million school construction bond approved by voters in 2012 (Measure J).
In August 2018, the Board halted work on nine building projects after being told that the district needed an additional unbudgeted $160 million to cover cost overruns: Fremont High School was $51 million over budget, the Central Kitchen project was $18 million over, Glenview Elementary $12 million, and the Madison expansion was $9 million over budget. The overruns, combined with $18 million for project coordination, meant that new and renovated science classrooms and labs, playgrounds, security upgrades, and kitchens at many schools would not be built as promised.”
Behind these costs were even worse practices. OUSD is a “district of exceptions” in that there were regular workarounds for every policy and chain of command. Less than 10% of the hundreds of contracts reviewed by the Grand Jury were competitively bid. There are too many stories of overpaid contractors and multi million dollar losses from lack of vision or oversight and seemingly worse. And the smaller outrages, that should be addresses, like $600 car washes with an unwashed car. You need to read it.
This is the kids’ money and it matters.
The Board’s Responsibility
Once the Grand Jury said they attended Board meetings, I knew that the ish was about the hit the fan. They described the 6.5 hour meeting with a zillion items in consent and a zillion pages long agenda, after recognition of national candy cane day and right before the cock crowed in the morning the board finally addressed finance.
Not to mention their complete lack of historic strategic planning, or the ability to update key documents like the Facilities Master Plan (last approved 2012) or polices that even if well intentioned are not working—like school based budgeting—where untrained principals waste 30% of their time trying to work through systems they are unsupported in using.
This is the children’s money.
The Grand Jury is on point so I am just going to quote them for the conclusion.
“The Grand Jury received numerous complaints reporting a systematic breakdown of sound business practices in many areas. As confirmed by witness testimony, there were instances of favoritism, rampant disregard of district policies, disdain for leadership, and a breakdown in the chain of command with staff routinely bypassing their managers to get what they wanted. Many witnesses described a culture of “what’s in it for me” rather than “how can we help students thrive.”
The culture in OUSD’s administrative offices must change in order to provide its students with the quality of education they deserve. OUSD is wasting millions of dollars well in excess of its projected annual deficits. Drastic action is required to “right the ship” and this must begin at the top. OUSD needs to bring comprehensive and modern best business practices into district offices and leadership. Staff need regular training inculcating these throughout the organization. If staff refuses to buy into these plans, they must be held accountable. OUSD can no longer afford to be philosophical. Restoring financial stability requires sacrifices throughout the organization. Stringent controls, adherence to contracting procedures, updated policies, and school consolidations are immediate priorities.
Yet staff cannot be expected to buy into these changes if the elected Board continues to lead by reaction. Failure to put into place a strategic plan and have the courage to carry it out will ensure that the district continues to sputter with under-enrolled schools and shoestring budgets. Over one thousand school districts in the state operate competently with the state’s current funding structure. Oakland is not one of them even though it receives significantly more funding than the median district in the region. The Board has “kicked every can down the line” and rarely acted with a sense of urgency on many vital issues. The state of the district today is the inevitable result.
This report has detailed repeated examples of mismanagement, favoritism, disregard for authority and poor controls. Policy and procedures are ignored causing one poor decision after another. Moreover, lack of accountability is rampant. Those who have attempted to instill better methods are ignored or quickly pushed aside. Well-intentioned policies such as individual school autonomy or hiring local businesses cannot continue at a premium in the face of dismal finances. OUSD cannot afford them.”
Sound of mic dropping.