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Forum flyer

Oakland Unified's Budget Drama Continues

What exactly just happened?

If only Oakland Unified got a nickel for every angry post on social media about its budget issues—that would probably resolve all our problems!

We had an in-depth and constructive discussion on fiscal topics at the forum I organized over Zoom on Feb. 27. It was well-attended, and I got a lot of positive feedback even from people who disagree with me on some issues, but who appreciated the opportunity to have good discussions in the breakout groups that answered some of their questions.

There is a recording of the forum here, and the slide deck (for those who like me are visual learners) is here.

One big concern that was raised, which I completely agree with, was that the details of the proposed budget adjustments only became public earlier that afternoon, so we weren’t able to address them well in the forum, because I had only just seen the final proposals myself.

The process went further off the rails at the special board meeting the following evening, when the board met in closed session for over 3 hours, finally emerging for open session at 10:30, at which time we failed to pass anything.

That’s when the Facebook posts started to fly. But never let the drama, which is superficial, distract you from the fundamentals, which are what are creating the contradictions in OUSD that are so hard to resolve.

Thanks to California’s progressive tax system greatly increasing funding for education in recent years, school districts across the state are offering big raises to their employees. Oakland Unified currently has a small surplus, but needs to make space in its budget to make substantial increases to compensation possible.

While OUSD’s revenue went up significantly in recent years, much of that has gone to covering increasing costs. Our district is spread very thin, because we have not reduced expenses even as the number of students has decreased.

Declining enrollment, not just in Oakland Unified, but also in the Oakland charter sector and in neighboring districts, is due to changing demographics and has been accelerated by a nasty mix of the pandemic and gentrification, which are driving some families out of the region and others away from Oakland public schools.

Thanks to a glut of COVID relief funds and other one-time dollars, we have been able to delay closing and merging schools even as we have fewer students. But as we continue to stall, we are using those resources to prop up the infrastructure of the past, rather than investing for the future.

Instead of using our funds to keep “micro” schools of less than 200 students open, we should be merging those schools to create sustainably-sized campuses that would be better able to support their students and to compete with charters and neighboring districts for enrollment.

It’s no longer a question of closing schools vs. cutting central office. As enrollment continues to slowly shrink, we need to do both.

In fact, most of the adjustments proposed on the 28th impacted central staff. That fact got lost in all the noise.

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Sankofa teacher Mr. Peter Wilson with a student at the school's Black History Month celebration on Feb. 28. It was the first time all students had assembled together in the auditorium since before the pandemic. Sankofa has bucked the trend with enrollment now twice what it was three years ago.

Ten days later, our board had another special meeting, at which we passed the original proposed budget adjustments with only minor amendments. One of the provisions named merging an unspecified number of schools over the next couple of years, except with a better process this time. Here we go again!

This was a surprising turn, since there had been dueling op eds that morning, one from board VP Clif Thompson and myself in the East Bay Times, and another one from three other board members in the Oakland Post, with very different perspectives on the need to merge schools.

Yet that evening we all cooperated to pass the adjustments unanimously and move forward. That’s good, but the delay will continue to have repercussions as it slowed down a lot of other important processes that depend on the budget.

It’s also not a good look as we are trying to bring Oakland Unified out of receivership. We’ve been under state and county control for 20 years, and have a real opportunity to emerge from that now. To do so, Oakland Unified needs not only to pay off the last of the state loan from that era, but also to pass a fiscal systems audit by the state.

One of the things that audit will look at is board governance. They will notice that we rescinded school closures without first considering the fiscal impact in January, only to turn around to resolve again to merge schools just two months later, because of the need for sustainability.

If you’re still reading this, I know you have questions! Given all the twists and turns of the past month, I will be glad to have another forum to puzzle out what just happened, and to get everyone’s thoughts on how we can have a better process in the future.

This forum will be Monday, March 27, from 5:30 to 7:00 pm on Zoom. You can register here to get the link emailed to you.

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Congrats to the Oakland Tech Bulldogs! Junior Natane Chambers-Wright celebrating in the final minutes of the game with an ‘OOOO… TEEE!’

Can we talk about basketball now?

As you can tell, the first week of March had been stressful! So the day after that second special board meeting, I hopped on the train to Sacramento, where I got to witness two amazing state championship victories by OUSD high school basketball teams.

The Oakland High Wildcats won in Division III Boys, beating Buena HS from Ventura 59-43 for the first state championship in boys’ basketball in their long history. Then the Oakland Tech Lady Bulldogs took the court, steadily gaining steam towards a fourth quarter romp for a 75-52 victory over Santiago HS from Corona in Division I Girls. This is the Bulldogs’ third consecutive state championship, a dynastic achievement!

It was a treat to sit courtside and watch these amazing athletes playing first-class basketball. I reached out to our state legislators to invite them to the games. They weren’t able to make it, but Asm. Bonta and Sen. Skinner have invited the teams back up to Sacramento to be celebrated in the Capitol. We’re going on April 24.

This is a great opportunity because of course most of our high school athletes will not go on to a basketball career, but success on the court can be parlayed to other college and career experiences. Who knows which of these students might return to the legislature as an elected official or policymaker someday?

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Money Williams scored 22 points for the Wildcats. These were by far the best seats I have ever had at a game!

School Board Vacancy in District 5

Yes, another dramatic story! It’s not quite West Wing, but would still make a good TV series. If you’re an interested screenwriter, please reach out. To recap our story so far…

Board president Mike Hutchinson has had quite a year. Last year, his home which had been in District 5, where he won his election in 2020, was redistricted into District 4. So he ran for election in his new district last year, and everybody thought he lost by a slim margin in November.

Then in December, the county Registrar of Voters discovered an error in the way the votes had been tabulated. However, since the election had already been certified, Mike had to go to court to be declared the winner (even though both the County and City agreed with him that Ranked Choice Voting tilted the election his way).

Last week, the judge finally declared Mike the winner of the District 4 school board seat.

I want to pause to recognize Nick Resnick, who was briefly the District 4 school board member since he had been certified the winner, so it was his responsibility to serve as long as he was so recognized. Despite the bizarre situation, he and Mike were nothing but respectful and cooperative with each other on the board during his short tenure. Nick stepped down in February, rather than prolong things in court, after the ballots in question were examined and it became clear that he really had lost.

This means there is now a vacancy on our board for District 5, which goes from the Fruitvale area up to the 580 freeway except for Allendale.

Our board has the choice of either appointing someone to fill the vacancy until the November 2024 election, or calling a special election this fall. We have 60 days to make that decision, otherwise the county superintendent must order a special election.

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Centro Infantil student Denia Sanchez shows me the new play structure just installed at her preschool in District 5.

The Youth Vote Coalition has asked us to call a special election, given that this creates an opportunity for the Registrar to redeem himself after his multiple failures: First, although voters approved the proposal to give 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote for Oakland school board members by an overwhelming margin in 2020, the Registrar failed to implement that policy for the 2022 election. And then of course he mistabulated Ranked Choice Voting in the District 4 race.

If it goes forward, this would be a special election for school board only, in a district that historically has had lower turnout, so it is the perfect opportunity to add in Youth Vote. (In 2020, fewer than 17,000 people voted for school board in District 5, compared to over 34,000 in District 1 and over 28,000 in District 3.)

I have co-sponsored a resolution with the student board directors for this Wednesday, calling on the county Board of Supervisors to direct the Registrar of Voters to implement Youth Vote as soon as possible, with an eye to the possibility of a special school board election this fall.

Even if the Registrar once again falls through on Youth Vote this fall, I still believe that it’s important to fill this seat with an election, rather than an appointment, because we as school board members should be chosen by the voters, not by our colleagues.

I have already had a couple of people reach out to me to ask if I would vote to appoint them to the position. I don’t feel comfortable making that decision on behalf of the people of District 5, so I would rather these hopefuls go ask the voters instead.

It was a different situation a year ago, when Shanthi Gonzales resigned, because the length of remaining time on her term was so short that given the statutory timelines, it was impossible to hold a special election before November when the new District 6 representative would be elected anyway. This time, with over a year and a half left on the term, an election is the best way to go.

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At the Skilled Trades Fair at Cypress Mandela on March 16, dozens of middle and high school students got to explore construction and architecture careers with local unions, public agencies, and industry partners.

Rescheduled Facilities Committee meeting
tomorrow (Tuesday) at 6 pm

There was a clerical error in the posting of the agenda for last Thursday’s regularly scheduled meeting of the board’s Facilities Committee. Rather than proceed with incomplete participation, I chose to reschedule the meeting for tomorrow, Tuesday, at 6 pm.

Since the state has ended the COVID emergency, all committee meetings are back to being in-person at MetWest HS, 314 E. 10th Street, with an option of calling in over Zoom for public comment if you so wish.

The agenda is significant, since it includes the contract for the design of the renovations to McClymonds High School, and a discussion of possible adjustments to the Measure Y Spending Plan.

Measure Y passed in 2020 and allots $735 million (from bonds that are repaid by additional property taxes) to major renovations across Oakland, including major projects at 11 schools, including McClymonds, the new administration building on the former Cole Middle School site, and smaller projects at dozens of other school sites.

However, with rising construction costs due to inflation and supply chain issues, the plan needs to be adjusted. Some of the projects will get more funding, and others will get less.

That’s going to be another contentious conversation—once again, don’t get distracted by the drama, but focus on the fundamentals: urban districts have many very aged school buildings, and there is little dedicated state funding to repair them. A report in 2020 found that we had over $3 billion in need for repairs at our schools, so while $735M sounds like a lot, it is actually nowhere near enough.

I have seen the signs that say “Oakland Not For Sale,” and I agree that we should not build luxury condos on public land. However, there is another way that is pointed to by recent developments.

Next door to Piedmont Ave. Elementary, the city of Oakland has leased our former preschool site to build a library. Across town, Oakland Unified is in negotiations to lease a floor of the former Parker Elementary to groups providing services to the community. Affordable housing is in the works at am abandoned school site where I used to teach, Edward Shands Adult School. And the former Kaiser Elementary and Webster CDC sites reopened as early childhood education hubs, including some classrooms leased to non-profits that provide care.

If the district can lease (not sell) unused space in some of its buildings to public and non-profit agencies that provide services to the community, then we can reduce our infrastructure expenses, avoid increasing blight due to underused or unused buildings, and help groups that are supporting our neighbors to have affordable rent in a city where space is often at a premium.

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This new cafeteria/multi-purpose room building at Claremont is finally well underway thanks to Measure Y and this construction worker, Jonathan from Arntz Builders, who is also an OUSD grad from Fremont High School.

Ramadan Mubarak!

Well, this newsletter has gotten extremely long, so I will just close with this photo of a beautiful display from the Ramadan celebration at Chabot Elementary. Thank you so much to all the parents who organized and supported the potluck held there this evening. It was a beautiful community-building event—we should have more like it across Oakland Unified!

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