School District Resumes Local Control, But Where’s the Money?
on July 9, 2009
After six years of state control, the Oakland Unified School District resumed local control last week and new Superintendent Tony Smith, an Oakland native, was inducted into office. But what exactly does this mean for Oakland residents in terms of change?
Not much, apparently. While the OUSD Board will now be in a position to make independent decisions – versus advising a state administrator – the looming budget crisis seems to be tying everyone’s hands.
One reason why school officials are worried is that state funds make up 80 percent of the district’s budget. Considering that the governor declared a fiscal emergency last week, this is not good news for the schools.
“The state budget crisis is really going to have a devastating effect,” said Jody London, District 1 director, who joined the OUSD board in January.
On top of state funding woes, OUSD has to fill a budget deficit of its own in the following year. “We anticipate that we’re going to have to find $17 million that we can cut – and that’s a good scenario,” said London. “We don’t know the magnitude of the cuts we’re going to have to make.”
The budget crisis comes at the end of a tumultuous period for the district. After OUSD was placed under state control in 2003, in return for a $100 million emergency loan, the school board was relegated to an advisory role and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell appointed a State administrator to run the district.
In 2007, FCMAT (the state-run Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance team) appraised OUSD as having improved in several areas, such as Personnel Management and Community Relations and Governance. The board was given back partial control of the district.
On Monday the board finally took the reigns again and Tony Smith, the new superintendent, was inducted into office on Wednesday.
Oakland Unified has raised its’ API (academic performance index) score 73 points over the past four years. “That’s the most out of any large urban school district in California,” said Troy Flint, a spokesperson for the district.
Flint attributed the improvement to several systems, such as the small schools movement, more autonomy given to schools and principals about allocating money, as well as professional learning communities, where teachers can share information more efficiently.
One positive change that Flint saw emerging from the return to local governance was increased ownership of issues. “The community will be able to hold board members accountable,” he said, versus the previous system, which was complicated by the relationship to the state.
Despite the overall score increase, the California Department of Education website lists 68 schools in Oakland Unified as ‘PI’ schools, or schools in need of program improvement, for 2008. In 2006, earlier in the state takeover period, that number was 50.
Indicative of the funding concerns, Flint listed two focal issues for the coming year: increasing student achievement, and strengthening the finances of the school district, made all the more difficult in “a very unforgiving economic climate.”
Stimulus funds from the federal government will help, but only temporarily. If the economy doesn’t improve next year, Flint said, then they will be facing a daunting situation.
“The board will have to consider the potential closure of some schools; furloughs aren’t out of the question. We’ve been pursuing some green energy saving initiatives, the possibility of selling some of the district property,” he said.
London said that the superintendent would be engaging the community in making recommendations for the future cuts and called it a very difficult process.
Increasing teacher to student ratios and closing some of the smaller schools were possible partial solutions to the fiscal problems of the approaching year. The State also suggested shaving days off of the school year, but London said she felt this was “a cop-out.”
Though the board does have a budget in place for the next year, they still don’t know if it will be feasible, as the state may request even more cuts.
“To me it’s a question of what are our priorities as a state; it’s not just Oakland. People want to come down to the school board and get upset and blame us for making really hard decisions and we haven’t begun to make the really difficult decisions,” said London.
Despite the funding concerns, Flint was optimistic that the return to local governance would be a good thing for the community. “You never start with a completely clean state,” he said, “but this is definitely an opportunity to repair some rifts and re-establish partnerships.”
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