School board confronts rally, budget shortfall, school closures
on December 10, 2009
Close to two hundred teachers wearing bright green t-shirts marched in front of the Oakland Unified School District building last night, demanding a new contract.
“What do we want?” the man who led the last protest called into his bullhorn.
“Contract!” the teachers shouted back.
“When do we want it?”
“I’m here because the union is at an impasse with OUSD in trying to negotiate a contract,” Claremont Middle School teacher Jessie Thaler said between chants. “The district’s offer is unacceptable. We’re already the lowest paid teachers for miles and they’re saying no raises.”
Thaler and others attended the union-planned rally just before the start of tonight’s special board meeting to hear the interim finance report and just-released recommendations as to which schools should be closed or restructured. The finance report was just setting out the current cash situation but did not provide recommendations on how to rectify the situation. A budget with specific cuts will be presented to the board next week at its meeting on December 16. They are also scheduled to vote to make the recommended school closures official at next week’s meeting.
Last night’s rally was not directly connected to either of the items on the agenda, though it attracted many with something to say about these topics. When their number was added to those already present to address the board regarding the listed agenda items, more than fifty public speaker cards had been submitted.
Interim Financial Report summary
The district faces a $14 million shortfall at the end of this school year, OUSD Chief Financial Officer Vernon Hal said in presenting an interim financial report. The primary reason for the shortfall, Hal said, is the state’s $21 billion deficit, which has meant reduced funding and late payments to the Oakland district.
Specifically, Hal said, Oakland has lost close to $10 million in state per-student funding. This funding, known as ADA or Average Daily Attendance funding, is based on the number of students who attend Oakland public schools on any given day and makes up a substantial portion of the district’s budget. For the 2009-2010 school year, Hal said, this funding was cut by $250 per student, which when multiplied by the nearly 40,000 students the district serves, means a loss of almost $10 million. (Check out the budget resources the district is providing on its website.)
“We’ve got rough roads ahead of us in terms of spending and money from the state,” Hal said. But “we do have time and resources to manage this situation,” he added.
The report was adopted as official. A budget suggesting where to cut in order to balance the budget and avoid the $14 million shortfall will be submitted at the December 16 meeting, set for 5:00 pm in the Paul Robeson Boardroom at the district offices in downtown Oakland (1025 Second Ave.).
Adult education is one area expected to be on the chopping block next week, and a number of people came forward to ask that it be protected from cuts.
Karen Au, an adult education student from Hong Kong came to the podium with her three-year-old daughter, Lilian Lin, on her hip. Au said that while she was in class at the school her daughter could also receive English instruction. “Please keep my classes, and give my daughter a chance to keep studying,” Au said.
Many teachers who spoke did not directly address the possible cuts or interim report but expressed frustration about the way the district distributes what money it does have.
“I’d rather be grading papers right now,” said Randall Bustamente, an English teacher from Mandela High. “I don’t think we need to be here arguing about this. I don’t want to strike, but I do if I have to. I don’t think we’re enemies, but I think it’s a matter of priorities.”
Bustamente’s final sentence echoed a phrase often used by the teachers’ union, whose president and officers have insisted that the district has enough money to meet the teachers’ demands, but is not spending it properly. In particular, they have argued that the district spends too much on outside consultants. Though Bustamente did not mention this issue, many of the teachers who spoke did. Some went so far as to shout at particular board members or dramatically wag a finger at the board.
North Oakland board member Jody London said she objected to the contention that the board was not doing all it could to save schools and serve students well. “I joined the school board to support kids,” she said. “But we cannot balance our books. We are not going to have more money coming at us. We have to make cuts. We do not have the money to keep every school in Oakland open.”
London urged people to not just complain but to “bring forward the ideas.”
The district has recommended accelerating the closure of Tilden Elementary School, BEST High School, and Paul Robeson School of Visual and Performing Arts. These schools had already been slated to close, but were in an extended phase-out that would be cut short if the Board votes to approve the recommendations. The district also recommended closure of Explore Middle School.
“I’m making these recommendations with integrity,” said Superintendent Tony Smith. “I believe that unless a child has a better option, right now, I will not close a school.”
The report included specific ideas as to where students from closed schools will go next fall. Chief Academic Officer Brad Stam said the district has promised to meet with each student and staff member who will be transitioned from one of the closing schools.
Eric Adams, one of the board’s two student members, said it was important to consider the impact of moving students who might also lack stability in their lives outside of school. “We need stable spaces for schools that don’t move around all the time,” he said. “There’s no stability. We need schools that stay in one place.”
Sankofa Elementary, Burkhalter Elementary and Howard Elementary were taken off the potential closure/restructure list for now, as a result of their recent improved academic standing, but the recommendations called for these schools to work toward increasing enrollment and special education services. (For more on Sankofa’s situation, an elementary in North Oakland, click here.)
District staff has made only general recommendations for the six other schools on the original “focus” list. These are Far West High School, Leadership Preparatory High School, East Oakland School of the Arts, Castlemont Business Information and Technology, Youth Empowerment School, Martin Luther King Elementary School, and Lafayette Elementary School. The district will be increasing outreach significantly in these school communities starting in January, spokesperson Troy Flint said. Among the options to be discussed will be school redesign, school consolidation, and conversion to a charter school.
East Oakland board member Alice Spearman took strong exception to this last option, interrupting Stam to proclaim that “charter-ization is not an option” in her district. This declaration was met with cheers from the crowd.
Later though, a West Oakland parent named Brandon Sturdivant stood to offer an opposing view. “I’ve had brothers, uncles and friends who went through the district and who are dead or in jail,” he said. “I don’t care about any of the teachers in here and I don’t care about the people behind the desk. I care about my five year-old son. He goes to Lincoln, but if he’s not getting what he needs there, I’ll send him to a charter. He will go to any school he wants to go to.”
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