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Oakland school board faced with deep cuts to district budget

on January 28, 2010

At Wednesday’s school board meeting it was clear that next year’s budget cuts are going to be huge, real and brutal. The Oakland Unified School District’s chief financial officer, Vernon Hal, presented the first draft of the proposed budget for the district’s unrestricted fund for 2010-2011.

According to the proposed budget, approximately 87 “full time equivalencies” (“FTEs”)—that is, the equivalent of 87 full time salaries—will be cut at the central office in an attempt to scour $39 million from next year’s budget.  The district’s central office is located in downtown Oakland and houses the various departments that help to administer the school district, like human resources and finance.  There are also “central office” jobs that are funded by the central office budget but are located offsite, like school security officers and groundskeepers.  In some cases, a department losing an FTE won’t actually lose a person, just hours and funding, but in most cases the district anticipates eliminating actual positions.

If the board approves this budget, some of the jobs that will be lost include approximately 17 school security guard positions, 14 buildings and grounds positions, and 21 business, personnel, data management and school leadership positions, including 4 jobs in payroll, 2 in human resources and 3 in procurement.  No department with more than two employees at the central office, which is set to absorb 65 percent of the cuts, was spared.

Although the board will not vote on the budget until June, the idea behind presenting it so early, said schools superintendent Tony Smith, is to “get the conversation going.”  The district will continue to hold academic and fiscal solvency meetings for the public at schools throughout the city, including one at Crocker Highlands Elementary tonight (January 28).  You can find the district’s complete calendar here.

Several union representatives and central office employees came before the board Wednesday night to express their dismay at the number of jobs that will be lost.  One man from the buildings and grounds department said he was an electrician and he didn’t think that cutting 14 jobs from his department was the answer.  “Challenge us to come up with $1 million in energy savings and we will come together to make that happen,” he urged the board.  “Use us.”

“The state pits the school boards against the union,” said Joel Bridgeman, a political organizing professional who finished his comments by offering his services as an organizer. “The board has fiduciary responsibility and unions need to keep people employed.  We need to fight the state together.”  Bridgeman then urged all present to attend the March 4 National Day of Action to Defend Education that has been announced by the California Coordinating Committee and other labor and student groups.

In other business, the board voted Wednesday night to implement a district-wide “Restorative Justice” initiative and voted against allowing the creation of a new charter school, the Waldorf-inspired Community School for Creative Education, whose supporters submitted a charter petition last October to open the school in the San Antonio neighborhood.

Restorative Justice focuses on “acknowledging that crime causes injury to people and communities, it insists that justice repair those injuries and that the parties be permitted to participate in that process,” according to the Prison Fellowship International’s Restorative Justice Online web site.  In schools, this takes the form of training teachers and students to practice active communication, face-to-face reconciliation and non-punitive actions to address misconduct.

Nikita Mitchell, 16,is  a junior at Castlemont High where her group, Youth Together, has been trained in restorative justice practices.  She said that a key part of the program is better communication.  A teacher who notices a student is upset or acting out, for instance, can enter the information into a computer system that the “teacher of record” for the restorative justice program will check daily.  That teacher will then refer a trained student to have a one-on-one meeting with the upset student to talk about the problem and work on solutions like apologies, mediation, or “peacemaking circles,” in which members of the community share their feelings and come to a consensus about how to move past inappropriate actions.

“This district has tried many strategies to decrease violence and truancy like imposing closed campuses and … the increase of security and surveillance although there is already rising tensions between youth and police. These strategies don’t identify and address the pain and trauma that my peers go through.  However, finally, this district is thinking of a strategy that addresses and heals the root cause of youth violence,” Mitchell told the board.

Student board member Eric Adams added that even with such a tight budget the board should implement the program.  Since most of the work is done by students and the district’s already-trained teachers, he said, “it costs zero dollars and very zero cents.”

Superintendent Smith also supported implementing the new program, saying that he had seen it implemented in San Francisco schools during his tenure there and that though it may seem like “another touchy-feely San Francisco thing” it was highly successful at reducing violence and tension in school communities.

The motion passed unanimously.

The Community School for Creative Education group’s charter petition proved much more controversial.  The proposed school would match students with a teacher who would follow them for the entire nine years of their K-8 education and encourage learning through art, movement, and hands-on experiences. David Montes of the OUSD’s charter school office appeared before the board to recommend the denial of the group’s petition on the grounds that it did not adequately describe the curriculum the school would teach, that it did not provide a clear goal for academic outcomes and that it did not make clear the difference between a Waldorf education and a “Waldorf-inspired” education.

This last point was considered important because there are some who insist that a Waldorf education teaches elements of the religious belief system of Waldorf founder Rudolf Steiner.  Montes said that one of the links provided in CSCE’s petition turned up a science curriculum based on these religious beliefs.  While the link was only noted as an “example of a similar curriculum,” not an actual proposed curriculum, and while it was found only in an appendix, Montes said it was cause for concern.  Additionally, in a standard Waldorf education, children aren’t expected to read until the third grade, which poses a question for alignment with state standards, though the CSCE petition notes that they intend to subscribe to Open Court, the same reading curriculum used in traditional public schools.

After much discussion, the board eventually voted to uphold Montes’ recommendation to deny the charter by a 4-2 vote. The school may next appeal to the county and then to the state; if either body approves the petition the school will be allowed to locate in Oakland. The district will have no control over its operation, and may not revoke the school’s charter.

Board member David Kakishiba, who represents the San Antonio neighborhood that the school wishes to locate in, praised the group’s “thoughtfulness, sincerity and commitment to the neighborhood.”  However, he said, there were already a number of high-quality elementary school options in the neighborhood, citing Franklin Elementary, Bella Vista Elementary, Think College Now Elementary and La Esculita Elementary, all of which boast average standardized test scores over the 800 points that California considers “proficient” scores.  Kakishiba voted to deny the charter.

Velia Navarro, a mother of five, lives in the San Antonio neighborhood and she differed in her opinion of the local schools.  Her two oldest children, she said, were on the path of not graduating as a result of the poor education the received in elementary school.  Despite recent changes at some of the local schools, she chooses to drive her three younger children to Lighthouse Community Charter, a K-12 in East Oakland, where she says the community is more engaged and supportive. “The families of San Antonio are worried because the schools there are not doing well,” she said.  “I have a car and can drive away from our community to get a better school, but many in my neighborhood want to walk.”

You can download the 2010-2011 budget presentation, which details the funds lost and jobs to be cut, here, or look at all of the district’s online budget resources here.  You can also follow the link on the district’s homepage to take a survey or submit an email with your feedback and constructive advice on the proposed budget.

Lead image: Nikita Mitchell, 16, a member of the student group, Youth Together, listens attentively at Wednesday night’s school board meeting.


  1. Sam on January 28, 2010 at 9:36 pm

    When you talked about job cuts, you didn’t mention the 100 part-time Adult Education teachers who will lose their jobs because of the budget cuts. Adult Ed is getting $7.5 million cut from its budget, which is an almost 60% cut. The blow is being softened by the use of $3 million in savings that the dept. is being given access to. But spending down your savings account is never a good way to manage a fiscal crisis and it raises the possibility that Adult Ed will waste completely away in the next couple years.

  2. lrmongeau on January 30, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    You are right about the cut to adult ed. Thank you for adding this information for our readers. There were adult ed teachers who are expecting to be laid off who also attended the meeting on Wednesday night. It is not clear how many adult ed positions will be cut because the staff who prepared Wednesday night’s budget presentation will not be in charge of recommending specific cuts to the adult ed staff. After reading your comment and double checking the district’s presentation, I called the district for a comment on this. According to district spokesman, Troy Flint, “the district does not have any plans to eliminate adult ed, but we are in a budget squeeze and I can understand why people are wondering whether we care. We do care, but when there’s a situation in which we have to choose between adult ed and K-12 ed, K-12 is our area of emphasis.”
    Thanks again for your comment,

  3. […] were taking to decrease violence in Oakland. Mitchell and Adams discussed the recently implemented Restorative Justice initiative in the Oakland school district, a program that emphasizes getting students to work together to repair the harm caused or revealed […]

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