School board opener brings harsh budget news
on August 26, 2010
Crowds of people complaining about program cuts packed the Oakland Unified School District school board meeting room Wednesday night for the first meeting of the new school year, which begins on Monday.
Despite many heartfelt pleas to keep arts programs and continue running early childhood development centers, Superintendent Tony Smith told the audience there simply wasn’t enough money available to keep everything. “It’s wonderful to want kids to have access to something, but if we can’t pay for it, we can’t have it,” Smith said. “We are working out ways to be fiscally solvent and serve our children. That hasn’t been done.”
Keeping one program means cutting another because of the incredibly tight monetary situation the district finds itself in right now, Smith said. Close to $100 million has been slashed from the district’s budget for the upcoming year. Some programs like adult education have lost significant potions of their funding, and both district offices and school sites across the city are starting the new school year with fewer staff.
Most of the loss is due to cuts from the state level, district officials have said. Smith called the state cuts “unconscionable” last night, but vowed he would not spend money the district does not have.
This argument did little to appease the dozens of people who came to the meeting to ask that programs important to them not be cut.
Close to 20 former and current members of the East Oakland School of the Arts (EOSA) chorus, the Castleers, asked that the choral program continue to be a part of the curriculum at EOSA. The chorus has roots in the East Oakland community dating back to 1929 when Castlemont High School (now the campus that houses EOSA and other small high schools) was brand-new, alumni at the school board meeting said.
Right now, there is no choral class available for students at EOSA.
A handful of speakers suggested that political motivations, not budgetary ones, might have landed the program on the chopping block. Alice Spearman, the board member from the district where Castlemont is located, said there was “one person” responsible for the removal of the longstanding program from the school’s curriculum, but would not say who that person was.
Those who were not at the meeting to show support for the Castleers were focused on the drastic cuts the district has recently made to early childhood education. At the end of July, the district announced that eight early childhood development centers would close on August 1. A group known as Oakland Parents Together planned a parent takeover to keep the centers open. At the time, district spokesperson Troy Flint said concerns about liability and allowing non-licensed individuals to run centers meant the district could not support a parent takeover.
At the last minute, the district was able to re-appropriate adult education funds to keep the centers open until August 30, when they are again scheduled to close. Smith said the district was talking about ways to find more funds, but that it seemed unlikely anything would be in place to keep the centers open next week.
Henry Hitz, speaking on behalf of OPT, said not finding the funding was unacceptable. He thanked the district for keeping the centers open earlier this summer and urged them to do it again.
“Once again, we’re proposing a parent takeover of the CDCs [childhood development centers],” Hitz said. “We have to tell Sacramento that it’s just not acceptable to balance the budget on the backs of our most vulnerable.”
In other news Wednesday night, the board welcomed its new student member, Nikita Mitchell. Mitchell, a senior at Oakland Technical High School, will sit on the board for a year in order to report on the work of the All City [Student] Council. She is also responsible for reporting back to the student group about the work of the board and the district.
During his remarks, Smith talked through a slide show explaining some of the data showing improvement in the city’s 2009 to 2010 standardized test scores. The district’s students’ average scores on the California State Test rose by nearly 10 percent for grades 1 through 5 in both math and English. Smith singled out data that showed the city’s second and fifth graders scored above the state average for the first time in over seven years.
Nevertheless, the presentation showed that the average Oakland student was still scoring nearly 200 points below what the state considers proficient — 800 out of a possible 1,000. (Raw score data has not yet been released and Wednesday’s presentation focused on comparatives.)
“I don’t see these numbers as something to rejoice about,” Spearman said after watching the presentation. “We’re looking at where we’re going from retarded to dumb.” Her choice of vocabulary was met with grumbles from the crowd, but she raised a hand and said, “That’s my vernacular.”
Smith said instead that he was proud of Oakland’s performance. “We’ve had another year of pretty remarkable success,” he said, noting that Oakland was once again poised to be the most improved large urban district in California, as measured by California State Test scores. The challenge, he added, would be to maintain that success within the bounds of the district’s severely tightened budget.
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