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Oakland Unified School District board

School board hears complaints on budget cuts, death of Raheim Brown

on February 10, 2011

When the first 45 minutes of public commentary were exhausted at Wednesday night’s school board meeting, there were still 37 speaker cards on file with the board secretary. The most popular message? “No more budget cuts.”

“We will feel the cuts if they move forward,” said Katherine Carter, principal of Manzanita SEED Elementary School in East Oakland, who was one of the nearly 30 public speakers addressing the budget cuts. “It will literally decimate our program. I don’t know how we will continue to operate with our current model.”

Carter’s school won recognition this fall from the federal government for being one of the top two Title I schools in California. (Title I provides specific federal funds to schools in low-income areas.) In fact, SEED students boast some of the highest standardized test scores of any school in the city with a school-wide performance score of 736 out of 1,000 based on the California State test for the 2009-2010 school year.

Carter told the board that one reason the schools are squeezed so tight right now is that the state has only paid Oakland a portion of the funding it’s due.  Nevertheless, the district has continued to pay down its debt to the state for a loan the district first took in 2002. Carter said this didn’t make sense. “Why are we still paying the state loan when the state is not paying us?” she asked the board.

Not every speaker seemed to understand that the source of the budget cuts was the state and not the district. But nearly everyone thought the district was going against the distribution of those cuts incorrectly. Speakers from Bridges Academy in West Oakland were upset with the prospect of losing their physical education teacher and their school psychologist. Ben Visnick, an Oakland High teacher who ran for school board last fall, said the district should stop putting any money toward charter schools.

Many of the other speakers were the family and friends of Raheim Brown, the 20-year-old shot and killed by an OUSD police officer, who urged the board to fire the police officer who shot Brown. Because of the large turnout of public speakers, Brown’s supporters had to wait to speak until after 9 p.m. , when the board opened up its second public comment session.

On January 22, Brown was sitting in a stolen car with its hazard lights flashing near the grounds of Skyline High School, according to OUSD spokesman Troy Flint. OUSD school police officers were patrolling the area because there was a dance being held at Skyline. When officers approached the car, Brown stabbed one of the officers with a screwdriver, according to police.  The other officer pulled his gun and shot and killed Brown, Flint said. The district has not released additional information about the shooting since just after it occurred two weeks ago. The officer who shot Brown is now on administrative leave.

Lori Davis, Brown’s mother, began by showing the board photographs of Brown’s body that documented the five bullet wounds he received the night of the shooting. “You are letting this man get away with murder,” Davis said of the police officer who shot her son. “You need to hurry up and charge this man.” Davis repeated her intention to sue the board for hiring the officer who shot Brown. Davis made a similar statement before the board at its last meeting on January 26.

Brown’s much younger brother, AJ, took the stand as well. “You let the police officers murder my brother,” he said. “Now we are without Raheim and I hate the school officer who murdered him.”

Board members are unable to respond directly to public comments, so they simply listened as nearly 10 people took the podium to say how much they missed Brown and how unfair his death was. When they were done, school board president Gary Yee thanked them empathetically for waiting to share their thoughts.

In other business, the board swiftly approved a program initiated by the facility department called “lease-leaseback.” By leasing buildings for development to a general contractor for $1 per year and then leasing the completed building back from the developer, the district enables local contractors with minimal equity to take on big jobs. Four African American contractors came before the board to thank them for the policy and urge them to pass it, saying it allowed black-owned businesses in Oakland to compete for school district building contracts. Despite cuts in many areas, the district currently has ample facilities funds which are earmarked specifically for building projects.

“We thank you for this process,” said Len Turner of Turner Group Construction. He was followed by others who also had kind words for the board. Yee, who is known for his strictness on the two-minute limit for public speakers, cut off the praise as well, but said, “it hurts me to cut you off.”

The board then heard two charter school petitions. The first, presented by Amethod Oakland Charter Academy principal Jorge Lopez, was to include a sixth grade class at the East Oakland school’s high school location as part of an ongoing school expansion.

The second petition was more complex. Oakland Aviation High School in East Oakland came before the board to ask for a renewal. OAHS is a comprehensive high school with a special aviation tack that allows students to earn a pilot’s liscense and prepare them for technical careers in flight. The school’s students have not performed well on standardized tests in the past and the school has struggled with its graduation rate, the school’s new principal, Connie Spinnato, acknowledged in comments to the board. But that is changing this year, she said.

One of the school’s creators and board members, Liz Sullivan, agreed. Sullivan said the school had “stumbled” in its first few years, but, she said, “now we finally have the right person in place and I just hope it’s not too late.”

The board does not decide on petitions when they are first presented at public hearing, so both groups will have to wait 60 days to hear a decision form the board.

Image: OUSD Board Member Alice Spearman listens intently to public comment at a board meeting earlier this year.


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