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Cuts to redevelopment agencies could mean more homeless students in Oakland

on March 29, 2011

California’s state legislators aren’t the only ones uncertain about Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed cut of redevelopment agency funds. Even though schools stand to gain if lawmakers approve the proposal, Oakland educators worry that taking funds from affordable housing could put more students at risk of homelessness.

“If you add less affordable housing,” said Jennifer Tam, homeless education liaison for the Oakland Unified School District, “it’s definitely going to compound a persistent issue.”

Legislators will have to make a tough call in choosing between more money for schools and redevelopment funds—the only major source of state funding for affordable housing.

Tam’s program has served 1,209 students so far this school year, and she expects that number to grow significantly by the end of the term. Funded partly by federal money from No Child Left Behind, the program in 2009-2010 worked with 5,800 students in Alameda County—over a quarter of them from Oakland.

Students who are homeless in the traditional sense—as well as those who stay in shelters, motels, campgrounds or even friends’ houses—can use Tam’s services. She works to enroll students in their school of origin, round up school supplies, and provide transportation to and from school—all efforts focused on making students’ lives stable enough to succeed in school.

“There shouldn’t be any barrier to education,” Tam said. “If I’m worried where I’m going to sleep tonight, it’s hard for to me remember to bring my homework home.”

Oakland has a proportionately high number of students in the program because it’s a large city, but also because, “It’s a poor city,” Adrian Kirk, director of the school district’s Family and Community Office, said.

“Our students’ educational prospects are to some extent influenced by the environment in which they live,” said Troy Flint public relations officer for the school district. “Redevelopment money definitely has an impact on that.”

Tam said she expects more students to need her program if redevelopment cuts reduce affordable housing.  And while her program’s funds are federal, they have been decreasing. This school year it received $41,000, down by about 72 percent from $145,000 in 2008-2009 because the federal government has cut California’s funds for the program, according to Tam.

What’s more, the stimulus funds that filled the gaps this year have to be spent down, and there won’t be any more next year, said Kirk of the school district’s family office.

“There’s so much more we’d like to do,” Tam said, “but because of funding we’re doing the very bare minimum of our mandate.”

But some state officials say the Oakland Unified School District will actually prosper from the changes. Mark Whitaker of the California Legislative Analyst’s office, said counties that previously used property tax revenues for redevelopment agencies would receive some of the money back for county programs, school districts, and special districts. Alameda County will receive a larger portion of the funds than other counties, and school districts like Oakland’s stand to gain an increasing share over the years.

“If you look at a case like Oakland,” Whitaker said, “They’ll be better off than they are now.”

After 2012, Whitaker said the kitty for counties, school districts and special districts would grow, according to the governor’s projections. In the first year, California schools would divvy up about $120 million while redevelopment agencies pay off their debts and the state government uses the rest to fill in budget holes. After 2012, the governor forecasts $1.7 billion in property tax revenues that would otherwise go to redevelopment, of which 57 percent will go to schools.

Despite the projected windfall, Tam said she worries it will defund programs she already works with directly. The Oakland Housing Authority, which often receives redevelopment grants, is considering partnering with Tam to help families get on public housing. Tam worries the partnership won’t last if the housing authority loses significant funding.

Flint said the school district has not taken a firm stance on the governor’s budget proposal, calling it, “the best of a very unattractive group of options.”  However, Flint added the school district does support putting the governor’s tax extensions on the ballot.

“After three years of unprecedented cuts that have left California languishing in the basement in terms of achievement in public education,” Flint said, “any further cuts beyond what are contained in the governor’s budget proposal would be unconscionable.”

Photo: Oakland Mayor Jean Quan speaks against the governor’s proposal to cut redevelopment agencies at a press conference near downtown Oakland in February.

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