School board discusses budget cuts, hears proposal for new charter school

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The school district’s budget and debates over charter schools dominated the Oakland school board meeting on Wednesday night. Board members listened to a proposal for a new charter school to be called Ripple Academy, and discussed an update from the budget and finance committee.

Dozens of adults and children holding colorful home-made signs stood and applauded as Rodney Pierre-Antoine, founding principal of Ripple Academy, took the stand before the board. The proposed charter would be a transitional kindergarten, commonly shortened to TK, through 8th grade school in the Fruitvale neighborhood. Pierre-Antoine described the proposed school as a space that would promote “psychological safety and intentional culture,” where children will be taught to reflect on themselves and support their classmates. He described the curriculum as “research-based,” intended to give students the tools they need to keep up with a changing workforce, and to emphasize collaboration and group work.

Pierre-Antoine’s presentation was quickly met with questions from the board, ranging from where the school would be housed to what accommodations would be made available to children with special needs. While responding to board vice president Nina Senn (District 4) about the percentage of students expected to come to the academy from district schools, Pierre-Antoine focused his response on their intention to attract students from private and non-traditional schooling backgrounds. When pressed, he responded that they project that 50 to 60 percent of future enrollees will come from district-run schools.

District 6 board member Shanthi Gonazales questioned Pierre-Antoine on details about his broadly outlined special education program asking, “Will it be mostly resources? Will it be inclusion? Special day classes? Will it be autism?” Pierre-Antoine responded that they would have a tiered intervention system designed around the needs of each student. When pressed about whether school staff had exact plans for the program and if there were already credentialed special ed teachers lined up, he responded, “At this point, no.”

But many families came to support the charter school, saying they hope to send their children there next fall. Maria Gutierrez, whose son, Anthony, will be in third grade next year, believes that Ripple Academy will motivate him to work through emotional and educational challenges. “I want to see Anthony excited to wake up and go to school with joy and confidence,” she said.

According to the district charter school application kit, after the public hearing the charter school founding group will have interviews with the board of education. Once the interviews have been completed, the office of charter schools will issue a recommendation to the board.

Following the public hearing, Troy Christmas from the district financial services division gave a presentation with updates from the budget and finance committee regarding 2017-18 mid-year budget cuts.

Last month, committee members determined that this year’s budget is already depleted to the state-mandated minimum of 2 percent savings, with a projected expenditure of $1.2 million before the end of the year. In order to avoid falling below the required reserve, and to provide a cushion for unexpected costs, the committee is recommending $14.2 million in reductions this school year. Specific recommendations have not been made for where the reductions will come from, but both the committee and board members said they intend to avoid making cuts that will directly affect students.

In his report, Christmas said this amount would allow for increasing savings, restoring the self-insurance fund—which covers any claims against the district rather than paying for outside insurance—and protecting against audit findings and other unexpected costs.

Board Director Aimee Eng (District 2), who is also on the budget and finance committee, participated in the presentation from her seat. She said that the long-term budget goals include a reserve with three months of operating expenses, which would help to alleviate year-to-year instability which she called “very challenging for our system.”

Committee members estimate that in order to achieve full financial solvency, the district will need to cut more than $25 million over the next few years. Eng and Christmas were not prepared to make recommendations on how to reach the district’s financials goals, but said they intend to draft a resolution that the board can vote on for the next meeting.

Other business included a report from the citizens bond oversight committee, a presentation on racial disparities in disciplining students across the district and honoring fiscal services operations officer Michael L. Moore, Sr. for his service to the district. Moore, who has worked as both a teacher and administrator for Oakland schools over the last 40 years, became emotional during the recognition. “Nobody has to be nice,” he said. “This so touches my heart.”

“You have the right head, the right heart and the right hands to do this work,” he said before taking a group photo with the board. “I feel blessed and honored to partner with you.”

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