Tensions ran high Monday evening at a special school board meeting intended to inform the public about impending budget cuts and give community members the opportunity to ask questions. An audience of more than 100 people, mostly concerned parents and teachers, crowded into Dolores Huerta Hall at MetWest High School to express their concerns and demand answers from Oakland school board directors.
The two-hour meeting, intended to run like a town hall, consisted of presentations by School Board Directors Jody London, Aimee Eng, and Shanthi Gonzales of the district’s financial situation. Directors Hinton-Hodge, Senn and Torres also attended, but didn’t participate in the presentations. The district has set of goal of $15.1 million in cuts for this school year in order to preserve the mandated reserve through the end of this school year and create a cushion for self-insurance and any unexpected expenses.
London (District 1) began the meeting with a brief overview of the district’s financial history. In 2003, the district became insolvent and was forced to take a $65 million loan from the state in order to support itself, known as receivership, which lasted until 2009. According to London, during the receivership “the state did nothing to fix the financial problems,” which contributed to the district’s continued financial insolvency. London said that decisions made by the appointed state trustee during that period left the district in even greater debt. “The state trustee increased our debt by $35 million, so that when we left receivership in 2009 we owed the state $100 million,” she said.
London outlined other contributing factors to the current financial situation, including flattening state funding, increased required contributions to district pension plans, and increased spending on special education, early childhood and nutrition service programs. She also noted cost of living as a factor. “Cost of living adjustments that we get from the state do not keep pace with the true cost of living,” she said. “We have to use flat funding to pay for the increase in costs that employees deserve.”
Eng (District 2) spoke about the district’s current financial situation. She said there is a need for a large cut to the current budget in order for the district to maintain fiscal solvency and create a cushion for “unforeseen challenges.” According to Eng, the current goal is to reduce the budget by $15.1 million, based on the district’s projected expenditures. However, she said, that target can change. She said once the projections are updated, “We can have a better idea of where we are and what adjustments are needed.”
Speaking before the meeting, Gonzales (District 6), said the board hopes to make administrative cuts before reducing the budgets at schools. “The goal is to get two-thirds of the cuts out of the central administration, and if necessary we’ll look at the [school] sites,” she said. Gonzales said that in order for the board to make an informed decision on the effect of budget cuts, administrators and school site officials were asked to provide “scenarios” of how cuts would affect their operations. Elementary schools were asked to draw up the effects of cutting about $120 from their budget per pupil. For middle schools, that number was about $150.
The board will vote on just central administration reductions at a special meeting on November 27. They will then spend the next few weeks examining effects of cuts to school sites, which they intend to vote on at a meeting on December 13.
After their statements, the board members took questions from attendees. Due to the large turnout, audience members were asked to fill out speaker cards with their questions, which were sorted into categories and responded to in groups by the board members. Audience members expressed frustration with this method, shouting, “This is a community meeting! Let the community speak!” repeatedly while the directors responded.
The questions ranged from whether the district would close schools to suggesting that the district limit consultant contracts. Several asked why the district does not limit budget cuts to a smaller figure. Alameda County requires that schools maintain a two percent reserve in savings. The minimum that the district would need to cut mid-year in order to meet that requirement is $1.2 million. The board prefers to maintain three percent, which is why they have set their goal for $15.1 million.
Board members attempted to respond to the questions in turn, but audience members remained agitated, sporadically shouting out questions, and chants of “Hear us out!”
In response to the questions about the target reduction number, Eng responded that the $15.1 million number was a target number based “around looking at the projections and knowing that we had no cushion, no reserve to dip into.” In response to why they cannot limit cuts to the $1.2 million needed to meet the reserve requirement, Eng said “The 1.2 is going to get us to two percent, it doesn’t include any under-projected increases.” She continued, “It doesn’t leave any margin of error for the end of the year.”
London read a card asking: “Are any school closures in your discussions, and how will these cuts interrelate with potential school closures/consolidations from the blueprint process?” She responded by saying that funds from Measure J, the bond voters approved in 2012 to pay for physical improvements to district school buildings, cannot be used to fund district operations. She continued by saying that discussions on “opportunities to merge schools, to potentially close schools in order to realize savings,” are part of the Blueprint for Quality Schools plan, a long-term program launched earlier this year intended to update facilities, programing and education district-wide.
After about 30 minutes, London announced that answers to the remainder of the question cards would be posted online in order to allow time for everyone to speak during public comment.
Several dozen community members, teachers and parents lined up behind the microphone to speak. The overwhelming majority expressed concern over the possibility of budget cuts affecting students and schools.
“There is no fat to trim at the school. There is nothing extra,” said Anusheh Ward, a fifth grade teacher at Chabot Elementary. She said that her school had proposed cuts of $70,000. “I want to stay working here, but this is stressful,” she said.
Hugh Morrison, a parent from Edna Brewer Middle School, expressed a similar sentiment. “We have an elected school board to avoid this from happening,” he said. He said he is concerned that budget cuts would negatively affect the district by contributing to lower enrollment. “That’s the icing on the cake for why you should not cut from the sites,” he said. While at the microphone Morrison also alerted the audience to a “no cuts for kids” petition which he had available for signatures at the speaker card table asking the district to limit cuts to central administration rather than school sites.
A small, energetic group of high school students repeatedly approached the microphone throughout the meeting—they were the only ones permitted to ask questions before the public comment period. Kweko Power, a junior from Oakland High School, asked that the board explain what decisions were made leading up the current situation in “layman’s terms.”
“We just want to understand what’s going on,” she said.
Board members ended the meeting by thanking the attendees for their participation and assuring them that their views had been heard. “I heard you very clearly, you don’t want cuts at school sites,” said London. “I am very sorry that we are in the position that we are,” she continued. “We are working very hard to learn from our mistakes.”
The board will meet on November 27 to vote on central administration budget cuts.
This story was updated on November 22 to correct the spelling of Jody London’s name and district.