Oakland school board votes for $9 million in budget cuts

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In a six to one vote, the Oakland Unified School District school board voted to cut $9 million from the district’s budget on Wednesday night.

Earlier in the afternoon, members of the Oakland Education Association assembled at Lake Merritt to protest the proposed cuts, then marched down the streets toward La Escuelita Elementary School, where the board meeting would take place. Olivia Udovic, a parent and teacher at Oakland Montessori School in the Fruitvale neighborhood, marched proudly in the front of the crowd and directed protestors to take over the street.

“We need to feel empowered when we walk over there. We need to feel that we are strong and we need to feel that we have the power to stop what the board wants to do tonight. We need to go in strong so they feel they are forced to listen to our voice,” she said.

Keith Brown, a teacher at Bret Harte Middle School, chanted through his bullhorn to fire up the protesters. “Oakland students under attack. What do we do? Stand up, fight back!”

As a product of Oakland schools, and now an educator, Brown said he felt it was especially important to attend the protest. “My students bring me out here,” he said. “Students are the center of everything that I do as an educator. I have to stand up as a community member, as an educator, and fight for our students.”

The OEA continued their march inside the auditorium at the school while the board wrapped up their closed session meeting. Chants such as “Books, supplies, smaller class size!” echoed in the room while the crowd marched in the circle around the audience seating area.

Kita Brown was among the community members present in the room. She was unaware that a protest had been planned. “We have to realize that cuts need to happen. There will be school closures, but we need to make sure when we do it, we do it smart,” she said. “I’m not pro-charter, I’m not pro-district. I’m pro-child. Hard decisions have to be made, but at the end of the day, it’s about making sure every child has everything they need.”

Reyna Jauregui, a senior at Fremont High School, stood in the back of the room on a ledge above the crowd. She waved her favorite herb, sage, in the air to cleanse the energy in the room. From the ledge, she led protestors in the chant “When they say cutbacks, we say fight back!”

“Oakland is my town. Wherever I end up going to college, I’m going to come back,” she said later in an interview with Oakland North. “This isn’t an expense. This is an investment in our future.”

Following audience members suggestions, the board rearranged the order of the meeting’s agenda to allow the superintendent to give a report on the 2017-2018 mid-year financial adjustments and allow the more than 150 people who filed speaker cards to speak during the public comment session. In her report, Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammel proposed a new modified plan to cut $9 million instead of the $15 million that had originally been proposed.

These cuts would include $3.8 million for school site adjustments, such as reductions to classified positions, supplies, and overtime. Of this, $2.1 million would come from reducing full-time equivalency positions. According to OUSD spokesperson Jon Sasaki, speaking by phone on Thursday, these cuts to full-time staff would come from central administrative staff, not teachers.

The cuts also include $1.6 million for maximizing restricted resources, including reviewing educator effectiveness; $500,000 for books and supplies; and $400,000 in contracts.

“I totally own, as I said before, we have got to do better with our budget management. This is the long-term work that we have to do,” Johnson-Trammel said to the crowd when wrapping up her report.

During the meeting, a few crowd members talked over the superintendent’s report. Others turned their back on the board and instead decided to use the microphone to address the crowd during public comment.

“I’m going to ask for something bigger than to not cut a budget,” said protestor Dalia La Pantera, facing towards the crowd. Pantera, commonly known as “Coach G,” is a health and wellness teacher at an alternative school in West Oakland. She continued, “I am going to ask you to think of justice. I’m asking for the community to work with me, for justice. It’s about justice.”

Not every audience member in the room agreed with these methods. Nimat Shaheed, a restorative justice teacher at Reach Academy, she shook her head in disapproval of the tactic of yelling over the board. “Well, that’s why we are here. Don’t we want to hear what they have to say, whether we agree with it or not? We will never get to find out unless we let them talk,” Shaheed said.

Students cried, yelled and pleaded to the board about the impending budget cuts. One of the passionate students was Delaney Kreber Mapp, a sophomore at Oakland Technical High School. “Our society places education as the standard, but somehow doesn’t have the funding to make it great for everyone,” she said. “We know there is money in Oakland, but it’s going to the wrong places.”

School Board President James Harris, from District 7, left his seat on stage to address a few students who were particularly emotional. “To be a middle school student with the courage to come up here, stand in this space, and speak your mind, I didn’t want them to leave feeling defeated or feeling like they don’t matter, so I just wanted to go talk to them,” he said later in an interview.

Speakers continued to address the board for more than two hours before the board voted, agreeing to the $9 million in budget cuts.

OEA president Trish Gorham said she was very disappointed with the vote. For the first time in the evening, she retired her bullhorn, which she had used to lead the protest in the auditorium earlier and to mobilize the crowd before the board meeting. “I think it’s a sad state of affairs that they could not see their way to do some more creative thinking around this. Even though the vote has been taken, I expect them to continue to see how much they can reduce those cuts and not actually implement them,” she said in an interview afterward.

In other board business, the budget department of the Board of Education presented the first interim financial report to the board. This budget information was last updated at the end of October. According to the report, the district’s unrestricted revenue is expected to increase $3.3 million dollars from the previously adopted budget. The report also concluded that the net expense of the district increased to $2.8 million, while unrestricted other uses are projected to increase by $1.8 million.

Valerie Goode and Liz Sullivan also presented the superintendent’s official report on an update on the Blueprint for Quality Schools, a district planning process intended to give students the tools they need to thrive. The report highlighted a few community dialogue themes discussed in October, including developing high school career technical education and developing dual immersion language academies. The next advisory committee meeting for the Blueprint plan will take place January 17.

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