Following budget cuts, Oakland schools close year with surprising budget surplus

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At a meeting Wednesday night, Oakland’s board of education heard a presentation on the final numbers from last year’s budget, which revealed a surprising surplus over previous estimates. The board also recognized three Oakland teachers for Teacher of the Year Awards and voted to endorse Measure AA, a ballot measure that would fund early childhood education and college readiness programs in the upcoming election.

Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) Chief Business Officer Marcus Battle delivered a presentation on the final numbers for revenue and expenses for the district during the 2017-18 school year. Estimates from last May and June predicted the district would close the school year with about a $1.4 million deficit, but the actual numbers revealed a much different picture: a $29 million surplus. The $30.7 million shift was due primarily to the district spending $33 million less than had been estimated.

Battle attributed the reduction in spending to last school year’s midyear cuts and improved financial practices in the district. “I think it also shows some of the belt-tightening that the district went through over the past six or seven months,” he said. “We’re showing progress.”

Upon questioning from Director Jody London (District 1), Battle declared that, based on the improved budget outlook, the district will not have to make midyear budget cuts in the 2018-19 school year.

But London was quick to warn that the financial practices and fiscal accountability that led to a budget surplus needed to be maintained. “This has to be the new normal for us,” London said. “It’s kind of like you diet to get to the event, and then you break your diet. Well, we’re on the diet. We’re staying on the diet.”

Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammel said she was encouraged that the budget was heading in the right direction, but did not see this as a celebratory moment. In reference to the midyear budget cuts carried out last school year, Johnson-Trammel acknowledged “the pain that we all know is felt throughout the system.” She also said that the budget situation going forward has not been fixed; the board still needs to make $30 million in cuts for the 2019-20 budget to meet its financial goals. That challenge is exacerbated by the need to invest in tech infrastructure and improving working conditions, Johnson-Trammel said.

Director James Harris (District 6) expressed concern over the “wild swings” from deficit to surplus. “Wild swings are not good. We do not want to leave in June and come back to ‘Woah!’” he said. “That’s not good.”

Cassandra Chen, a middle school math and science teacher at United for Success Academy; Micaela Morse, a kindergarten teacher at International Community School; and Jah-Yee Woo, an English and history teacher at Oakland Technical High School, were named the district’s Teachers of the Year and were recognized by the board.

Board President Aimee Eng (District 2) offered her praise to the teachers. “I just want to add my congratulations to each of you,” she said. “As the daughter of a 38-year high school math teacher, I just really appreciate all of your dedication and your commitment.”

The teachers each expressed gratitude to their colleagues and their school, and also brought up the ongoing contract negotiations between the school district and the Oakland Education Association (OEA), the teachers’ union. Each teacher wore an OEA t-shirt. “I think one way that’s really important for us to honor teachers—and also in being able to realize the equitable education we would like for our children—is having a fair contract,” said Chen.

“The dedication that they have to their students, the time that they put in outside of the regular work day, the resources that they put into their own classroom out of their own pockets—all of those are things that I hope that you keep in mind as you go into contract negotiations,” Woo said of her fellow teachers.

Johnson-Trammel said that she heard the teachers’ comments about the negotiations. “We take those words to heart,” she said, “and we are working tirelessly to improve the conditions because we know you are the direct connection to our students.”

The board also voted to endorse Measure AA, also known as the Oakland Children’s Initiative, in the upcoming election. Measure AA would establish a $198 parcel tax per property with an exemption for seniors, low-income people, and affordable housing units. The tax is estimated to raise around $25 million a year. The money raised by the tax would go primarily toward two causes: improving access to early childhood education for Oakland families, particularly preschool and pre-kindergarten, and investing in more college readiness and mentorship programs to improve high school and college graduation rates. The measure aligns with a “cradle to college” program that Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf has advocated for.

During public comment, a line of about 20 students, parents, teachers, and advocates expressed their support for Measure AA and urged the board to endorse it. Leroy Gaines, the principal of Acorn Woodland Elementary School, said that the measure is about investing in kids. In particular, he said, “I know and I see the impact of students who have had an opportunity to have that education before entering kindergarten.”

Director Roseann Torres (District 5) expressed her frustration with having to do these types of initiatives in a piecemeal fashion due to the limits on education funding imposed by Proposition 13. The ballot initiative, passed in 1978, is an amendment to the California Constitution that significantly reduced property taxes and limited state funding for education. As a result, California ranks forty-first among all states in spending per pupil. Despite this, Torres said, she supports Measure AA.

The board voted to endorse the measure with five directors voting yes, Harris and Eng abstaining, and Director Shanthi Gonzales (District 6) absent.

Measure AA requires a supermajority voter approval of 66.67 percent in the November election.

Other board business included updates from the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance (FCMAT) and the Special Committee on Fiscal Vitality on improving fiscal health. The update from FCMAT focused on establishing stability on the finance team, implementing new technology for improved budget calculations, and instituting better budget management and oversight. The board also discussed their response to the Alameda County’s Grand Jury report on the OUSD, which criticized the district for budget mismanagement, poor staffing decisions, lack of transparency, and operating an unsustainable number of schools.

Oakland School Police Department (OSPD) Chief Jeff Godown delivered a biannual presentation on the statistics of calls to, arrests made by, and complaints against school police from January to June 2018. The chief highlighted efforts by the department to handle situations without making arrests, while maintaining student safety. During public comment on the presentation, Ni’Keah Manning, program coordinator at the Black Organizing Project, had several questions for the chief about Oakland Police Department’s (OPD) presence on campuses, calls made to the police, welfare checks done by the officers and restraining orders issued by the agency. But she stopped when the chief left the room midway through her remarks.

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