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Hundreds of Oakland students protested budget cuts at a school board meeting in March. Last week, Oakland City Council restored funding for student programs affected by those cuts. Photo by Nikka Singh.

Oakland City Council gives schools $1.2 million in one-time funding for the school year

on April 22, 2019

Last Tuesday, the Oakland City Council passed a resolution to provide $1.2 million in funding for the Oakland Unified School District’s (OUSD) restorative justice program, foster youth case manager positions, and school libraries. All three programs were at risk of enacting widespread layoffs or reductions to the services they provide following the Oakland school board’s vote last month to cut about $22 million from the district’s budget.

When introducing the resolution, Council President Rebecca Kaplan (at-large) highlighted how each of the programs has helped Oakland students, saying the funding would “allow us to protect these programs, which protect our young people’s lives and opportunity.”

The council’s decision was the latest step in a debate that has been rolling for months as the school district wrestles with two opposing mandates: Addressing a projected budget deficit while giving teachers a raise. The board’s solution has been to reduce what are called classified positions—those held by school employees whose positions don’t require a credential or certificate. They also proposed reducing staffing for programs like restorative justice initiatives, which help students resolve conflicts among themselves, rather than relying solely on punitive measures like suspension and expulsion.

But students have been outspoken about the vital role these programs have played in their lives. During a school board meeting in March, hundreds of students staged a sick-out—all calling in sick to school so that they could attend the daytime meeting to protest the budget cuts.

School board members argued that the cuts are necessary in order to meet certain financial benchmarks set by the county and the state. They also said the cuts are needed to fund the new teachers’ contract that was agreed to after February’s strike. Speaking at the meeting in March, Director Jody London (District 1) addressed the audience directly. “What I want to make clear to folks is that the raise that the teachers ratified yesterday is dependent on the school board making these reductions,” she said. But community members countered that the cuts had been planned since August, 2018—well before this year’s strike.

After the board passed the budget cuts at that March meeting, student school board representative Yota Omosowho told her fellow students that they would continue to fight for funding for these programs. Over the last month, Omosowho and other student leaders have worked with Mayor Libby Schaaf and city councilmembers to push for a council resolution that would fill in the missing money. In a phone interview, she said that the pain from that board meeting fueled the students. “It came from anger and it came from frustration,” she said of their motivation. “And it came from hope and wanting better for our schools.”

Initially, the city resolution proposed that the $1.2 million would come from the Real Estate Transfer Tax (RETT)—a 1.5 percent tax the city collects from property owners whenever they sell a building—relying on unused funds from previous building sales. But at last week’s meeting, the resolution was amended to simply state that the city would provide the money, but did not tie the funding to the RETT or any specific source.

Councilmember Dan Kalb (District 1) said that “every once in a while, a city government will help its school district on an interim, temporary basis.” He made clear, though, that the $1.2 million is only a one-time funding source for the 2019-20 school year, and that it was the school district’s responsibility to find funds for future years. “Do not expect us to do this a second, third, or fourth or every year,” he said. “That just can’t happen.”

The council passed the resolution by a vote of six to one. Councilmember Larry Reid (District 7) voted no, and Councilmember Lynette McElhaney (District 3) was not at the meeting. Reid said that he believes the funding is necessary, but that the process is being rushed. He wanted the council to include the funding in their normal budget process, which is set to begin in May.

Kaplan responded that the reason they rushed to pass the resolution is because layoff notices related to school district cuts would have been sent out on April 30, and she hoped to preempt the need for layoffs and avoid disrupting those programs.

David Yusem, the coordinator of the OUSD’s restorative justice program, spoke about the value of the restorative justice program at the meeting. In a phone interview the following day, he said he was grateful that the council acted quickly. He said was going to have to lay off at least 20 people, and was worried he would have trouble hiring them back if the city funding came through after April 30.

Continuity in staffing is essential for a program like his, he said, which relies on building strong relationships and trust between students and staff. “It takes time and a lot of coaching and support and training to have staff that can do this work with fidelity and integrity,” Yusem said.

Yusem said he was inspired by the students’ response to the budget cuts, and that part of his program’s original goal was to build a student movement in Oakland schools. Seeing students organize to fight for their program was not only a validation of “how much a student movement has been created, but also how much students love and support restorative justice,” he said. “Because once they learn it and practice it, it really belongs to them.”

For students and staff who depend on these programs, the last month has been filled with worry and uncertainty—like for Jennifer Martinez and Crystal Rudecino. Martinez is a sophomore at Skyline High School and she’s in the foster care system. Rudecino, her case manager at school, talks with Martinez nearly every day—sometimes that’s checking in about how classes are going, other times it’s having longer conversations about challenges at home. Martinez said that Rudecino is one of the few adults in her life who is always there for her, despite the instability of foster care placements. “She’s like my family,” Martinez said.

When the school board passed the budget cuts that would have eliminated Rudecino’s position, both of them were devastated. Martinez was among the hundreds of other Oakland students who protested at the March meeting, telling the board how important her relationship with Rudecino is to her.

For Rudecino, the following month of uncertainty about the fate of her job made it harder to focus on supporting her students, because she was also trying to prepare other school staff to take on her responsibilities. For Martinez, it changed how she approaches her case manager. “It makes me feel like I shouldn’t be getting so attached anymore, and I should be keeping my space,” she said.

On Tuesday, Rudecino watched the livestream of the city council meeting. When the resolution passed, restoring funding for her job, she texted her fellow case managers to share the good news. She said she was still trying to get information on how exactly the $1.2 million would be spent. According to the resolution, $800,000 will go to the restorative justice program and $400,000 will be split between funding foster youth case managers and the libraries.

For Rudecino, the resolution gave her “the little bit of hope” that she needs to keep working. But she said she’s not done fighting for funding. Her goal is to secure funding for the next five years—and then the five years after that. “Even after Jennifer [Martinez] graduates in two years, there’s going to be another set of kids—and then another set of kids that we need to be here for,” she said. “And I promise them I’m going to be there for their graduation, no matter what.”

Omosowho said that she hopes that the school district doesn’t come to such a desperate point again. She said that district and school board officials need to do a better job of listening to students, and work in partnership with student leaders as they develop plans for the future. Mostly, though, she said, she just wants to make “sure that students have a voice and are brought to the table and not left out of the conversation.”

Hundreds of Oakland students protested budget cuts at a school board meeting in March. Last week, Oakland City Council restored funding for student programs affected by those cuts. Photo by Nikka Singh.
Hundreds of Oakland students protested budget cuts at a school board meeting in March. Last week, Oakland City Council restored funding for student programs affected by those cuts. Photo by Nikka Singh.

1 Comment

  1. […] Sheng Thao (District 4), Noel Gallo (District 5), and Nikki Fortunato Bas (District 2)—provided $1.2 million for student programs that were cut in March. $510,000 of that funding will be split between funding school libraries and […]

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