Looking to avoid “chaos” Oakland’s school board discusses budget process
on September 6, 2019
At a special meeting on Wednesday, Oakland’s school board members heard from the district’s newly-formed budget development team who are attempting to overhaul their financial planning process for the coming fiscal year. The team will redefine the process for the school board, which nearly did not pass a 2019-20 budget this June over fears about its accuracy.
The team aims to bring the district into compliance with guidelines from the Government Finance Officers Association, a national organization that defines best practices for institutions with public finances, seeking a more formalized process for budget decision making following last year’s dramatic budget cuts that led to 100 layoffs. While OUSD Chief Systems Service Officer Preston Thomas said more cuts are not out of the question, this year’s discussion will lend some order to what multiple board members referred to as the “chaos” of previous years.
“The people who are on the finance team are dealing with the day-to-day operations of the district, and they don’t necessarily have the time to do go out and engage the community and board members,” Thomas said. “That’s what this team is really making possible.”
The district’s Chief Academic Officer Sondra Aguilera, who represents academic departments on the team, noted during the meeting that the very process of budgeting feels harsh, and people tend to get protective of their own programs. “This type of process is to help us focus on the outcomes for our students and not make decisions based on what people feel or think,” Aguilera said. “It’s about the evidence we’re able to produce.”
According to Thomas, the new system has two key differences from past processes: The academic and operations departments are working together, in the hope that cuts won’t end up harming students in the classroom, and budget decisions are being based on actual performance data.
In past years, the district’s finance department issued standard orders across the board—each department would be asked to reduce its budget by a certain percentage. Several school board members mentioned during the meeting that in the past, they often voted on budgets without a complete understanding of what they meant for each department and campus.
“What was really hard these past few years was having to make reductions without data,” said school board President Aimee Eng (District 2).
Thomas said that the information about students’ academic performance and the effectiveness of programs that get shared with the school board was often inconsistent. “It makes it difficult for you to trust the decisions you have to make,” he told the board.
And district officials said there was another planning problem: An overworked office staff.
“Historically, budget development has been something that’s done onto people by the financial department,” said budget development team member Troy Christmas.
But this year, Thomas told the board, the new budget development team consists of six district staff members from outside of the financial department. This change is meant to remove some of the burdens from the financial department, which is often bogged down with day-to-day district operations and unable to focus on long term planning, he said. The new team has the bandwidth to carry through a collaborative planning process, Thomas said.
The budget development process will start with a blank slate—what team members refer to as a “zero-based budget,” or one that doesn’t roll over from year to year—forcing every campus and department to take stock of which programs and investments are producing returns, both academic and financial. “It’s not, ‘We get what we get because that’s what we got,’” said team member Sailaja Suresh.
This year’s effort to improve communication, as simple as it seems, represents “a whole system culture shift,” said Eng.
But some board members were skeptical that the new process would lead to a major shift. Board Director Jumoke Hinton Hodge (District 3) said she’s worried about academic and operations staff “taking over” budget conversations, especially given the lack of a permanent chief financial officer at the district level.
“This is going to involve trust-building,” said Board Director Roseann Torres (District 5). “With all the cuts year after year, people don’t believe [the district administration] is on their side.”
The proposed 2020-21 budget will be presented at a public hearing next spring, and the school board is set to adopt a final version in June.
In the final five minutes of the meeting, the board voted to approve a contractor change for the expansion of Madison Park Academy, after the initial contractor filed for bankruptcy.
The school board will have its next regular meeting Wednesday, September 11.
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