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Protesters sing parodies of Christmas carols at the December 12 OUSD school board meeting. Photo by Michelle Pitcher.

Oakland school board grapples with protest and budget

on December 13, 2019

At the final Oakland school board meeting of 2019, members tackled two hefty topics: money and facilities.

The district’s interim CFO Luz Cazares gave an update on how the 2019-20 budget matches up with reality, and board members discussed a draft of the 2020 Facilities Master Plan, which included a sweeping analysis of district properties. At stake are $15.5 million in budget cuts, which the board is expected to enact next year.

About 20 protesters—teachers, parents and kids who oppose the board’s earlier decision to close Kaiser Elementary—disrupted the first half hour of the meeting. Wearing all black, they put up holiday themed posters—including a “public schools wish list”—on the walls of the large gym. As the meeting began, one protester began reading a parody of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” aimed at the members of the school board. Then parent Saru Jayaraman led the group in a singalong from a book of spoof holiday songs, including “Budget Cuts are Coming to Town” and “Oakland the Red-Nosed District.”

“Deck the halls with all we need, fa la la.
Just say no to corporate greed, fa la la,”
the group sang.

Protesters held the floor for more than 15 minutes before acting board president Jody London (District 1) attempted to regain control. “We apologize deeply to the members of the public who are here for the meeting,” she shouted into the microphone. 

Around 6:30 p.m., the board recessed, reconvening in a conference room upstairs, as they have done several times this semester following disruptive protests. A two-way video feed was set up to broadcast the meeting to screens in the gym and to allow the board members to hear public comments. 

Cazares began her report when the board reconvened. She said that the district’s financial future remains uncertain, with large cuts looming and “hard decisions” ahead for the board.

She noted that enrollment was higher this year than anticipated, although still lower than last year. While this should mean more state funding for the district than expected, the new students included few English learners, foster children and students who qualify for free and reduced lunch. This means the district would receive less supplemental money allocated for underserved students than anticipated. These two unexpected changes will cancel each other out, so the amount of state funding—which is allocated based on student numbers and demographics, among other factors, and constitutes the biggest source of income for the district—has remained largely unchanged from early projections.

Cazares suggested the district’s leaders hire an analyst to do demographic projections, so the finance department staff could more accurately estimate how much money the district would receive based on enrollment figures for underserved students.

She also pointed out some major spikes in revenue and spending since the budget was adopted, which she warned would be “eye catching.” But she said those spikes were explained by funds from previous years carrying over and needing to be spent in order to maintain a balanced budget. “It looks like suddenly the district has gone on a spending spree,” she said, but she stressed that this is not the case.

Cazares said district leaders are intending to reduce inefficient or chronically-vacant positions. Members from several different district offices, including accounting and talent, have formed a working group to eliminate some full-time positions, including the pool of replacement teachers for when an instructor leaves a position unexpectedly, which Cazares said will lead to a “much more refined budget on the most important thing we spend on.”

The board voted 5-1 to pass a resolution to accompany this interim budget, urging the superintendent to identify approximately $15.5 million in cuts next year in order to maintain a 3 percent reserve. The district is required by the state to maintain a 2 percent reserve, but the board has recently considered dipping into reserves to maintain ailing programs. Falling below a 2 percent reserve makes the district vulnerable to state intervention, so leaders aim to keep an extra buffer.

Board members then heard an update on the new Facilities Master Plan, which helps district leaders prioritize infrastructure spending for its 108 facilities. Staff in the district’s facilities office, along with a consultant from MKThink, reported on the biggest deficiencies in district buildings, including accessibility issues, seismic safety, heating and ventilation problems, and dysfunctional fire alarms and security systems. If every issue were to be addressed, the district would need to allocate more than $3 billion, according to Josh Jackson, consultant at MKThink. But he added that “not all of these are critical—they’re needs that can be addressed over time.”

Jackson and interim Deputy Chief of Facilities Tadashi Nakadegawa both noted during the presentation that unfinished projects the district had planned to complete using funds from Measure J—a $475 million bond measure that passed in 2012—should be prioritized. They also said they wanted to ensure that facilities in every neighborhood throughout Oakland would receive investment.

Director Jumoke Hinton-Hodge (District 3) said she visited a school earlier this year, and it was “crazy hot inside.” She said the district should prioritize making buildings comfortable for students, not necessarily lofty sustainability goals.

Staff will conduct community outreach meetings regarding the facility plan in January and February, and board members hope to adopt an official plan before a statewide $15 billion bond to support California public schools goes to a vote in March.

In other board business, London and Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell used their reports to honor Deputy Chief of Facilities Tim White, who passed away unexpectedly last month. “Tim had a big heart of gold, and he is greatly, greatly missed,” London said.  

The board also held a brief public hearing, marking the start of  a contract negotiation with the United Administrators of Oakland Schools, a union that represents principals, program managers, school police sergeants, custodial staff and food service managers, as well as staff from the finance and facilities departments. Union representatives outlined their key requests—including adjustments to members’ workloads, which they say have been increasing, as well as for better healthcare options and school security. Board members asked few questions during the hearing. Union members will meet with district officials to discuss the contract in depth in the coming months.

The next school board meeting will be held January 8.

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