While the following focuses on the many serious issues in Oakland Unified, let's not forget to celebrate our successes too. Many families, teachers and staff love their schools, and many of our students are very happy and successful. More of our schools are in high demand as the word spreads of those good experiences - for example, enrollment is up at Emerson, Claremont won a Distinguished School award, and at Tech, every student joins an Academy in 10th grade, part of the success of Measure N not just at Tech but districtwide. But these successes have been overshadowed by our many problems.
We need a transformation in how our district handles its finances.
- There have been so many cycles of financial crisis, revelations of bad practices, and budget cuts that the public has lost confidence in the ability of the board and the district to manage its money.
The board and the district must communicate clearly with the public about the root causes of these problems and their plans to fix them. As a board member, I promise to send out monthly updates, and to hold public meetings at least every two months in my district so people have a way to engage with me about the issues.
- There needs to be radical transparency about district finances. If the district is struggling to develop good financial leadership and practices, let’s open source the problem - there are plenty of people in Oakland with expertise who can help.
- We need “zero-based budgeting” for central office programs, just as we have at school sites. In school site budgeting, there is no presumption that a position will continue from year to year; it needs to be renewed every year based on the needs of the school’s educational plan. Too many central programs have carried on even after the grant money that started them has expired.
- One root cause of the instability in Oakland is the high staff turnover at all levels, from central office to principals to the classroom. We need to support our teachers and staff, both with decent pay and with a good staff culture. Those of us who have been committed to Oakland schools for a long time are best equipped to make that happen.
We need real charter school accountability.
- There should be a moratorium on new charter schools in Oakland, and I will not vote to authorize any new charter schools. Charter school enrollment has increased to 17,000 Oakland students while district enrollment has stagnated (37,000 students last year). Since charter schools are run by dozens of independent non-profits, this makes it impossible for our public school district to effectively plan the location and programs of schools in Oakland. The Citywide Plan was an effort by the district to cooperate with the charter sector, but charters as a whole have not held up their end of that bargain.
The current board mostly offers charter schools carrots, in the form of long-term leases or a common enrollment process, but that hasn’t led them to cooperate with the district. We need to also use sticks, denying renewals unless a school does its part to enroll students with special needs, newcomer students, and other students whose needs require more resources to meet.
- None of this is meant to place blame on charter school families, teachers or staff who have made the choices they need to make. Many charter schools are doing the best that they can and are dedicated to educating primarily low-income students of color. This issue has caused too much acrimony and mistrust between good people in Oakland, and each of us needs to recognize the fine line between forceful advocacy and name-calling.
Oakland Unified should stop closing public schools.
- The consolidation of Kaiser and Sankofa at the Sankofa campus, and SOL and Frick at the Frick campus, have been controversial processes, and come after the botched closure of Roots Academy last year. OUSD should not close or consolidate another cohort of schools, because the community, with good reason, no longer trusts the process.
- Without buy-in and participation in the planning process from school staff and families, consolidating schools will only lead to a downward cycle of reducing enrollment, as families leave for charter schools, private schools and neighboring districts. This not only leads to a worse educational environment for our students - it doesn't even help OUSD financially since funding is based on enrollment.
- Our goal should be to attract more families back to Oakland public schools and away from charters, private schools, and neighboring districts. I believe this is possible through grassroots school transformation, because I have seen it happen at both my son’s elementary school and his middle school, thanks to great school leadership, committed staff and family participation.
- We also need to pursue other strategies to boost enrollment at OUSD schools, such as fixing feeder patterns from elementary to middle to high schools so that students are encouraged to stay together as they go from one school to the next.
- The school board and central staff have created confusion with shifting narratives on the reasons for school consolidations and closures. Is it to save money? Increase school quality? Create more neighborhood schools? All of the above? The district must study the effects on student achievement, enrollment, teacher retention and finances due to the consolidations of Elmhurst/Alliance, Futures/CUES, Sankofa/Kaiser, and Frick/SOL, and the closure of Roots Academy, and make this information public to the community. This is the only way the school district can win back the trust of the community after the bad experience of the 2012 school closures after which no such information was available.
- If the Schools and Communities First ballot measure passes next November, that will give OUSD the financial breathing room to stop closing schools except in cases where two school communities are choosing to do so, which is the process recommended by our teacher's union, OEA.
We need to advocate strongly for more funding from the state of California for K-12 education.
- California is shamefully low on the list of per-pupil funding, and if cost of living is factored in, it is among the worst of the 50 states.
- The Schools and Communities First proposition on the November 2020 ballot is a much-needed first step. This will bring much-needed funding to our schools by reassessing large commercial property every year for property taxes as is done in practically every other state, but will not affect our residential property taxes at all.