Statement From School Board Member Kerry Hamill on the district’s “Path To Fiscal Sustainability” Program:
Under the guise of cost savings and maintaining a balanced budget, State Administrator Vince Matthews and new Superintendent Roberta Mayor have outlined a “tough love” strategy focused on a broad school closures plan that is incendiary, counterproductive and begs opposition. The approach has sparked a level of panic across the district that will – sadly – make it impossible to have a thoughtful conversation about some tough decisions ahead.
A series of meetings began last week across Oakland – ostensibly to explore solutions to the district’s tough financial future. But school closings is the only cost-saving strategy being explored in the district’s presentation, which suggests that we close between 5-15 schools this year – and also identifies 53 schools of our portfolio of 108 as falling below “our target programmatic enrollment size.” Many of the small schools in this mix are among the highest performing and most popular schools in our city - Peralta and Kaiser and La Esculita elementary schools, Ascend K-8 school and Life Academy High School.
These schools do not cost more per student to operate. They are outstanding academic performers and every seat at the school is full. But they made the list because they don’t conform to a boilerplate school size supported by “research” and the “experts,” according to the district’s report. These small schools have been lumped together and identified as a problem. To what end? I have no idea. But I do know this - not one of the schools I just mentioned will be closed by the School Board anytime soon. We are creating tension and distraction for no good reason.
Join me in opposing a strategy that looks primarily at wholesale school closings as a means to guarantee future fiscal stability. Call your school Board member, attend the last 2 engagement meetings that have been scheduled on this topic, and plan to attend the School Board meetings scheduled for this fall when key decisions are scheduled to be made.
Those of us who live in the world of schools know that the district’s budget is under tremendous pressure - yet learning keeps improving. The Administration’s presentations did a fine job of outlining progress over the last five years. In an era of constant upheaval, our staff and families have done more with less. We have tripled the number of schools that perform above 700 on the state’s Academic Performance Index (out of a possible score of 1000). The number of schools below 500 has gone from 42 to 4. Oakland has defined itself with the largest gains of any large urban school district in the last 6 years. Unfortunately, no analysis was offered during the meeting as to the successful best practices which contributed to better performance. This information is critical as we shape future budgets, and should be clarified.
The report also presented some sobering facts about the local hit that our public schools will continue to take because of lingering state deficits and our never ending enrollment decline.
The state budget this year did not include any cost of living increases for staff. Our current year budget is balanced without raises, and our costs are projected to rise $18M this year because of inflation, step and column increases to teachers, higher energy costs, etc.
We currently serve 37,000 students in Oakland public schools, down from the 54,000 students we served 10 years ago. Since the state pays the district according to the number of students served, the enrollment loss has cost us an average of $14.5M/yr for the last three years.
The School Board and State Administrator cut or downsized $21M in programs this year to balance the budget. We are literally cutting lean muscle tissue from the system - custodians, attendance clerks, campus security guards and teaching assistants for special education classrooms. The serious nature of our financial struggle cannot be stated strongly enough.
The bad news does not justify our staff going off the deep end by identifying 53 schools as a problem because they don’t conform to someone else’s “formula.” The School Board must challenge our staff to present a full range of options as we explore the future. We should consider:
Better uses of the Redevelopment Agency funds that come through the city to schools:
We have tough conversations ahead. I hope that we can manage them by discussing a range of options.