Financial Stability, Transparency and Accountability
I joined the board in 2003, when the State addressed our precarious financial condition with a state takeover. I led the Board’s recovery of local control and we successfully adopted balanced budgets, even through the Great Recession. Later, in 2013-14, as Interim Superintendent I left the district with a balanced budget, a $2 million surplus and a 3% reserve.
In 2003, when charters were barely on the scene, there were four major internal drivers of our financial problems: unanticipated declining enrollment: bureaucratic inefficiency; unreliable fiscal systems; and fragmented political leadership. These remain true today, exacerbated by the growth of charter schools, necessary but unfunded special education costs and climbing benefits costs.
Inevitable cuts. These continuing issues mean that making major cuts are a reality facing this board. As Superintendent in 2013-14, I used four principles in evaluating the cuts required to stabilize the budget then. These also remain appropriate today: Are the cuts efficient? That is, will they significantly close the gap in a timely manner without large implementation costs? Are the cuts equitable? Do they hurt only certain sectors? Do they simply cut everyone by the same percentage, or do they take into account disproportionality? Do the cuts involve traditional schools only, or can they be a shared responsibility with charter schools. Are the cuts effective? Do the cuts lay the groundwork for a healthy future and minimize the effect on children, especially children with the greatest needs? Do they reflect our equity values? And finally, do the cuts include choice and voice for those involved, even with reduced funding?
Measure N Model. Financial stability, transparency and accountability require more than cutting, they also require seeking and then carefully stewarding increased funding. As Co-Chair of the Measure N parcel tax and a current Measure N Commission member, I was instrumental in bringing to Oakland a proven educational model, career pathways, that has transformed education across district and charter high schools. This was done with rigorous quality and accountability standards and high transparency. Withholding funds until standards were met and conducting thorough audits and reviews were not initially popular. But as a result we have seen some of the most significant educational gains in Oakland’s history.
Quality Schools in Every Neighborhood
Oakland families deserve quality schools in every neighborhood. Right now parents are voting with their feet, choosing charter and district schools outside of their neighborhoods if they feel they have no quality neighborhood options. This in turn exacerbates issues in the schools they are fleeing, reducing teachers, causing instability and creating conditions where even more staff and students choose to leave.
The Board must direct the superintendent to: 1) develop a transparent quality school development assessment process by which all schools can be evaluated for their capacity to serve all neighborhood children; 2) pilot that process to assess school quality for all charter and district schools in a selected high-need neighborhood; 3) complete a “community of schools blueprint” that optimizes (effective, equitable, and efficient) deployment of services, staff, and facilities for that neighborhood’s facilities and recommend optimal utilization based on the blueprint.
This process will inevitably include closing some district and charter schools. However, closing schools by itself is not a silver bullet to resolve the current financial crisis, because savings are unlikely to be realized in the short term. In the long term, it is important that every neighborhood have the right number of effective, safe, efficiently-staffed public schools. Too many schools usually means either that the district will have to spend more to maintain unfilled facilities, and/or it will have to overstaff schools to provide the services our impacted neighborhoods require. Too many schools also strain the district’s precious support services and leadership capacity.
Community of Schools
I commend the Board for passing the Community of School Policy that builds from the earlier Quality Schools Development work I led. However, building a true community of schools is not easy, despite the fact that educators often work in both traditional and charter schools and parents move their children from one kind of school to another.
Deep divides between charter and district schools, caused by competition for students and facilities, build upon two additional underlying issues. First, distrust of charters is caused by the reticence of some charters to publicly embrace an equity agenda that extends to all Oakland students. While doing focused equity work within their individual schools, many charters have yet to acknowledge that sector growth has disproportionately impacted the highest need students. Second, distrust of the district’s ability to execute change has led some staff to leave the district, join charters, or vote to convert their school to a charter.
Rather than competing and diverting energy from the monumental educational challenges facing the city, Oakland has an opportunity to find a third path of focused district-charter collaboration to revitalize neighborhoods and address high-priority equity issues. As a part of this, charters must aggressively seek to serve the full range of Oakland students. And the district must institute the kind of flexibility and accountable autonomy that make revitalization of schools and retention of staff and students possible. Through shared responsibility, collaboration and the high quality execution of win-win partnerships will come solutions to the difficult problems facing our schools. Successfully addressing these issues will only happen when all parties accept that charters are a permanent and valuable part of Oakland’s public school ecosystem but that un-managed charter growth creates an instability that impedes addressing Oakland’s most challenging educational issues.
Continuity of District Leadership
In the past 55 years, no Oakland Superintendent has served for more than 5 years. There are myriad reasons for this, but the result has been the inability to carry forward promising strategic visions that can result in lasting, equitable change. Staff frequently believe that “this too shall pass,” and short-tenured superintendents become frustrated that there is not the political will and support for changes that will equitably address the systemic and environmental challenges that have faced Oakland over that half century.
At the same time, Oakland learned under state administration, when the State Administrator had full authority to take any action, that unchecked executive authority was not the answer. The result then was a decision to significantly increase the number of charter schools without closing underutilized district schools, to defer resolving the structural deficit, and to use the line of credit to offset any district budget deficit. The systemic struggles we have today are in large part the result of that state leadership.
Only a strong and united board working in partnership with a strong long-term Superintendent can give us the stability and resources we need to meet the needs of our community. Having served in both Board and Executive roles in public education, I have great respect for the challenges of both branches of the District leadership. I have been the ONLY full-time Oakland educator who has also been a board member! I am committed to building the kind of leadership team that the students and families of Oakland deserve.