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Oakland Unified to Cut $9 Million Despite Protests From Students

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OUSD students Katherine Araujo, 13, Jennifer Martinez, 14, and Griselda Aleman, 14, attend a school board meeting in Oakland on Dec. 13, 2017. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

The Oakland Unified School District is chopping $9 million from its budget in a move that will hit the district's more than 36,000 students midyear. The school board approved the budget cuts Wednesday night in a 6-1 vote, in an effort to correct years of overspending and a growing deficit.

School sites will shoulder $3.8 million in budget reductions, while the rest of the cuts will come from the district's central office as early as January. Dozens of support, management and administrative positions will be affected through reduced hours or layoffs.

During the long and raucous board meeting Wednesday night, hundreds of students, parents and teachers loudly objected to the cuts, saying  schools are already struggling with a lack of basic resources.

Teachers regularly have to pay for classroom supplies out of their own pockets at Piedmont Elementary School, said OUSD parent Geneva Nicherie.

"It breaks my heart. My child’s school is so underfunded it’s disgusting," said Nicherie, after witnessing the board's vote with her son, Edward, a second-grader. "It's going to get worse for our school."

Board president James Harris addresses opponents of budget cuts as Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell looks on at La Escuelita Education Center in Oakland on Dec. 13, 2017. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

Oakland Unified is grappling with sharp increases in retirement costs and in special education, while state funding has flattened, said Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell, a former OUSD teacher and administrator on her first year leading the district.


"I have inherited this fiscal challenge and I have a responsibility to right this ship," said Johnson-Trammell during a public meeting on the budget last month. "I would like to say how deeply sorry I am for the current financial position we find ourselves in."

But the district, with a budget of nearly $800 million, also has struggled to spend within its means. Ineffective checks and balances and internal controls remain a key problem, according to several sources, including a state team that analyzed OUSD's finances.

"A lot of the frustration in the community, which is very well understood, is we need to do a better job of budget monitoring, budget planning, forecasting ... to address issues that have been in our district for a decade," said Johnson-Trammell during the Wednesday night meeting at La Escuelita Education Center.

Oakland Unified struggled with similar fiscal problems when it was taken over by the state in 2003 and administered by the California Department of Education for six years.

"Severe financial difficulties forced the District into state receivership in exchange for a sizable state loan," says the OUSD website.

Oakland Unified is still paying interest on the $100 million bailout loan it took out then, and is required to host a state-assigned fiscal trustee until the district repays the loan in full.

Bryan Gonzalez, 13, a student at Elmhurst Community Prep, leads chants of "They say cut back, we say fight back!" before school board directors in Oakland on Dec. 13, 2017. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

Parents who witnessed that history are incensed the district has not resolved those problems -- even after being administered by the state.

"These cuts are absolutely ridiculous," said OUSD mom Che Phinnessee, adding that her kids' schools don't have enough basics, such as paper and pens. "It's a problem of mismanagement and there needs to be a total systems change. We do not need to be under state receivership again."

School board member Roseann Torres, who cast the only dissenting vote on the budget cuts, said the board didn’t have a dedicated group of directors taking a "deep dive" on the district's finances until recently.

"There is my sense of responsibility and regret for not pushing harder," said Torres, who joined the board in 2013. "But we didn’t have the structures like a budget committee that could push harder on staff and say 'What’s really going on? Why are we spending from categories inappropriately instead of spending within our means?' "

Some of the district's overspending ran in the millions of dollars during the tenure of the last superintendent, Antwan Wilson, who left the district earlier this year to run the public schools in Washington, D.C.

For example, during fiscal year 2015-2016, the district budgeted $20 million for professional and consulting services, but spent a whopping $29.3 million. That same year, the district spent more than $10 million over its budgeted amount in classified supervisors and administrators, but significantly less for books and supplies.

Oakland Unified planned to spend $18 million on those materials, but spent only $12 million, according to district data.

The school board signed off on those expenses, and the state trustee at the time, Carlene Naylor, had veto power over financial decisions but didn't use it, said Carmelita Reyes, a principal at Oakland International High School.

"There’s plenty of blame to go around," said Reyes, who is planning to cut about $84,000 from her school's budget. "Antwan Wilson was absolutely irresponsible. The state trustee was asleep on the job. The school board didn’t have enough internal resources to make sure that what staff was telling them was timely, accurate and complete. And historically we’ve haven't had the budget controls we needed as an organization. And all these things came together at once."

Brenna Swan, 7, is helped by her mother, Kiera, to address the school board in Oakland on Dec. 13, 2017. Swan and dozens of other students, parents and teachers spoke up against budget cuts to schools. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

Last month, Johnson-Trammell asked principals like Reyes to prepare for cuts of a specific amount, depending on the number of students and grade span of each school.

While some schools decided to abstain from filling teacher positions and other vacancies, others are making do with fewer support staff, like custodians and instructional assistants. Classrooms are already feeling those effects, said Stephanie Hironaka, a math teacher at Edna Brewer Middle School.

"For us, it’s mainly canceling field trips, cutting supplies and subscriptions to some technology that we have to renew on an annual basis. Things that enhance the classroom experience are no longer going to be available," said Hironaka. 

Several students at the meeting said they felt like they were paying the price for past decisions by administrators and others who were supposed to manage and oversee the district's finances.

"I feel like my education isn’t being valued," said Delaney Kreber-Mapp, 15, a student at Oakland Technical High School. "I feel like there are so many other things that this district is putting ahead of my own education."

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