Archive for October, 2017

School District Avoids State Takeover with Two-Year $32 Million Budget Cuts

Parents at Manzanita SEED protested last Monday against consolidations – involuntary transfer of teachers. Photo courtesy of Sita Davis’ Facebook page.

By Ken Epstein

 

The Oakland Unified School District’s budget is balanced but fragile, and the consequences of the spending cuts are just beginning to be felt.

The district cut $15.2 million from its budget last school year and adopted a budget this year with $17.3 million in cuts, a total of $32.5 million, according to the district.

Even relatively small over-expenditures could lead to state receivership. That would mean the superintendent would be fired, and the powers of the board would be dissolved, which is what happened in 2003.

During that time, the state-appointed overseer, working with the Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team (FCMAT, which is pronounced fick-mat), dissolved all board committees, including the Budget and Finance Committee, and closed schools without board or public input.

Teacher salary increases were out of the question.

Currently, both the district´s advisory state trustee and FCMAT representatives have spoken to the board, using virtually the same words, “If you can’t make the cuts, the state will come in and make them for you.”

Only a little over a month into the school year, schools are feeling the impact.  The district is “consolidating” or involuntarily transferring teachers from schools where student enrollment is less than what was projected to other schools that need additional teachers.

The board and administration are facing protests, including at Manzanita Community School, an elementary school at 25th Avenue and E. 27th Street. Parents, staff and students are angry over the loss of their teachers and the disruption of their schools.

In addition, the district is under strong state pressure to close schools, similar to what happened in 2003. Board members are expected to consider school closures in coming months, to be potentially implemented as soon as next school year.

While FCMAT representatives tell the board they will be “amazed” how much money OUSD saves by closing schools, a number of national reports indicate that shutting schools does not produce the desired cost savings and also damages the education of students at both the schools that are closed and those that receive the transferred students.

In California, state law requires the district to turn over its closed to schools to charter school organizations if they want them. As a result, schools that are closed one year could reopen as charters the following year, possibly enrolling a number of the students from the public schools that closed.

According to activists, under these conditions, school closings would in effect be a transfer of public property to privately run charter organizations and decline in the numbers of students  – not a road to renewed financial health but to  permanent damage to public education in Oakland.

The board only recently re-instituted the Budget and Finance Committee that had been dissolved under state receivership.

Though the challenges are daunting, community members and OUSD staff are heartened by the school board’s decision to hire Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell, an Oakland native who has nearly two decades of experience, believes in Oakland and its schools and has a track record of transparent decision making and respectful relations with the community.

Published October 7, 2017, courtesy of the Oakland Post

School Board Focuses on Balanced Budget After This Year’s $17 Million Shortfall

OUSD headquarters at 1025 Second Ave., which is scheduled to be renovated and reopen in 2019.

By Ken Epstein

 

Oakland Board of Education members are gaining a deeper understanding of operating public schools in tough times as they work with new superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell to maintain a balanced budget after former Superintendent Antwan Wilson left the district with a two-year $32 million shortfall, including $17 million this year.

Board President James Harris

In interviews with the Oakland Post, several board members discussed what went wrong under Wilson and the prospects for the school district in the next year or two.

Board President James Harris, who represents District 7, said that though the budget is fragile, “Right now nothing indicates we are going to run out of money.”

“If we put the changes in place, I believe we will see our way through,” he said, “We don’t believe there will be (new) money from the state.”

Jumoke Hinton Hodge

He said the “encroachment” of special education on the district’s general fund has grown by $5 million a year, “though services have not gotten better. In some cases, they have gotten worse.”

“We are going to make cuts or change the kind of services we offer in special education,” Harris said.

Harris says the district has to close schools.

“We need to make some reductions in our portfolio,” he said. “I think we’re going to have to downsize.

“There is no wiggle room for anything else. I think the board is willing to do that.”

District 3 Boardmember Jumoke Hinton Hodge pointed to school sites and principals who overspent their budgets last year and disputed those who pinned the blame for the district’s shortfall on former Supt. Wilson.

While Wilson did not talk about a deficit and budget cuts before he left, she said, “We knew we had to make cuts.  We talked about it in terms in realigning (spending) priorities.”

She said board members who fault Wilson for hiring too many central office administrators are “kind of disingenuous. We (board members) approved this.”

Hinton Hodge disagreed with budget staff members who recently reported to the Budget and Finance Committee that Wilson’s administration had hired 75 employees, mostly in the central office, who were not in the budget.

Aimee Eng

“I know the narrative is about the attempt to hire 75 people without a budget,” she said. “That is not true. I don’t know who made that up. There was a redesigning of job descriptions. There were new (job) positions, adjustments of assignments, but there were not necessarily new people.”

She said a number of district schools, like MetWest and Coliseum College Prep Academy (CCPA), are too small and need to expand. “How can they serve an additional 100 students?” she asked.  “I’d like to increase their numbers so they can be self-sufficient.”

District 5 Boardmember Shanthi Gonzales said staff did not inform the board until a few weeks ago about the 75 employees who were hired last year but were not in the budget.

“What’s disheartening is that staff knew this was going on, and nobody alerted the board,” she said.

“Some of the 75 positons were brand new people,” she said.  “Some people already worked within the district but were put in new roles. In most cases, their salaries went up,” but their old positions were in the budget and remained unfilled.

In addition, she said, the district’s $30 million budget shortfall was never presented to the board last year.

“They tried to make it less serious than it really was,” Gonzales said. “Staff were getting pressured not to be honest (to the board) about what the extent of the crisis was.”

“(Now), everyone (on the board) is committed to staying out of receivership. It’s not good for the community to lose democratic control of our schools.”

Aimee Eng, representing District 5, chairs the board’s Budget and Finance committee.  She said she is basically optimistic about the district’s prospects.

“I am feeling good (about the superintendent). Her first priority is fiscal vitality. She not only listens, she understands the district.  She is open and collaborative,” said Eng.

She said she does not want to rush into making the decision to close schools.

“Closures is one of several options.  I myself have been pretty cautious about (deciding) to close schools. If you look at just the numbers (of schools and students), you are not necessarily looking at the local context.If you look at the local context, you know that it is just not that simple,” she said. “There is a lot of pressure to act really quickly, but there are a lot of questions that really need to be answered.”

Published October 6, 2017, courtesy of the Oakland Post

 

Storytellers Spin True Tales About Life Under Trump

Stagebridge participant Beverly Miles: “Nobody ever sees the problem as the problem. IIt doesn’t have to do with Trump. It has to do with the (social) climate that we refused to change.

 

By Ken Epstein

The tumultuous administration of President Donald Trump caught many people by surprise. Unfolding events have rattled their daily lives and certainties like a strong earthquake, revealing hidden fault lines in how they relate to friends and relatives and causing reflections and reappraisals of values and priorities.

Seeing a need for people to reach out to express themselves and share their stories with others, longtime storytelling artist and teacher Jeanne Haynes has organized a class about the issues, “America Untold,” to help participants create short monologues about how these national and global changes intersect with their personal lives.

Jeanne Haynes

Hosted by Stagebridge, the class began Sept. 29 and continues weekly until Dec. 8. At the end of the sessions, the Marsh Theatre in Berkeley will feature an evening of on-stage performances of the artists’ pieces.

Stagebridge has been conducting classes for older adults in the performing arts since 1978. Haynes, who had spent her life working in journalism and public relations, took her first Stagebridge class 21years ago and found her passion.

“A small group of all women talked about storytelling,” she said. “My heart was just beating. I thought this is what I want to do.”

Since then, she has appeared on San Francisco Bay Area stages and as a featured storyteller for major events. Working with Stagebridge, she has taught the art form to over 4,000 local school children and more than 300 adults, as well as working as a private coach for several dozen advanced tellers.

In her introduction to America Untold, Haynes laid out her vision for the class.

“We will work on personal stories, stories based on interviews with people who have opposing views, and stories of community efforts to build bridges among us,” she said.

“While emotions can be expected to run high in such discussions, this will not be a time for rants or insults,” she said. “Civil discourse will be observed for active listening to differing opinions and the development of artfully told stories.”

At the first session last Friday, the 12 participants brainstormed some of their ideas about the issues and situations that could be incorporated into their performance pieces.

Beverley Miles, a retired university administrator, explained that her professional role “has always been to bring people together.”

“Nobody ever sees the problem as the problem,” she said. “It doesn’t have to do with Trump. It has to do with the (social) climate that we refused to change. We don’t want to see the personal responsibility that we have.”

Theresa Nervis talked about how she began to pay attention to what was going on.

“My husband was upstairs, and he was yelling at the TV. He said: ‘You should see this,’” she said.

“It’s time for me now to really look at this thing and what’s happening, “Nervis said. “There were 24 tweets about the NFL and four about Puerto Rico,” referring to the president’s public statements about events in the last few weeks.

Jeff Hanson, a portfolio manager for private families around the country, views the national conflict “as a battle between the bicoastal bubbles and the rest of the country. And I wonder which side is going to win.”
Harry Santi, a lifelong Oakland resident, has always cared about animals. He works as a docent at the Oakland Zoo.

“If Trump had his way, he would do away with the Endangered Species Act, which would really be terrible, said Santi.

Santi said he wants people to understand the connections between the survival of humans and animals.

Sarah Strong, a psychologist, has a brother-in-law who plays golf with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, the president’s resort in Palm Beach, Fla. She also has a son who belongs to a gay synagogue and fears they might be attacked.

“The same consciousness that led to Hitler is alive and well in the United States,” she said.

Samir Saad, who came to the United States from Egypt at the age of 19, said he had a friend who told him there was “no way the establishment in Washington would let this guy be president.”

“After the election, I told him, ‘you lied to me,’” said Saad.

For more information about Stagebridge, go to www.stagebridge.org/

To learn more about storyteller Jeanne Haynes, visit http://jeannehaynes.com/

Published October 5, 2017, courtesy of the Oakland Post

Oakland School District Honor Band Takes a Knee for Justice at A’s Game

The Oakland Unified District’s Honor Band took a knee when it came on the field to play the national anthem at the Oakland A’s game, Monday, Sept. 25. Photo courtesy of OUSD.

By Post Staff

Oakland Unified School District’s Honor Band took a stand for justice Monday evening, Sept. 25 when band members took a  knee while playing the national anthem at the  Oakland A’s game versus the Seattle Mariners.

The young people were joined by Oakland A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell.

This was the band’s second protest. On Sept. 20, 2016, just weeks after 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began his silent protest against racism and police brutality, the OUSD Honor Band played the national anthem before an A’s game, and at the end of the song, most musicians took a knee in solidarity.

According to the district, last year’s  protest was met by caused a firestorm of reaction across the country. Much of it was hateful rhetoric from outside the Bay Area aimed at the students and teachers involved.

“(Band members) reacted with grace and humility, taking the attacks in stride, knowing it was more important to stand (or kneel) for what they believe in than to listen to the critics,” according to a district press statement.

NFL protests began to draw national attention last year when former 49er Colin Kaepernick decided to kneel during the national anthem to protest racism in the U.S., in particular police brutality and killings of African Americans.

Throughout the year, some athletes have followed in his footsteps, but he has also drawn fierce criticism and has not been signed to any team this football season.

In the past week, Protests by NFL players and athletes in other professional sports have exploded after President Trump condemned the protests and said any NFL player who doesn’t stand during the anthem should be fired.

Other students across the country, from North Carolina to Colorado, have also taken a knee.

Published October 1, 2017, Courtesy of the Oakland Post

Oakland Honors Educator Kitty Kelly Epstein

Post Salon, Holy Names University celebrate Kitty Kelly Epstein and her 30 years of service to the community of Oakland and public education. Left to right: Fred Ellis, Dezie Woods-Jones, Oakland Public Schools Supt. Kyla Johnson-Trammell, Kitty Kelly Epstein, Gay Plair Cobb and Carol Lee Tolbert. Photo by Carl Posey.

By Post Staff

Community members and leaders recently celebrated the contributions of community activist Kitty Kelly Epstein, who was recognized for 30 years of service in higher education, as well as teaching high school at the Oakland Street Academy and serving as a legislative aide for education in Mayor Ron Dellums’ administration.

The event, hosted by Holy Names University ‘s Teacher Apprenticeship Program (TAP) and the Post Salon Community Assembly, was held Sunday, Sept. 17, at Geoffrey´s Inner Circle in downtown Oakland.

“If you know one thing about Kitty, you know she has been unrelenting on diversifying the teacher workforce for all of her 30 years at Holy Names. She believes the workforce should represent the kids who go to the public schools,” said Dr. Kimberly Mayfield, chair of the Education Department at Holy Names.

Dr. Epstein and educator Dr. Fred Ellis started the Partnership Program, which received a federal grant to recruit teachers and later she worked in the Dellums’ administration to start Teach Tomorrow Oakland “to train Oakland residents to become teachers,” Mayfield said.

Dezie Woods-Jones, who served as the first Black Woman vice mayor of Oakland, interviewed Dr. Epstein on the topic:  “Teacher Activism During Neo-Liberal Times: Navigating the System to Save Public Schools.”

“We’ve been friends for many years. I respect her passion and hard work,” said Woods-Jones, who currently serves as state president of Black Women Organized for Political Action (BWOPA)

Among those who attended was Oakland Unified School District Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell, who had been one of Dr. Epstein’s students.

Dr. Epstein said that she learned some of her lasting life lessons while working as a teacher at the Street Academy, an alternative school that began in 1970s with a federal grant.

“I learned you can win if you fight hard, if you strategize and stick together,” she said. “The school was supposed to die after five years, and it has been going for 40 years.”

She said she learned from Street Academy’s Black and Latino teachers that schools could not be good unless the teachers were representative of their students. “I learned that in life, not as a slogan,” she said.

Dr. Epstein said the roots of national and local crises in public schools lie in “neoliberalism, which is a different word for capitalism.   It’s just capitalism with the   gloves off.”

Whether in education, housing, healthcare or military spending,  “The big capitalists have to make a higher and higher amount of profit every year. But some of what actually needs to be done in the community, such as building a grocery store in the flatlands, won’t make them a large profit, and so they just don’t do those things,” she said.

“The biggest changes are national and international plans to make money by turning what has been a public dollar into a private dollar.”

She said the issue is larger than the debate over charter schools.  There are some good charter schools, she said, but “the big plan is to privatize the money that is spent for public education.”

“Schools have never been good for Black and Latino kids,” she said, and if communities hope to win in the fight against the privatizers, “we must have a much more integrated campaign” that is committed to social equity.

Published October 1, 2017, courtesy of the Oakland Post

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tenants Up the Ante in Fight for Renter Protections

Oakland Councilmembers Rebecca Kaplan and Dan Kalb (standing behind Kaplan) spoke Tuesday at a rally in front of City Hall to demand legislation to increase tenant protections. Photo by Ken Epstein

By Post Staff

Oakland organizations that represent tenants are increasing the pressure on city government to pass legislation to close “destructive loopholes” in city law that allow landlords to displace long-term and low-income tenants.

“While there were large gains after the passage of Ballot Measure JJ (a tenant protection measure) in November of 2016, there remain loopholes, and speculating landlords have quickly exploited these,” said Leah Simon-Weisberg, managing attorney of the Tenants’ Rights Program at Centro Legal de la Raza.

Among the groups’ top issues are an “unprecedented” number of tenants who complain they are being evicted by landlords to move into the duplex or triplex where they live. Tenants are also complaining that landlords take advantage of a “substantial rehabilitation exemption” to raise rents significantly, even though the repairs were nothing more than normal building maintenance.

The tenants’ rights coalition held a rally Tuesday in front of City Hall to present a list of legislative demands to close these and other legal loopholes. Joining the organizers were City Councilmembers Rebecca Kaplan and Dan Kalb.

The coalition includes Centro Legal de la Raza, Association of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), Causa Justa/Just Cause, East Bay Community Law Center, Eviction Defense Center, Oakland Warehouse Coalition, East Bay Asian Youth Center (EBAYC) and JDW Tenants’ Association.

One demand is to close the Substantial Rehabilitation loophole that allows landlords to exempt units from rent control after alleging they have substantially improved the property.

Said Marlon Jones, a tenant who is a member of the JDW Tenants’ Association, “I have lived in my apartment for 38 years.  My landlord purchased the property way under market during the foreclosure crisis.  He has completed some repairs, but the unit was always occupied and was never in such bad conditions that we could not live here.

“There is no reason that I should lose rent control and just cause protections.  If this property is exempted, I will become homeless.”

Another legislative demand would amend the law that creates an owner-occupied duplex/triplex exemption from Rent Control and Just Cause Protection.

Josephine Hardy, long-time tenant of an Oakland triplex said, “I have lived in my unit for 46 years.  Once the landlord moves into the triplex where I live, he will be able to evict me requiring no just cause, and he does not even have to provide any relocation.”

The coalition also wants to change existing law so landlords are required to pay relocation assistance for all no-fault evictions, including when a landlord raises the rent above 10 percent and the tenant is forced to move within 12 months of the increase.

“My landlord owns eight single family homes that he purchased.  We have had no repairs, and last month he served us all 60-day notices stating that he was going to double our rent as of November 1, 2017,” said Norma Sanchez, a member of ACCE.

According to Jonah Strauss, executive director of the Oakland Warehouse Coalition, action must be taken not just to pass new ordinances but also to ensure that city departments, the City Administrator and the City Attorney enforce them.

Pointing to the growing problem of landlords evicting tenants by “falsely claiming” owner occupancy, Councilmember Kaplan said, “It is incredibly important that we continue to push. Both to make sure that the laws we pass are implemented and make sure that we close loopholes that are being abused.”

She said she wants to modify the law so that claims of owner occupancy “have to be documented.

“We have to do what we can to close the loopholes, said Councilmember Kalb. “What you are hearing now is a commitment of at least some of us on the council … to get these new amendments passed as soon as possible. We can do it over the next few months.”

Published October 1, 2017, courtesy of the Oakland Post