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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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