Archive for March, 2019

State Representatives – FCMAT and the County – Drive Budget Cuts, Not the Teachers Strike

Oakland teachers recent seven-day strike challenged the school board’s decision to close schools and slash educational programs. Photo by Ken Epstein.

By Ken Epstein

A new report from the Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team (FCMAT) indicates that the State of California, represented by FCMAT and the Alameda County Superintendent of Education, is requiring the school district to make budget cuts of jobs and programs totaling about $30 million this year, regardless of  any costs generated by increased salaries for teachers and other school employees.

The district administration and much of the school board blame the new teachers contract for the cuts they are making, but they are silent about pressure the district faces from FCMAT and the County Superintendent.

FCMAT, which is an independent nonprofit funded by the state, works in schools districts throughout California enforcing financial accountability, meaning that the agency requires local educators to adopt difficult austerity measures, such as school closures and cuts to educational programs.

FCMAT is sometimes referred to as a QUANGO, a quasi-autonomous non-governmental organization, which Wikipedia defines as “a hybrid form of organization with elements of both non-government organizations (NGOs) and public sector bodies … at least partly controlled and/or financed by government bodies.”

Working together, FCMAT and Alameda County Office of Education are supervising OUSD under the terms of AB 1840, which “provides for several changes in the oversight of fiscally distressed districts and sets forth specific requirements for the Oakland Unified School District in exchange for providing financial resources under certain circumstances.”

Backed by former Gov. Jerry Brown, the Democratic Legislature passed AB 1840 on Aug. 31, and the law became effective on Sept.17, 2018. FCMAT played a role in drafting the legislation.

FCMAT’s 267-page report on the Oakland Unified School District, issued March 1, did not deal with the impact of the teachers’ strike settlement, which was settled too late to be  included in the report’s findings.

The report quoted a Sept. 6, 2018 letter to OUSD from the County Office of Education,  which said the district’s solvency was “largely dependent on the District’s ability to implement approximately $30 million of ongoing reductions in 2018-19.”

The purpose of extra state funding connected to AB 1840 is to give the district three years to make layoffs, school closures  and large cuts to central office administration and school sites. The money is not intended to help avoid any cuts but to give OUSD some time and space to make the cuts the state expects, making the reductions in three steps rather than diving head first of the cliff all at once.

According to the FCMAT report, AB 1840 provides for activities that “may include but are not limited to … adoption and implementation of necessary budgetary solutions, including the consolidation of school sites….(and) sale or lease of surplus property.”

Under the guidance of FCMAT since 2003, the district has closed 18 schools since 2004, 14 of which have become charter schools.  FCMAT has long been adamant about the need for OUSD to close schools.

While FCMAT admits school closings do not save money, selling or leasing schools can generate income. The district is in the process of setting up a “7-11 committee,” which is a process required by the state for local districts that want to sell public property.

The supervision provided by FCMAT and the county looks at the district’s financial condition as a given,  which  only can be improved with budget cuts – not a something for which FCMAT and the county bear any responsibility (going back to 2003). Ignored is the possibility of increased state support for urban school districts or changing state laws to restrict the drain of charter schools on public education dollars.

Looking favorably at the district’s “Citywide Plan,” authorized last June, ” FCMAT notes that “the first strategy under this plan is to implement the Blueprint for Quality Schools action plan to identify four cohorts of school changes….As a part of this plan, the district will identify on a citywide map the school sites that will be closing or merging with a nearby site.”

Detailing a timeline of district budget cuts, FCMAT also noted that the Board of Education unanimously voted on Aug. 8 to “consider and implement budget reductions,” including 234 FTE Certificated positions and 104 FTE Classified, Management and Confidential positions for approximately $26.4 million to be identified on or before Feb. 28, 2019, books and supplies of $400,000 and $3.5 million services and operating expenses.”

On Sept. 12, the school board adopted a resolution endorsing the closing of schools.

On Jan. 28, the board approved a plan to close Roots International Academy and disperse its students. The campus would be given to Coliseum College Preparatory Academy (CCPA), which currently shares the site with Roots.

On Feb. 19, “the district board received feedback from staff and stakeholders about the restorative justice program, which was recommended at the Feb. 6, 2019 meeting to be eliminated.”

Published March 15, 2019, courtesy of the Oakland Post

Legislature Should Cancel the School District’s $40 Million Debt, Says Senator Skinner

Oaklanders visit the offices of Assemblymembers Buffy Wicks and Bob Bonta seeking forgiveness of financial debt to OUSD. Photo by Ken Epstein

By Ken Epstein

A growing number of Oaklanders—joined by Senator Nancy Skinner—are calling on the State of California to cancel the balance of the $100 million loan that the state forced on the Oakland Unified School District in 2003 and then spent through a state receiver, with no democratic input from the local community.

The district still owes somewhat less than $40 million on the loan, making annual payments of $6 million a year until 2026.

Speaking at a meeting last week of the Wellstone Democratic Club, Senator Nancy Skinner said she would support a measure to forgive the remainder of the district’s state debt. “I support eliminating that debt, especially given that it (was spent) under state receivership (when) there were five different superintendents, all appointed by the state. They racked up a huge debt, and then Oakland was supposed to pay it back at 8 percent (interest)—that’s usury,” said Skinner.

Over 1,500 people have signed a petition calling on Oakland’s local representatives to work to abolish the debt.

“We call on the OUSD administration along with California politicians Gavin Newsom, Rob Bonta, Nancy Skinner, and Tony Thurmond to take immediate steps toward waiving/abolishing OUSD’s debt and fully fund OEA’s reasonable contract proposal,” the petition said, which is available at Change.org at https://bit.ly/2VCKz1W.

Supporting the community demand, Council President Rebecca Kaplan wrote a letter on Feb. 14 to Gov. Gavin Newsom: “In light of an estimated $21.5 billion surplus in the State budget, … relief from the repayment process would afford OUSD the opportunity to truly create a culture of long-term solvency,” wrote Kaplan.

A group of OUSD principals recently sent a delegation to Sacramento asking the legislators to support Oakland’s demand for loan forgiveness.

In interviews with the Oakland Post this week, Assemblymember Bonta said he has supported loan forgiveness for six years and he will continue to do so. However, he has not introduced a bill because it would be unlikely to gain support in the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

“There is no appetite in Sacramento for that, even though we have a new governor,” he said.

Politics is the art of the of the possible, he continued. “We tried numerous times for debt forgiveness, but it was not possible.”

Bonta said the best bet for OUSD to restore its financial wellbeing is through AB 1840 – to take the money authorized law and adopt austerity measures that will stabilize the district’s finances. He said 1840 does not require closing schools and selling school property but allows the district to cut central office overspending and sell school property to build affordable housing, a “win-win for everybody.”

He did not comment on how the law is being applied in real life by the district leadership and state representatives, including the Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team (FCMAT), which are guiding the cuts: closing 24 schools, including closing Roots International Academy and dispersing its students, as well as cutting Restorative Justice and other programs designed to develop student leadership and laying off over 100 non-teaching employees.

Agreeing that debt forgiveness faces serious opposition, School Board President Aimee Eng said, “The board and the district have sought support for loan deferral and relief, on and off for years.

“There has been no indication (as recently as conservations last week with State Supt. Of Instruction Tony Thurmond) that there is any appetite (in the Legislature) for forgiving all outstanding debt by districts statewide.”

By the Oakland Post’s deadline, Supt. Thurmond did not reply to a request for comment.

Posted March 8, 2019, courtesy of the Oakland Post

Teachers Declare Victory, Fight Continues Against Budget Cuts and School Closings

Striking teachers take over the ground floor of the State Building in Oakland, Thursday, Feb . 28. Photo courtesy of https://boingboing.net

By Ken Epstein

Oakland teachers and students went back to school this week after union members voted Sunday afternoon to end their strike, deciding that they had won as much as they could in the seven-day  walkout and expressing determination to continue to fight the school district’s budget cuts, school closures, the sell-off of public school property and merging of school functions with the charter school industry.

The vote in favor of the new contract, which expires at the end of June 2021, demonstrated both the confidence of teachers in their recently elected union leadership and the growing consciousness and commitment of the teachers to continue the fight over the issues raised during the strike.

Large numbers of teachers voted against the agreement, an expression of their willingness to continue the strike, and many spoke out on social media about their fury at what they see as the Board of Education’s and district administration’s  continuing betrayal of the needs of teachers and students.

The contract was passed Sunday in two parts. The first part, which dealt mostly with a 3 percent retroactive bonus for 2017-18, was approved by a vote of 64 percent yes, 36 percent no.

The second agreement, including salary increases for 2018-19 and 2020-21, was approved by 58 percent yes vote to 42 percent no.

Over the life of the contract, the union won a 11 percent salary increase plus a 3 percent bonus, considerably more than what the school district was offering pre-strike –

only 7 percent over four years, and a 1.5 percent bonus, according to the union. The full settlement is available at https://oaklandea.org/updates/

At a press conference Friday announcing the proposed settlement, Oakland Education Association (OEA) President Keith Brown said, “Educators – supported by parents, supported by labor, supported by the community – prevailed. Our power in the streets prevailed. Our love for our students …. and our determination for a better future for the students of Oakland prevailed.”

“Through the power of the strike, the people of Oakland have spoken,” Brown said. “We outlined a very clear choice during the strike: either you are on the side of the students, parents and community who want to improve education for our students, or you are on the side of the wealthy who seek to privatize education and close schools and take away needed resources from our students.”

“More people are standing on the side of the students because of the power of the strike, which is the righteous side.”

One of the most outstanding achievements of the strike was the overwhelming citywide and Bay Area-wide support for the teachers. Almost all parents kept their children home during the strike, costing the district over $1 million a day in lost funding. Faith leaders, students groups, community groups and other unions backed the strike, providing food and organizing strike solidarity schools, and many workers and parents joined the picket lines and mass marches.

Another important feature of the strike movement, which may impact future local battles over public education, was the massive enthusiastic and militant participation of teachers, picketing, marching  and taking over the ground floor of the State Building in downtown Oakland.

Watching teachers dancing, chanting, singing strike songs, boldly defiant and community loving, Oaklanders witnessed a new generation of grassroots teacher leaders being born.

Immune to the street enthusiasm, the Oakland school board is holding to its support for austerity. On the first day back to school on Monday, the school board held a hurried meeting to authorize $20.2 million in deep budget cuts that were demanded by their state overseers: the Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team (FCMAT) and County Supt. of Education Karen Monroe.

Over 100 classified (non-teaching) employees are losing their jobs including secretaries, computer technicians and school security officers. Board members also voted to cut the Restorative Justice program, Asian Pacific Islander Student Achievement program and five foster case manager positions.

Hundreds of angry students packed the school board meeting fighting to save these programs and are talking about a student strike.

These cuts are part of a series of budget reductions and school closures that are being required by the state over the next several years.  Several board members blamed teacher salary increases for the need to slash the budget,  though state and county representatives have been pushing for the cuts openly at least since last year, regardless of an improved teacher contract.

In moving ahead with their austerity plan, the board and the administration are relying on their interpretation of AB 1840, which was passed last year with the backing of former Gov. Jerry Brown, who has never been a friend of public education in Oakland, going back to when he was the city’s mayor.

Under the terms of AB 1840, the district will receive a little extra funding, and in exchange OUSD will make drastic cuts to educational programs and close and sell or lease schools over the next few years.

The law seems to follow the spirit of recommendations made in reports produced by a pro-privatization research group, Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), which calls for districts to adopt a series of actions “to address financial challenges, including closing underutilized schools, selling unneeded property … reforming pension agreements, and ending unfunded salary commitments”

The CRPE backs “district-charter-state grand bargains,” whereby the state would give funding to entice districts to “work in partnership with charters… or give charter schools access to buildings as part of a broader deal to stabilize district finances.”

Published March 7, 2019, courtesy of the Oakland Post

 

Oakland Teachers take on The State

(L to R): California Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Nick Schweizer, Trustee Chris Learned, FCMAT CEO Michael Fine and Alameda County Superintendent of Schools Karen Monroe speak at Board of Education about what the state is demanding from the school district, Oct. 24, 2018. Photo by Alyson Stamos/Oakland North.

Standing behind the scenes of the battle between Oakland’s school district and its 3,000 teachers are State representatives controlling the district and enforcing drastic budget cuts.

 

By Ken Epstein

The officials who control the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) on behalf of the State of California mostly operate behind the scenes, meeting in private with school board members and district staff.

But this week, the overseers came out publicly in defense of the state’s austerity program for OUSD, as they sought to counter the enormous resistance of striking Oakland teachers, backed by the solid support of students, parents, community, churches and city leaders, fighting for higher teacher salaries, more counselors and nurses, smaller class sizes and a halt to school closures.

​“Under my authority as the Fiscal Oversight Trustee for OUSD, I will stay and/or rescind any agreement that would put the District in financial distress. A 12 percent salary increase would do just that. What the District has on the table now is what the District can afford,” said (State) Fiscal Oversight Trustee Chris Learned in a press statement released by OUSD last Sunday.

Striking teachers march through Oakland streets

Where did the trustee come from, and where did he get the authority to say what he said?

A little history: while OUSD was under receivership (2003-2009), the district was not allowed to hire a superintendent, and the power of the board was suspended. The district did eventually hire a superintendent, and restore the school board. However, what came next was not local control, but modified state control.

“(Since 2008), OUSD began operating with two governing boards responsible for policy—the state Department of Education and the locally elected Oakland Board of Education,” according to the district’s website. A state trustee was appointed with power to nullify district financial decisions.

Rather than serving as an independent outside evaluator, the state forced a $100 million bailout loan on the district in 2003 and spent the money with no local input—a debt which costs OUSD $6 million a year until 2026. The state was in control while a spending spree during the administration of pro-privatization Supt. Antwan Wilson almost bankrupted the district.

Picket sign at teacher protest

The reality of the state’s current authority over Oakland schools, going back to 2003, was presented last October during a rare joint public appearance at a school board meeting of the officials who are in charge of Oakland schools: California Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Nick Schweizer, Trustee Chris Learned, Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team (FCMAT) CEO Michael Fine, and Alameda County Superintendent of Schools Karen Monroe.

The officials came to Oakland to explain the meaning of AB 1840, a new law backed by then Gov. Jerry Brown that would give more power to FCMAT (pronounced FICK-MAT) and Alameda County. They spoke about collaboration and teamwork, while demanding Oakland close schools and cut $30 million from its operating budget.

FCMAT is an independent nonprofit based in Bakersfield, funded by the State and representing the State’s authority in districts throughout California. FCMAT was directly involved in the passage of AB 1840.

Speaking bluntly, FCMAT CEO Fine said the district has no choice but to make budget cuts and close schools.

“If you failed at this, the county superintendent would come in and govern the district,” Fine said. ”The county supt. already has the authority that, if you don’t do what’s right, to impose a functioning budget on you.”

“We do this every day, guide districts through this every day. It is ultimately less painful to make your decisions as early as possible,” he said. “Cutting three dollars today rather than a dollar today, a dollar tomorrow and a dollar (later)…allows the district to get to its new norm much quicker.”

Fine said that the school district has “struggled for many years” to close schools, based on a formula for  the appropriate number of students for the square footage of classroom space.

“That is one of the specific conditions in 1840,” he said. “1840 says that we are going to partner with you so that you can implement these plans in a timely fashion and buy a little bit of time, and it is just a little bit of time, so you can incorporate good decisions.”

While saying the district’s sole responsibility is to “close the gap” and end its “deficit,” Fine admitted closing schools does not save money. “When everything is said and done, the actual dollar savings are relatively small—you don’t see the savings,” he said.

Fine said that over the course of 27 years, he has had a lot of experience closing schools. “I’ve had to close some….lease some…sell some and exchange some for other properties. It’s a long and difficult process,” he said.

He also emphasized the importance of the budget cuts. “You’ve made a very public commitment to a set of reductions that total about $30 million….If you stop at $15 million, you do not achieve the benchmark…It is your job to figure out the details.”

County Supt. of Schools Monroe explained that under the implementation of AB 1840, she is working closely with FCMAT. Trustee Chris Learned now reports to her office, rather than the state.

Calling the budget cuts a team effort with the district, she  explained that her office—the Alameda County Office of Education—and FCMAT will “confer and agree on the operating deficit and the next steps that are part of the legislation.

“If we see that those budget balancing strategies are not being implemented, then we will have to impose strategies,” she said.

In the midst of the ongoing Oakland teachers strike, following on the heels of the successful strike of Los Angeles teachers, new opportunities are now opening up to change the state’s long-term policies of underfunding public education and enforcing austerity on individual school districts.

One sign of that movement occurred Monday when State Supt. of Instruction Tony Thurmond intervened in the Oakland strike, joining teachers and district representatives at the bargaining table in an attempt to close the deep divisions between the parties.

Further, as community awareness grows about the role of the state in this strike, many are looking to the local state legislative delegation—Senator Nancy Skinner and Assemblymembers Rob Bonta and Buffy Wicks—to muster support in Sacramento for a more positive direction, one that embraces the needs of Oakland teachers, students and community.

Published March 1, 2019, courtesy of the Oakland Post