Who Controls the Fate of Oakland Schools?

In the years-long power struggle between the State and OUSD, the State has now gained more authority, raising questions about who controls the fate of Oakland schools.

Teachers say they will strike again if the County Office of Education blocks their contract for an 11% raise over four years.

By Ken Epstein

The Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) now appears to be under a modified form of direct state control, according to some observers.

But the school district and its state overseers disagree, saying that was is occuring at the moment is just temporary “intensive support” for a financially ill institution.

Johnson-Trammell recently entered into an agreement with the overseers that represent the state—the Alameda County Office of Education (ACOE), which is working collaboratively with a state-funded nonprofit, the Fiscal Crisis Management & and Assistance Team (FCMAT, pronounced FICKMAT)—to give the county office extensive authority over the district’s finances and to provide oversight and training.

Now in her second year as superintendent, Johnson-Trammell is struggling to overcome financial and organizational difficulties that she has inherited and which have plagued the district for years.

The district’s financial mess has not been solved by county oversight and FCMAT intervention, going back to 2003. An immediate and potentially explosive issue related to local control of the district is whether the County will allow the OUSD Board of Education to ratify the contract that Oakland teachers won in a sevenday strike that ended Feb. 28.

According to the district and the county, the district sent its financial analysis of the contract settlement to the county office on April 10, which will make its ruling within 10 business days.

The board is scheduled to vote on ratification at its April 24 meeting. The teachers’ union, the Oakland Education Association, issued a statement this week saying they would strike again if the settlement is not honored. “Teachers, parents and students shut down OUSD for seven days demanding the schools we deserve, and that’s exactly what we’ll do again if ACOE prevents OUSD from implementing our agreement,” the statement said.

In addition to the almost two-month delay in approving the teachers’ contract, there are several other indications that the school district has significantly lost control of its finances. One is that Johnson-Trammell made the “intensive support” arrangement with the county office without seeking school board approval.

“The arrangement does not require school board approval since it was jointly established by Johnson-Trammell and (County Supt.) Monroe, a district spokesman said,” reads an EdSource article.

Agreeing, FCMAT CEO Michael Fine told the Oakland Post, “This is by mutual agreement, and no legislative or state authority is needed. OUSD’s board involvement depends on their own board policies as to the authority of the superintendent to enter into an arrangement with another governmental agency.”

However, under the state Education Code, the school board has fiduciary responsibility for the district, a duty the board cannot abandon or surrender unless the state puts the district into receivership through AB 1200 and removes that responsibility, according to some observers.

Further, while the district and the county say that the county’s intervention is designed to train and upgrade the district’s financial staff, much of that staff has been removed or have had their jobs eliminated.

Without its own financial staff, the district may be dependent on the county both for determining its finances and evaluating its fiscal stability. The district no longer has a controller, and the position of OUSD Chief Business Officer Marcus Battle was eliminated last week. Ofelia Roxas, chief financial officer, is working part time at OUSD and part time at the county office.

Her duties include “working closely with the county at their office and serving as a liaison with OUSD to ensure accurate and timely financial reporting,” said Johnson Trammell. Without full-time top manager, the day-to-day management of the OUSD fiscal team will be conducted by Gina Murphy-Garrett, senior executive director, budget, according to the superintendent.

Meanwhile, positions of 11 OUSD financial analysts have been eliminated, and the eight staff of the OUSD Dept. of State and Federal Programs are losing their jobs. The department is responsible for monitoring a number of programs, including those that serve low-income students.

From 2003 to 2009, under the state receivership law, AB 1200 a state-appointed receiver unilaterally ran the school district, while the superintendent was fired, and the authority of the school board dissolved until the state was forced to partially return local control, due to pressure from then Mayor Ron Dellums and Assemblyman Sandré Swanson.

In a presentation to the school board in October 2018, Fine, FCMAT CEO, said the state Legislature is no longer comfortable with direct state receivership. State intervention is now “county centric” rather than “state centric,” meaning that the state representative is now County Supt. L. Karen Monroe and the Alameda County Office of Education, he said.

Fine said in a press release that “’intervention costs (in Oakland) would include at least 11 county employees or contractors, providing 17,800 hours of support through 2021 at a cost (to the district) of $3.4 million.”

What the county is doing has nothing to do with state receivership, said Fine.

“(It’s) nothing close. The district does not qualify for state receivership. Intensive intervention with instructional programs is commonplace in California,” he said.

Agreeing with Fine were representatives of the county office and the State Dept. of Education. According to Michelle Smith McDonald of the county office, “This is not intensive financial support.” “The intensive support and technical assistance plan initiated by superintendents Monroe and Johnson-Trammell does not alter OUSD’s local control,” she said.

“This is plan is related to the administration and operations of staff, which is completely within the authority of the district Superintendent,” she said. “The plan is intended to provide capacitybuilding, training and technical assistance with procedures and practices. It is not a plan that impacts OUSD Board’s governance.”

Jonathan Mendick, information officer for California Department of Education, told the Post that the “Education Code authorizes county superintendents to send fiscal experts into a district to provide support.I think this is a more informal, short-term arrangement where district leadership asked the county to support and improve their fiscal operations.”

According to the district, financial services will be streamlined and made more efficient, not eliminated. However, the new organizational plan is not completed yet.

Published April 12, 2019, courtesy of the Oakland Post