Archive for November, 2019

After six parents and teachers were arrested by school police, opponents of school closures continue meeting in the boardroom. The school board had moved its meeting upstairs to a private room, Oct. 23, 2019. Photo by Alan Pursell/Facebook.

By Ken Epstein

The Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), responding to ongoing parent and teacher protests against school closings at school board meetings , moved this week’s Board of Education meeting to a private “committee room” and plan to continue to meet in private at future meetings.

“Only individuals who are presenting on specific agenda items and members of the media, except those participating in a disruption, shall be allowed to be present in the Committee Room,” according to a statement that was part of the official agenda for the Wednesday, Nov. 6 board meeting. “Members of the public will be able to make public comment and observe the meeting in the Great Room (at 1050 Second Ave.) via two-way video and audio communication,” the statement said.

In response to questions from the Oakland Post, district spokesman John Sasaki said that future board meetings will continue to be held in private.

“We hope to get back to the normal functioning of our Board meetings as soon as possible. The meetings are being evaluated on a case by case basis,” he said.

Several former board members reacted in dismay at the board’s decision to remove the public from official deliberations, which they consider a violation of the state’s open meeting law, the Brown Act.

Sylvester Hodges, who served 12 years on the board including serving as Board President, said, “That’s not a public meeting. The Brown Act doesn’t allow that. That’s a private meeting because they’re restricting people from being in the room where they are deliberating. Their action says they don’t want to see the public and hear their reactions; they want to do what they want to do without hearing from the people.

Civil Rights Attorney Dan Siegel, who served on the school board and at a different time worked as the school district legal counsel, also accused the board of violating stating law.

“It’s not even close to legal. It’s absurd. This school board is out of  control. They’re completely clueless about what is going on in OUSD. They’re presiding over the destruction  of the district, and nobody (in charge)  seems to give a damn.”

Siegel, who is representing the parents and teachers who were arrested and injured at a recent school board meeting, says he has been involved in the schools since the 1980s. Although there have been many protests over the years, he has never seen anything like the actions of the current school board, including the use of school police and security guards to arrest and injure parents at a recent board meeting

“I’ve never seen cops beat up people at a school board meeting before. This is a new thing,” he said.

Explaining the district’s rationale for closing board meetings, Sasaki said the district is acting in “accordance” with the Brown Act.

“The protestors have said they plan to try shutting down our meetings going forward,” Sasaki said. “They did that at three successive meetings and one joint City/OUSD meeting. At the last meeting which they tried to shut down, they were openly talking about doing the same thing at the next meeting. The bottom line is our Board of Education needs to meet in order to conduct the District’s business, and we can’t have that process disrupted.”

Published November 8, 2019, courtesy of the Oakland Post

Post Salon Backs Call on State Officials to Investigate and Remove FCMAT

Panelists at the Sunday, Nov. 3 Post Salon were former Roots Academy teacher Quinn Ranahan, Kaiser Elementary Parent Cherise Gash, Howard Elementary teacher Yael Friedman, Oakland teachers’ union Executive Boardmember Kampala Taiz-Rancifer, former school Boardmember Sylvester Hodges and Post reporter Ken Epstein.

By Ken Epstein

The Oakland Post Community Assembly, along with parents and teachers in the Oakland Not For Sale (ONFS) coalition, hosted a community discussion last Sunday aimed at opposing the school closures, austerity, and privatization that are threatening the future of Oakland public schools.

The gathering focused on ways to stop the closing of Oakland schools, carried out by the district under the guidance of a non-elected state-funded agency, the Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team (FCMAT).

Post Salon, Nov. 3, 2019.

Attendees praised the Salon for providing rarely discussed information about the power and operation of FCMAT which began pressing the district to close schools at the time when the State took all power away from local residents in 2003  Then state administrator Randy Ward, working in tandem with FCMAT, asked an aide to find out how much money it would save to close schools. The aide returned a few days later with the information that closing schools does not save money, and Ward responded, “Then go back and find another reason for closing schools.”

The state-appointed FCMAT has continued to dominate school district decisions because of the unnecessarily large debt imposed on the district in 2003. FCMAT has at various times become the overseer to nine school districts. In every case, these districts were disproportionately Black and Latino, compared to the rest of the state.

OUSD has already closed 18 schools since the state took over in 2003, and 14 of those buildings have been taken over by charters. All of those schools served predominantly flatlands students. Other schools have lost classroom space as they have been forced to “co-locate” charters on their campuses.

This past school year, the district closed Roots International Academy and recently decided to close Kaiser Elementary and Oakland SOL. The district has committed to closing more schools over the next four years. There are 24 schools on the list of threatened sites, though OUSD has not revealed how many of them will be actually closed.

“The purpose of this salon is not to have an organized gripe session, a place to vent, but rather to take these concerns and convert them to a plan of action and a commitment to action,” said Oakland Post publisher Paul Cobb, who moderated the panel and the discussion that followed. . “The most important thing is that we need a community response and a political organizing response to put pressure for change,” he said.

Among the proposals raised by various individual participants was running a slate next year of four school board candidates who are committed to fighting for the community.   Others proposed a recall of school board members. And others planned to set up a meeting with Oakland’s state legislators and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond to discuss the unfair aspects of Oakland’s debt and FCMAT’s actions.

Parents and teachers who are members of Oakland Not for Sale asked for the community to attend the next school board meeting to protest school closures and school board violence, Wednesday, Nov. 13, at 4:30 p.m. at La Escuelita Elementary at 1050 Second Ave. This meeting will give the community a chance to show that the community is not intimidated by the district’s use of police.

The first of the six panelists was Cherisse Gash, a parent from Kaiser Elementary, who said she attended Kaiser as a child and chose Kaiser for her child. “Without fail, the school did exactly did what they were supposed to do for my son. They loved him. They made sure he felt encouraged as a student.”

“We are going to fight for our schools,” she said. “We need board members that support students first.”

Another speaker was Roots teacher Quinn Ranahan, who fought to save her school. “It was a really beautiful place. I loved my kids. There was something that was really magical happening there.”

Central office administrators showed up last December to notify the school community that Roots would close in June. Ignoring its own community engagement policies, the board also ignored the hundreds of parents, teachers and students who protested at school board meetings voting on Jan. 28 to close the school.

Many Roots students were moved to schools that are slated to close next year. “Our kids will again be in an unstable environment,” Ranahan said.

Howard Elementary teacher Yael Friedman talked about how Francophone Charter had taken over part of her school.    Under the co-location policy, it was given seven of the 16 classrooms at the school, forcing the Howard to move its reading intervention class to a closet.She said the teachers went to the school board meeting and showed them photos of the class being taught in the closet. “They said ‘Oh my goodness’ but then they said  there was nothing they could do.”

While Howard is told it is losing classrooms because it is under-enrolled, parents report they try to enroll their children at Howard and are told by the district that there is no room, said Friedman.

Representing the Oakland Education Association (OEA) was Executive Board Member Kampala Taiz-Rancifer.

“OUSD has a long legacy of closing schools, primarily in Black and Brown and communities,” she said. “They’ve been intentionally defunding our schools. We’re going to need a new school board, and) we’re trying to figure out right now how to stop these really racist practices.”

Sylvester Hodges was President of the School Board during an earlier era, when the Board prevented State take-over.  He said “You have to follow the money,” to see who will make money off school closures –  the charter schools that want the campuses and the developers property to build upscale condominiums. The attack on public schools was well planned, he said. “They have supplied the district with all the necessary ingredients to ignore us, and do what they want. They have already sold themselves out.”

This reporter spoke about the role of FCMAT, which he observed while a school district employee during the state takeover in 2003 and later as a reporter.

With FCMAT in charge, along with State Receiver Randy Ward, the word around the district was that OUSD would be drastically downsized, “small enough to hold in your hands,” cutting something like 36 schools, compared to the over 90 school sites the district had at the time.

The salon adjourned after unanimously agreeing to work on various actions, including a meeting with state elected officials.

Published November 7, 2019, courtesy of the Oakland Post

State Control Over the Oakland Unified School District, Neoliberalism, Austerity, School Closures and the Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team (FCMAT)

Oakland’s state overseers (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.

By Ken Epstein

The following  report is an outline used by the author in a presentation hosted by Oakland Post Community Assembly and parent and teacher organizers on School Closures and the Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team(FCMAT), Sunday, Nov. 3 at Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, 410 14th St. in Oakland.  

I. My Personal Experience with FCMAT

  • I discovered the existence of the Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team (FCMAT) back in 2003 when the state fired Supt. of Schools Dennis Chaconas, suspended the power of the Board of Education and appointed a state receiver, Randolph Ward, to unilaterally run the school district.
  • Over the years, I have come to see FCMAT as a tool for enforcing austerity in California Public Schools, something like a local version of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), whose neoliberal policies recently sparked rebellions in Chile, Ecuador, Haiti and other countries around the world.
  • But back in 2003, I was working in the public information office of the school district. I lasted about a year until I was fired for not working out a viable strategy for convincing families and the public to accept the closing of schools.
  • State Receiver Randy Ward was a trainee of billionaire school privatizer Eli Broad’s superintendent academy, a three-month program designed to create school CEOs who were committed to corporate practices and privatization.
  • Broad, a Democrat with close ties to then State Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson (2011-2019), was allowed to use Oakland as a guinea pig/pilot program. He sent Oakland numerous “broadies,” Broad trainees or fellows, to staff senior executive positions.
  • What did receivership mean? An indicative example: I remember a school board meeting where Ward and the board were on stage. Each item on the agenda was read aloud, and Ward would say, “passed.” Then the next item was read.
  • In less than an hour, the agenda was completed. At that point, Ward said, “Meeting adjourned” and walked out of the board room and turned out the lights, leaving board members sitting in the dark.
  • Under FCMAT’s leadership, word around the district was the school district would be drastically downsized, “small enough to hold in your hands,” something like 36 schools, compared to the over 90 school sites the district had at the time.
  • Nothing was said about saving money or making the district more efficient. FCMAT’s message was that there was a ratio of the square-footage of classroom space to numbers of students. Under that ratio, the school district should have less than 50 schools, according to FCMAT (that would be 36 less than the 86 schools the district has now).
  • At a cabinet meeting of the district’s top staff, which I attended (as public information officer), Ward asked an accountant (a Broad fellow) to determine how much money would be saved by closing schools. She came back about 3 weeks later, having determined that no money would be saved by closing schools.
  • Ward told her, “Then go back and figure out another reason for closing schools.” They didn’t come up with anything but continued to say that closing schools would save money.

 

 

Some of the officials involved in the 2003 takeover of Oakland schools:(Clockwise from top): Sheila Jordan, Randolph Ward, Don Perata, Jerry Brown.

II Background of FCMAT

  • It is a QUANGO, a Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organization, which Wikipedia defines as “arm-length bodies funded by government departments but not run by them. … (pointing out that) “If they fail, the fault is theirs, rather than the government departments.”  A QUANGO is A neo-liberal form of organization that has grown a lot since the 1980s and is fairly common in the UK and Ireland.
  • FCMAT was created by Assembly Bill (AB) 1200 in 1991. The Kern County Superintendent of Schools office was selected as the administrative and fiscal agent for FCMAT. In other words, FCMAT is based in Kern County, an area of the state that is notoriously known for police violence and racism.
  • State appropriation for FCMAT in 2018-19 was about $6.3 million, plus the fees school districts are required to pay for the “aid” provided by FCMAT staff. This past school year, the district paid FCMAT and the county $1.4 million to oversee OUSD.

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

III FCMAT/State Control in Oakland

  • FCMAT was riding high in OUSD during state receivership (2003-2009). In 2009, the receiver was withdrawn (partly due to pressure from then Mayor Ron Dellums and then state Assemblymember Sandré Swanson). Butthe district was left with a state trustee, with the power to nullify any district decision with budget implications. The trustees and receivers were paid out of the OUSD budget. The district has never been free from state control since 2003.
  • According to the district on its website, “(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.”
  • Rather than serving as independent outside evaluators, FCMAT and the state forced Oakland to accept a $100 million bailout loan (on about a $37 million debt). The district loan payments are $6 million a year until 2026. The $100 million loan was spent unilaterally by the state Receiver Ward with no input from the community.
  • The state trustee was in place when pro-charter school and pro-privatization Supt. Antwan Wilson (2014-2017), another Broad Academy trainee, went on a wild spending spree, exhausting the district’s reserves and depleting its financial resources. Neither the trustee, FCMAT or the County Office of Education intervened, tried to halt the misspending or even said a word of criticism of the misspending after the fact.
  • As the district entered a new financial crisis in 2018 after the departure of Antwan Wilson, the state passed AB 1840, which gives FCMAT, along with the Alameda County Office of Education, the power to require the district to close and sell or lease school property and to cut as much as $30 million or more from the district’s operating budget.
  • It is important to note that AB 1840, which was backed by then Gov. Jerry Brown and state legislators who represent Oakland, was written in part of FCMAT.

IV. What they said in their own words

  • In October 2018, there was a rare joint public appearance at a local school board meeting the officials who are now in charge of the Oakland schools, including: FCMAT CEO Michael Fine, OUSD’s state-appointed Trustee Chris Learned and Alameda County Supt. of Schools Karen Monroe.
  • Speaking bluntly, FCMAT CEO Fine told the district it 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. The county superintendent already has the authority to do 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 early as possible. 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,” he said
  • Fine said 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. (While the district has already closed 18 schools, 14 of which have become charters, there are many more to close, according to Fine).
  • He pointed to Fresno as a positive example, which has similar number of students and has 50 schools.
  • He spoke about AB 1840, a law that gives the state and FCMAT more power over OUSD, and gives the district a little money in exchange for closing schools and cutting programs.
  • “That is one of the specific conditions in AB 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’s just a little bit to time, so you can incorporate good decisions.”
  • According to a FCMAT report issued in March, AB1840 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.”
  • According to FCMAT, “AB 1840 shifts the former state-centric system (of control) . Several duties formerly assigned to the State Supt of Public Instruction are now assigned to the county superintendent with the concurrence of the State Supt. and the president of the State Board of Education.”
  • 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.”
  • 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 budget cuts. “You’ve made a very public commitment to a set of reduction 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.”
  • The recent FCMAT report looks favorably on the district’s “Citywide Plan,” saying “the first strategy under the plan is to implement the Blueprint for Quality Schools action plan to identify four cohorts of schools 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.”

V. Nine districts that have been taken over by the state since 1990, mostly majority Black and Latino students

  • West Contra Costa Unified School District (formerly Richmond Unified). Taken over in 1990 and paid off its loan in 2012.
  • Coachella Valley Unified, taken over in 1993 and paid off its loan in 2011.
  • Compton Unified, taken over in 1993, paid off loan in 2003.
  • The Emery Unified School District, taken over in 2001 and paid off loan in 2011.
  •   West Fresno Elementary School District, taken over in 2003,  paid off loan in 2010.
  • Oakland Unified taken over in 2003. Final payoff is scheduled for June 2026.
  • Vallejo Unified taken over in 2004, and payoff date is scheduled for 2024.
  • South Monterey County Joint Union High School district taken over in 2009 and payoff is scheduled for 2028.
  • Inglewood Unified was taken over in 2012. Payoff is scheduled for 2033.

VI Bibliography/Further Reading

Oakland teachers on strike February 2019. Photo by Ken Epstein .