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 .