Category: Education/Schools/Youth

School District Prepares for Second Round of School Closures

The district also is beginning the process of selling or leasing school properties.

Megan Bumpus speaks on bullhorn during this year’s Oakland teachers strike. Photo courtesy of Megan Bumpus.

By Ken Epstein

The Board of Education is moving ahead with a second set of school closures, mergers and consolidations,  called “Cohort 2,”which is scheduled to be approved in August.

The plan,  called the “Blueprint for Quality Schools Update,” was presented to the community at the June 19 school board meeting by Supt. Kyla Johnson Trammell and Yvette Renteria, Deputy Chief of Innovation, who promoted the district’s decision to reduce the number of Oakland schools as a way to save money and improve the quality of the remaining schools.

Opposing the administrators’ approach were Oakland Education Association (OEA) members who participated  in the district’s Ad Hoc Committee on school closure, which was established to provide community involvement in the process.

OEA members on the committee criticized the district for lack of transparency and engagement with the community, saying that except for the teacher union representatives on the committee, all of the 15-20 participants in the closed-door meetings were selected by the district.

The OEA teachers’ counter report,  presented at the board meeting by OEA member and Reach Academy teacher Megan Bumpus, said there is no evidence or research from the wave of school closures across the country that indicates that shutting down public schools saves money or improves the remaining schools and particularly harms Black and Brown students, who overwhelmingly are those who are most impacted.

Asked by the Oakland Post for a list of school closings for next year that are scheduled to be approved in a little over a month, the district produced  a PowerPoint slide called “Cohort 2 Scenarios,” which indicated it was “applying recommendations from the Ad Hoc Committee” but was more murky than transparent about what the district is planning to do.

Listed on the PowerPoint slide were possible mergers of Kaiser Elementary School with Sankofa on the Sankofa campus, which might also include Peralta and the “soon-to-be-vacant” Santa Fe Elementary.  Also mentioned were a merger of Manzanita SEED, Manzanita Community School, Oakland SOL and Fruitvale Elementary, which might be redesigned. A proposed expansion of Melrose Leadership Academy and a new location for Oakland SOL “may impact nearby schools,” the slide said.

The goal of these changes, according to the administrators’ presentation, is to “concentrate resources in fewer schools,” based on the idea that “with fewer schools, central office supports and services will be more efficient and leaner.”

According to the plan, the campuses of schools that will be closed can be leased or sold to generate income. With more money and fewer schools, the plan says optimistically, the district will recruit and retain better school leaders. In addition, “larger schools provide opportunities for teachers to collaborate and support one another.”

The OEA  teachers’ rebuttal was blunt. “If the goal is saving money, closing schools won’t do that. If the goal is expanding access to quality schools, closing school won’t do it,” the report said.

“As the district has been unable to provide any research-based rational for closing, consolidating or merging schools…OEA members of the Ad Hoc Committee could not participate in the misleading survey the district staff used to develop the committee’s recommendations or sign onto (those) recommendations,” said Bumpus, speaking at the board meeting.

When OEA members pressed administrator Renteria about how much money the district saved when it closed five schools in 2011-2012, she replied “We don’t have information on what money was saved,” the report said.

“Fourteen of the 18 OUSD schools closed since 2002 now house charter schools, which we know are leeching $57 million annually from students in Oakland,” Bumpus said, citing the OEA report.

“Given the realities of the OUSD’s highly class- and race-segregated schools and an enrollment process that disproportionately concentrates need, it is no mistake that schools targeted for closure and consolidation have student populations in which African American, Latinx, special education students and students with trauma are highly represented,” she said, adding that 17 of the 18 schools closed since 2001 were majority African American.

Looking at the closure of Cohort 1 school Roots International Academy, a neighborhood middle school in East Oakland, Bumpus said teachers “rebuke  the district for the irreparable harm done to the Roots community in this past school year” and called on the district to “take the path of improvement,” rather than the path of closures.

The district’s 7-11 Committee, charged with approving “surplus properties for sale or lease, was scheduled Wednesday evening to be approved by the school board to begin considering the sale or lease of “First Phase Properties.”

The four vacant properties are: Edward Shands Adult School, Tilden CDC, Piedmont CDC, Webster CDC and Sankofa CDC.

The district currently has 86 schools. The Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team (FCMAT),  a state-funded nonprofit that has been driving school closures in Oakland since 2003, has said publicly that the district should not have more than about 50 schools.

The full report on school closings by OEA members is available at http://bit.ly/OEAAdHocReport

Published June 28, 2019, courtesy of the Oakland Post

School District Dismantles Oversight of Low-Income Student Programs

Photo courtesy of the Oakland Unified School District.

By Ken Epstein

The Oakland Unified School District is dismantling its Department of State & Federal Programs—eliminating all eight staff positions—leading some of the department’s staff to question how the district will continue to meet the legal requirements to receive restricted funding that supports the educational needs of low-income and English Learner students.

“OUSD is removing the systematic checks and balances in place needed to ensure State and Federal funds are both allocated and used according to state and federal mandates,” according to a recent internal “Memorandum of Impact” produced by State and Federal staff and submitted to Supt. Kyla Johnson-Trammell and other senior district leaders.

The memo, obtained by the Oakland Post, cited the district’s one-paragraph rationale for the layoffs in a document called “Reallocation Impact Analysis,” which said that the budget office can handle the work and that State and Federal is less important now because funding has shifted to new programs.

“There are fewer responsibilities…Monitoring of compliance will be shifted to budget teams,” the district report said.

In response, the 13-page memo said, “The rationale lacks coherence, logical arguments and complete sentences, and highlights the absence of thoughtful reasoning; and ultimately a cavalier decision that can cost the district millions.”

“The lack of transparency and accountability by those who made the decision to dismantle State and Federal makes it difficult to speculate about the rationale or if the impact is truly understood,” the memo said.

The memo also raised concerns about the loss of “institutional knowledge.”

“Without individuals (who) have the knowledge to lead OUSD through audits…, there is a great potential for financial liability,” it said.

Responding to the Post’s questions, the district said it is “redesigning” the department as part of its efforts to “streamline” central office functions but is not eliminating oversight of state and federal funding.

Funds that State and Federal oversees total about $22 million, including:

  • Title I ($17.6 mil), programs serving low-income students
  • Title II ($2 mil), provides low-income and minority students access to effective teachers
  • Title III ($2.4 mil), offers supplementary services to English Learner students.

The memo also said that State and Federal, like other OUSD departments, for years has had to perform its duties without adequate staff and revolving leadership.

“Constant change in leadership and understaffing of State and Federal has resulted in department instability leading to fragmented policies and procedures not uniformly implemented. For the first time in years, State and Federal currently has adequate staffing with a leader capable of creating and sustaining meaningful change for the department,” the memo said.

According to the memo, cutting six of the eight people in the department (as was originally proposed) would save the district only $21,739 in General Purpose funds and “does not substantially further the aim towards reducing debt and (enhancing) fiscal vitality.”

“The flippant assertion that State and Federal’s ‘work’ will go to budget (staff) demonstrates the lack of understanding of the scope and extent of the department’s responsibilities and the specialized knowledge required to perform such functions,” the memo said.

Oakland’s eight-person department is comparable in size to those in similar districts, Fresno, San Francisco and Stockton, according to the memo.

The memo provided examples of the department’s work and how much money it has saved the district.

Among its duties, the department makes sure students receive “mandated minimum instructional time.” This year, the department “mitigated” a $1.2 million negative finding from 2017-18, reducing the amount that had to be repaid from General Purpose funds to $350,000 and saving the district $850,000.

The department “assists and defends” school sites during audits. In a recent audit, the district was facing a negative finding of $3.3 million. Due to the work of State and Federal, according to the memo, the the district only paid back $539,758, saving $2.7 million.

The department manages funding to 15 private schools, which are “entitled to receive equitable services” for students who qualify for the funding.

State and Federal also “trains and assists all OUSD sites” to establish legally compliant School Site Councils, which are responsible for approving Title I budgets.

“Without State and Federal, sites will be fully exposed,” the memo said.

The “misuse and mismanagement of State and Federal funds” can also result in criminal investigations, which could lead to fines or prison terms, according to the memo, which mentioned a 2012 FBI investigation of an “OUSD employee regarding dubious use of funds and disbursements,” without elaborating further.

In response to questions from the Oakland Post, Michael Fine, CEO of the Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team (FCMAT), which collaborates with the Alameda County Office of Education (ACOE) to oversee the school district, defended the district decision.

He said that the numbers of State and Federal Programs in recent years have fallen from 72 to 14-16. “Consolidating financial management and monitoring for these programs with our similar financial management and monitoring activities makes a lot of sense,” he said.

He said FCMAT was not involved in decisions to cut staff. “FCMAT has not been involved in any budget reduction decisions or recommendations,” he said. “We do have the task, along with ACOE, to evaluate the approved reductions for reasonableness, and we are doing that.”

“Districts are moving to managing their total resources together and not separating out by funding agency,” he said. “This practice provides for a dramatic improvement in resource management of the overall instructional programs…”

In a response to Post questions, district spokesman John Sasaki said, “OUSD is well aware of the problems that could arise if we don’t administer and oversee our state and federal programs and dollars properly. We would never shirk that responsibility.”

Sasaki said central office redesign is still a work in progress and not yet ready to be made public

Published April 26, 2019, courtesy of the Oakland Post

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

 

Open Letter: UC Berkeley Should Not Support and Condone School Privatization

Rescind your offer to Teach for America’s Wendy Kopp as Commencement Speaker

Wendy Kopp of Teach for America

By Jane Nylund

As a public school advocate, and a product of California public schools (father and grandmother both attended UC Berkeley), I was outraged and saddened to find that UC Berkeley had extended an invitation to Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach For America, to be featured as the commencement speaker at UC Berkeley this year.

Oakland and other urban school districts have, for years, suffered under the constant threat of privatization. Teach for America is just one of many cogs in the privatization machine; there are many others, but TFA’s influence is not just felt at the school site level, but has also infiltrated higher levels of administration (such as the Oakland mayor’s office), as well as TFA acting as lobbyists for legislation favoring privately managed charter schools and ed reform groups.

TFA has a potent mixture of idealism and practicality; the concept of having the opportunity to “teach” in a high needs district such as Oakland is tantalizing for many young people eager to give something back to the community. According to TFA recruiting manager Jessica Rossoni, whose credentials included a stint at the Daily Californian, “UC Berkeley is one of the largest contributors to the organization in its number of students who join TFA, according to Rossoni.

She said UC Berkeley students apply in high rates because of UC Berkeley’s values of equity and students’ desires to tie those values to a career.” Notice that she doesn’t mention the type of career. Could be anything but teaching, and usually is. But, here’s what TFA is really about:

1) Installing low-paid, unqualified, uncertified, non-union teaching labor into the most challenging schools. Leafy suburban schools would never accept a core group of teachers that enter their schools in significant numbers with only 5 weeks of experience. Charter schools actively employ non-union TFA teaching labor; charters’ teacher retention record is abysmal, typically 2 years. Not surprising, since this corresponds with the 2-year TFA teaching commitment.

2) Creating  a “teacher pipeline” to fill teaching positions is secondary to TFA’s true mission mentioned above. Despite TFA’s assertions, there isn’t a teacher shortage; that narrative is trotted out by TFA and is accepted as gospel by the ed reform echo chamber; teachers as a whole are woefully underpaid and unsupported, particularly in high needs districts (was everyone at UC Berkeley asleep during the Oakland strike?).

TFA solves none of this; its existence exacerbates the problem by undermining the professionalism, credentials, and experience of authentic teachers committed to the job as a profession, and not just a career stepping stone or resume padding on the part of corps members.

3) TFA charges school districts a fee for hiring TFA members. This fee causes a significant burden for cash-strapped districts already grappling with expenses associated with supporting high needs students. There is no guarantee that these teachers will remain with the district, and in fact, collectively, TFA has a poor track record of teacher retention within the host district in which they serve.

This disruptive model of teacher churn caused in part by hiring TFA is damaging to our students, who deserve highly-trained, certified teachers with a long-term commitment to the profession.

4) TFA is a privatization group that is actively supported by the Walton Family Foundation.  Why UC Berkeley would ever align itself with the worst of corporate school privatization supporters completely escapes rational thought.

UC Berkeley is one of the most important assets and symbols of public education in California. Support for groups like TFA flies in the face of the core values that UC Berkeley represents. Its mission to serve public students and to serve in the public interest will forever be tainted by this ill-advised invitation to a group that undermines all we value as democratically represented public institutions.

Read here for the unflinching reality of what TFA truly represents, and ask yourself if this narrative aligns with the values of UC Berkeley. I was disheartened to note that UC Berkeley has been a part of what has become the education misery in Oakland and elsewhere by supplying a large pool of students as corps members.

Again, while the Berkeley students may find this kind of service admirable, this model is actively undermining the teaching profession. Not surprising that it is our mostly black and brown students that are suffering the consequences because of it. There is nothing admirable or equitable about that.

While I understand that this decision was based in part by student input, it is sometimes advisable for other adults in the room to step up and explain the symbolism behind this TFA invitation.

This generation of college students hasn’t been around long enough to understand what has happened regarding school privatization in this country, but someone (besides TFAer Ms. Rossoni) needs to explain it to them.

The students’ wish to give back to their community has been hijacked by the very people like the Waltons that want publicly supported institutions like UC Berkeley to go away. The irony is not lost on those of us who have witnessed this calamity for far too long.

Please do the right thing and rescind your decision to Ms. Kopp, offer her your sincerest apologies, and find someone like Diane Ravitch or Jitu Brown, both true champions of authentic public education in this country. Thank you for your consideration.

 

UC Berkeley’s response to the open letter:

 

From: Chancellor Departmental <chancellor@berkeley.edu>
Date: Thu, Mar 28, 2019 at 3:35 PM
Subject: Re: UC Berkeley should not support and condone school privatization: Rescind your offer to TFA Wendy Kopp as commencement speaker
To: Jane Nylund <jnylund2@gmail.com>

Dear Ms. Nylund,

Thank you for taking the time to alert us to your concerns about Wendy Kopp being selected as the 2019 commencement speaker.  The University of California, Berkeley has a commencement speaker selection process in place which includes the involvement of the student group, the Californians, the Associated Students of the University of California, and the Chancellor’s office.  Please see the attached flow chart for more detail on the selection process.

We are highly committed to this process and we do not disinvite speakers when groups or individuals come forward who do not support the speaker’s beliefs or body of work.  While we understand the concerns put forth by those who have written, we must adhere to both our process as well as to the tenets of free speech.

Sincerely,

Carolyn

Jane

___________________

Jane Nylund is an Oakland Public Schools parent.

State Overseers Say They Have Not Yet Approved Oakland Teachers’ Contract

District has $72 million in unspent funds for low-income and special needs students

Oakland teachers’ strike last month fought for a living wage for educators and an end to austerity budgets crippling public education. Photo by Ken Epstein

By Ken Epstein

The Oakland Unified School District’s overseers –  the Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team (FCMAT) and the Alameda County Office of Education (ACOE), which for practical purposes  are running the district for the state, have  indicated that they have not yet approved the contract that came out of the  teachers strike.

The strike was settled on Feb. 28 with a three-year contact that gives teachers an 11 percent wage increase. The agreement was reached after a seven-days strike with the active intervention of State Supt. of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond.

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.

“This still isn’t a done deal. The school board cannot give final approval to the contract unless the (financial) oversight trustee, Christopher Learned, and Alameda County Superintendent of Schools Karen Monroe, determine the district can afford it — not just now but also in years to come,” according to a column in the Mercury News.

According to an OUSD spokesperson, “Financial information relating to the tentative agreement will be submitted to Alameda County Office of Education (ACOE) next week. We anticipate that the Board of Education will vote on the tentative agreement at its April 24 meeting after the county has reviewed the financial information.”

The ACOE, FCMAT and district leaders are already gearing up to eliminate more educational programs and close schools, while blaming teachers for the budget cuts. Yet, they are silent about the finding in the latest interim budget report, which indicates that OUSD has left unspent $72 million in restricted funds though the school year is almost over.

Restricted funding– unlike general purpose funds – can only be spent in specific ways, such as educational support for low-income, special education and Native American students.

Meanwhile, outside financial control over Oakland Unified is solidifying  as part of the district’s Fiscal Vitality Plan, according to OUSD Supt. Kyla Johnson Trammell in an email letter to principals and administrators, dated March 22.

The OUSD’s Intensive Assistance and Support Initiative “involves ACOE deploying a team of experienced school fiscal professionals to collaborate directly with OUSD staff, to provide training, monitoring, and implementation of processes and protocols in the following areas of OUSD fiscal operations: budget, accounts payable, payroll and purchasing,”  according to the superintendent’s letter.

The implementation of this plan, which is already underway,  means the reorganization of the district’s financial staff and integration of the district’s financial office with the county’s.

The position of OUSD Chief Business Officer Marcus Battle will be eliminated, effective April 5.

Ofelia Roxas, chief financial officer, will be working part time at OUSD and part time at the county office. Her duties will include  “working closely with the county at their office and serving as a liaison with OUSD to ensure accurate and timely financial reporting,” said Supt. Johnson Trammell.

Without a 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.

At the same time, the positions of 11 OUSD financial analysts have been eliminated. Oakland’s State and Federal Office, which is responsible for monitoring spending in programs for low-income and special education students, is also being shut down.

The controller’s position has also been eliminated.

While the state overseers are seen as saviors by some, others say they are in Oakland to enforce austerity, shutting down school programs and creating consultant positions and contracts for outside experts.

FCMAT and the county, working with State Receiver Randy Ward, directly ran the district  without local control from 2003-2009. During that time, they spent a $100 million state loan that was forced on the district and neither produced the organizational efficiency nor the fiscal solvency they had promised.

After the end of state receivership in 2009, a state-appointed trustee continued to oversee the district’s finances,  along with the Alameda County Office of Education.

During the years 2014-2017 when pro-privatization Supt. Antwan Wilson ran the district, money was spent without regard for fiscal controls.  The numbers of central office administrators and their salaries grew unchecked by budget limits.

During that time,  the county and the state were silent. The state trustee had no complaints.

Supt. Wilson, a graduate of pro-charter billionaire Eli Broad’s superintendent training academy, was backed enthusiastically by GO Public Schools and other Oakland-based pro-charter organizations.

When a huge budget shortfall began to surface in late 2016,  Wilson quickly found a new job and left the state.  The district was left to clean up the wreckage, but the county and state overseers said nothing, never publicly accepting their failure to live up to their legal responsibility to hold Supt. Wilson’s administration accountable.

Asked for a response from the school district, Spokesperson Valerie Goode said, “Our central office is undergoing a substantial reorganization, requiring that existing departments and positions undergo evaluation for potential reorganization or elimination. These re-organizational efforts are taking place to improve efficiencies and reduce costs.”

At press time, the district still had not responded to questions about the $72 million in unspent restricted funds.

Published March 29, 2019, courtesy of the Oakland Post

OUSD Pays $1.4 Million to County Overseers

FCMAT CEO Michael Fine was previously deputy superintendent for business services of the Riverside Unified School District. Photo courtesy of John Fensterwald, EdSource.

By Ken Epstein

A recent report produced by the Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team (FCMAT) reveals how under a recently passed state law, AB 1840, the Alameda County Office of Education (COE) collaborating with FCMAT, will oversee the Oakland Unified School District, at a cost to the district of $1.4 million this year.

According to the 267-page FCMAT report, released on March 1, “The Alameda COE estimates a total of 7,320 hours for 2019-20 to provide support and intervention to the district to comply with AB 1840. The … cost for this support is $1,427,588. For 2020-21, the Alameda COE anticipates fewer hours of support, with a cost estimate of $1,204,400.”

This represents a fee of $195 an hour.

FCMAT operates in Bakersfield from the office of the Kern County Superintendent of Schools under contract with the California Department of Education and the governor’s office. The agency works in school 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.

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.”

Karen Monroe

Reflecting changes in political realities in Sacramento, the structure of state dominance of the local districts is shifting, according to FMAT, designed to give an appearance of preserving local control.

Instead of  continuing with a “state centric system” of receivership,  legislators want the system “ to be more consistent with the principles of local control,” according to FCMAT.

Under AB 1840, state oversight of the district has been transferred from Sacramento to the Alameda County of Office of Education, which is working collaboratively with FCMAT.

“AB 1840 shifts the former state-centric system… Several duties formerly assigned to the state Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI) are now assigned to the county superintendent, with the concurrence of the SPI and the president of the State Board of Education”

Further, the state trustee now reports to the county.

“Under AB 1840, the state trustee assigned to the district now reports to the Alameda County Superintendent of Schools, and no longer reports to the (state superintendent),” the report said.

If the present state trustee leaves,  a new state trustee would be “selected from a list of candidates identified and vetted by FCMA and be appointed jointly by the county superintendent, SPI and president of the State Board of Education,” according to the report.

There is no mention in the report that many Oaklanders consider local control as meaning that Oakland voters and their elected school board have ultimate authority over education policy – not that the state makes all the decisions through its representatives based at the County Office of Education in Hayward and Bakersfield.

Published March 21 2019, courtesy of the Oakland Post

 

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