Category: Education/Schools/Youth

School District Examines Causes of Financial Hardships

Supt. Wilson’s administration accused of trying to hide size of budget shortfall

Oakland Board of Education membrs (L to R): Shanthi Gonzales, Nina Senn, Jumoke Hinton Hodge and Aimee Eng. Photo by Ken Epstein.

By Ken Epstein

As the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) closes its books for 2016-17, staff is pinpointing some of the financial missteps that led to the district’s current fragile economic condition, where even relatively small over-expenditures could result in state takeover.

The financial report, based on a close examination of the district’s income and expenditures, was presented by Interim Chief Financial Officer Gloria Gamblin and her staff at the school board meeting last week and at the board’s Budget and Finance Committee meeting this week.

One significant misstep last year was the failure of what is called “position control.”

Supt. Antwan Wilson’s administration created 75 positions, mostly in the central office, that were not accounted for in the budget and for which funds had not been allocated, said Katema Ballentine, OUSD’s financial officer of budget development

“That’s huge. I’ve never seen a budget number that large,” she said.

“The normal process is for a site or district leader (to) first confirm that there is money” before hiring someone, she said.

“That hasn’t happened as regularly as it should. People were just trying to please (the administration), so they skipped over processes.”

Ballentine said staff was still trying to figure out all of the positions that were created. The budget impact so far seems to be about $400,000, she said.

“We’ve been trying to pull that together,” she said.

Ballentine told board members that budget staff realized during the last months of Supt. Wilson’s administration that the district was facing a $30 million shortfall, but she and Senior Business Officer Vernon Hal were not allowed to tell the board.

“Vernon and I were not permitted,” she said.

Another issue was the misestimate of enrollment and failure to cut expenses when the error was discovered.

“In the fall (of last year), we discovered that our enrollment came in lower by 400 pupils, which was a loss of $3.9 million in revenue,” said Gamblin.

At that time, the administration made a decision to retain 36 of the 42 excess teachers, costing the district $3.2 million.

Overspending was severe in several specially funded programs. The district’s total contribution to special education was $56.4 million, Early Childhood Fund, $2.2 million; and Child Nutrition Fund, $3.2 million, for an overall total of $61.8 million.

Gamblin told board members they will receive monthly financial update reports and that they should know by November what additional cuts might be necessary.

She explained that in order to avoid being taken over by the state, the district is required to have sufficient reserves, a positive fund balance and positive cash balance.

“In the close of 16-17, we do have a positive fund balance,” she said.” We (had) a sufficient reserve of $3.4 million but not enough to meet our 2 percent reserve ($11 million) required by the state or the additional 1 percent that the board has by policy.”

“We also have a positive fund balance and a positive cash balance,” she said, indicating that meeting those three conditions means that OUSD has avoided state receivership.

“However, in the current year we have to really closely monitor our expenditures,” she said.

Oakland’s advisory state trustee, Christopher Leonard, warned the board that OUSD does not have the same leeway as other districts.

Because the district is making payments on $44 million it still owes on its $100 million state bailout loan, the state would be quicker to resort to receivership.

“The state is not going to lend Oakland any more money,” he said. “They are going to watch you very closely. If the board cannot make the decisions to reduce expenses … the state will come in and do it for you.”

OUSD faced a $37 million deficit in 2003 when it was taken over by the state and forced to take a $100 million state loan. Board committees, such as the Budget and Finance committee, were dissolved, and a state-appointed trustee unilaterally made all decisions on school closures and how to spend the money.

No audit of district finances was conducted during the six years of state control.

At press time, Mayor Muriel Bowser had not replied to questions from the Oakland Post about whether her office knew of OUSD’s budget shortfall when she hired Antwan Wilson as chancellor of Washington, D.C. schools.

Published September 23, 2017, courtesy of the Oakland Post

Close $9 Billion Commercial Property Tax Loophole to Fund Schools, Says Statewide Coalition

Left to Right: State Senators Nancy Skinner and Scott Weiner and Assemblyman Rob Bonta speak at “Make It Fair” Proposition 13 reform townhall meeting Saturday Sept. 9. Photo by Ken Epstein

By Ken Epstein

Hundreds of Bay Area residents attended a town meeting in Oakland recently to find out about the growing, statewide “Make It Fair” coalition that seeks to overturn a commercial property tax loophole that costs the public as much as $9 billion a year in lost revenue that could be used for schools, health clinics, parks and libraries.

The town hall meeting, held Saturday, Sept. 9 at the First Congregational Church of Oakland, was part of the coalition’s organizing efforts to build awareness, ahead of a ballot initiative in 2018 or 2020.

“California has the world’s sixth largest economy, yet many of our schools and services lack the basic funding they need,” according to a Make It Fair coalition flyer.

“ Big corporations and the wealthy are making more money than ever. They can afford to pay their fair share,” the flyer said.

The loophole is written into Proposition 13, passed by voters in 1978, part of what referred to as Ronald Reagan’ “tax revolt,” which assesses property taxes, including those on commercial properties, at their 1975 value and restricts annual cost-of-living increases to a maximum of 2 percent.

Owners of businesses started since the passage of Prop. 13 pay a higher rate. As a result, some of the largest companies, like Chevron, Intel and IBM, pay low property taxes, but startups and newer businesses pay much more.

Speakers at the town hall included State Senators Nancy Skinner and Scott Weiner, Assemblyman Rob Bonta and Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson.

“It going to take all of us working together to make a make a fix to Prop. 13. We’re going to go to the ballot,” said Senator Skinner, explaining that the there is not the political support in the Legislature to pass the reform.

“It’s a third rail issue,” she said. “It still has this aura of untouchability.”

Challenging the commercial tax loophole will require people to “deal with the 50-year campaign from the radical right to delegitimize government, (convincing many people that) all government programs are a problem, that putting any money into government is a waste of money,” said Senator Weiner.

Calling for “people over profits” and “people over corporations,” Assemblyman Bonta said the Democrats have a supermajority in the Legislature, making the present the perfect time for closing the Prop. 13 loophole.

But he emphasized that coalition will need large-scale grassroots support to pass the constitutional amendment.

“This is not an easy battle – the opposition will be fierce,” Bonta said. “Some will see this as an existential threat.”

Organizations endorsing the campaign include the California Federation of Teachers, California Teachers Association, League of Women Voters of California, California Alliance for Retired Americans, California Nurses Association, SEIU California, Filipino Community Center and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN).

Speakers the town hall explained that the campaign will have to overcome a deluge of false and misleading publicity, clarifying to voters that the initiative will:

Guarantee existing Prop. 13 protections for residential property and agricultural land;

Close the millionaire, billionaire, and big corporation tax loophole by requiring all commercial and industrial properties to be assessed at fair market value, putting California in line with how the majority of the country assesses property;

Restore over $9 billion a year for services. About half of the new revenues, $3.6 billion, will support schools and community colleges;

Make It Fair requires transparency and accountability for all revenue restored to California from closing the commercial property tax loophole.

For more information go to

Published September 19, 2017, courtesy of the Oakland Post

Community Groups Build East Oakland Neighborhood Power

Local residents attend recent meeting to oppose illegal dumping.

By Ken Epstein

Some of the major community organizations in Oakland have joined together  as the East Oakland Congress of Neighborhoods to hold a community assembly  to build the collective strength of local residents to impact neighborhood issues such as trash and blight, potholes, the sex trade, homelessness, rising rents and the frustration of dealing with city officials and public agencies that do not pay attention.

The first meeting of the community assembly will be held Saturday, Sept. 30, 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at International Community School, 2825 International Blvd. in Oakland. Food, childcare and translation will be provided.

The East Oakland Congress of Neighborhoods includes the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), Just Cause; Causa Justa, Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), East Oakland Building Healthy Communities, East Bay Asian Youth Center (EBAYC) and Oakland Community Organizations (OCO).

“We expect 1,000 people at the assembly to discuss our values, make plans and discuss strategies and to hold Oakland officials accountable,” said Evangelina Lara, a leader of EBAYC and resident of the San Antonio neighborhood for 18 years.

“These are the issues that the residents themselves have decided are the most important,” she said. “This assembly is bringing together six  (Oakland) organizations to build real power, from the lake to the San Leandro border.”

Andre Spearman, an OCO leader, said the community-based organizations have been working together on some issues for a long time, but they have begun to feel that in order to have more clout, residents from throughout East Oakland need to work together on common issues.
In the past, he said, “We’ve had some victories,” working in individual neighborhoods, “but it doesn’t seem like enough power to really change things, to hold officials as accountable as they should be.”

“If you don’t have power you don’t get consulted,” he said.

For more information, email Nehanda Imara at or Alba Hernandez at

Published September 13, 2017, courtesy of the Oakland Post

Oakland’s Superintendent Guarantees Clean Drinking Water at McClymonds High School

Left to right: Star, a student; parent volunteer Tolani King; and John, an Alhambra Water employee, stand next to a new water dispenser that was installed last Friday in the hallway at McClymonds High School. Photo by Ken Epstein.

By Ken Epstein

Though tests found lead in the drinking water at several spots at McClymonds High School in West Oakland, the Oakland Unified School District did little to respond during the last year of the administration of Supt. Antwan Wilson, who left the district early in 2017.

The tests, conducted in August 2016 at the 100-year-old school, found unsafe levels of lead in three places on the campus, including in the showers in the boys’ and girls’ gym. As a result, the district closed the showers, which means the students have not been able to dress for gym for the past year.

But when Ben “Coach” Tapscott, a former Mack teacher and long an advocate for the school, raised an outcry last month, the district responded. He went to the Oakland Post, which published an article about lead in the water in drinking fountains on McClymonds football field. He also went to new district Supt. Kyla Johnson-Trammell, only on the job since July, who took action as soon as she became aware of the situation.

“I immediately called the superintendent’s office and told her that this has been going on for a whole a year,” he said. “She told me, ‘Coach, it will be fixed.´”

In the past few weeks, the district has made a number of immediate but mostly temporary fixes to make sure that students have a plentiful supply of clean water, free of toxic lead and sediments, which –though safe – discolor and cloud the water.

Water faucets by the bleacher area of the football field, which had tested positive for lead, have been fixed. The district replaced the faucets, installed a water filter and ran a new pipe out to the street.

Lead was also found in water faucets in the cafeteria, which have been replaced, and water filters have been installed to reduce the sediment, according to the district. The showers in the gym – the third place lead was found – are still closed, but new showerheads have been ordered to replace the old ones, which were discovered to be the source of the lead, according to the district.

Water in the main school building was found to be lead free but discolored by sediment. All the water faucets have been shut off and covered with plastic. The district contracted with Alhambra Water to place and supply water dispensers on all three floors of the school.
Coach Tapscott said he discovered the water problem when he went to watch Mack´s football team practice before school started.

“(Coach Mike Peters) told me water out there was not safe, and it contained lead. He said he had been going to his mother’s house for a year to fill up water containers, running up her water bill, to make sure the players had safe water.”

Coach Tapscott is outraged that district staff who were responsible for health and safety at the schools allowed students to drink contaminated water for at least a year, and he is determined that the district repair McClymonds to the standards of other schools, not to settle for stop-gap measures.

“Kids have been drinking that water for (at least a year) while people in this district sat on their butts and did nothing for the children,” he said. “Whoever is responsible for this should be fired.”

“They wouldn’t do this in a white school,” Tapscott added.

Tapscott said the district should replace its old galvanized pipes immediately. That would mean hiring a contractor and working weekends to put in new pipes inside and outside of the building.

“You can begin having water in three weeks, digging trenches and crews replacing all the pipes,” he said.  “The main building is a challenge because kids are there, and the crews would have to work on weekends.”

According to the district, replacing the piping throughout the campus is now in the planning stages.  The district estimates that the project will cost about $2.3 million and take a year or more to complete.

In a press statement, Supt. Johnson-Trammell pledged to the community that the district would do what is necessary to fix McClymonds.

“We will keep you, our students, staff, families and other stakeholders, apprised of the process. We will also be engaging the community to ensure that your voices help us determine the best, fastest and most cost effective way to complete these changes for the school.”

Published September 8, 2017, courtesy of the Oakland Post

Local Volunteers Head for Central Valley to Overturn Republican Control of Congress


Volunteer canvassers for Working America go door to door to talk to residents about fundamental issues that affect them and their families.

By Ken Epstein

Volunteers from Oakland, Berkeley and other Bay Area cities, many who consider themselves to be part of The Resistance, are flocking to the AFL-CIO´s Working America and other organizations, ready to put in the grueling door-to-door work necessary to mobilize and empower voters to overturn Republican control of congressional districts in November 2018.

In the Bay Area, Working America began door-to-door outreach efforts in May in Congressional District (CD) 10, a section of northern San Joaquin Valley that includes Modesto, Turlock, Patterson, Tracy and Manteca.

CD 10 is currently represented by Republican Congressman Jeff Denham. However, this is not a district that is solidly in the Republican camp. Hillary Clinton carried it in 2016, and Barack Obama won the district in both 2008 and 2012.
The district is 46.4 percent white, 3.7 percent Black, 7.7 percent Asian and 40.1 percent Latino.  The Modesto area has an 8 percent unemployment rate and a  mean annual wage of $45,230.

Besides Working America, organizations that are working to flip CD 10 are Swing Left, the Democratic Club of Greater Tracy, California Democratic Party, California Away Team, Organizing for California, Our Revolution and Indivisible Berkeley.

Working America, which is pairing volunteers and paid organizers, is conducting a “knock on every door” in-depth canvassing operation.

People who oppose Trump and conservative members of Congress “now need to ‘electoralize’ that energy,” said Matt Morrison, executive director of Working America, based in Wash., D.C.

“You can’t change hearts and minds by sending people 500 pieces of mail or with 30-second campaign ads,” he said. “You have to see them and talk to them face to face, going into 2018 and 2020.”

Working America’s paid staff are mostly working-class people, who are trained and work 40 hours a week as professional canvassers.

These professionals, especially in Modesto, work with volunteers, who are also trained.

“It’s been stunning, the number of people who are willing to invest themselves in this fight,” said Morrison.

Over 200 people already have gone through training, and nearly 150 have gone to canvas door to door, he said. Some have come back to the Central Valley, an over 80-mile trek from the East Bay, for a second or third shift.

The plan at this point is not to talk about upcoming elections and candidates but about the issues that people care about and help them connect with others in their community in networks to build “strength in numbers,” said Morrison.

“Our organizing model has to focus on working class communities around the country,” based on union ideals of “economic justice and dignity,” he said.

“Once you get people talking,” he said, “they don’t want to stop.” They are worried bout increased rates of poverty and are losing faith in government’s willingness to improve their communities.

“We think it is essential to have folks advocate for themselves,” he said.  “What we’re seeing are a lot of constituents who are pretty animated, willing to show where they stand.”

About 4,700 people already have joined Working America since the canvassing began.

“We project that later this year we will organize about 25,000 people in this district, based on the issues,” said Morrison.

Cindy Reed, a Working America District 10 field director, is based in Modesto where she is involved in discussions every day about what is important to people in the Central Valley.

“We focus on economic issues that are important for working families: jobs, corporate accountability, access to education and retirement,” said Reed.

“Politicians are not really addressing these issues,” she said. “The solution is to keep them accountable. The strategy is strength in numbers: a call of to action, writing a letter or signing a petition.”

“There are a lot of jobs in Modesto and the Central Valley, but they are not high paying jobs,” she continued. “(Workers) have to commute for construction – even engineers have to commute to Silicon Valley because they can’t afford to live there.”

“They don’t the have resources for their public schools, and they can’t afford to send their kids to college.”

One of the crew of recent volunteers was Carla, a member of the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club in the East Bay.

“We knocked on 25 doors and had conversations at 13 of them.” she said, describing her experience in a Wellstone newsletter.

“Ten people joined Working America, and all 10 signed the action item petition against  (Congressman) Jeff Denham,” she said. “(We) were uplifted, and the people were warm and welcoming.”

For information and to sign up for Working America’s Central Valley Project training and canvassing, go to

Published September 8, 2017, courtesy of the Oakland Post

OUSD to Renovate Historic Second Avenue Headquarters

The buildings are named after Marcus Foster and Paul Robeson

OUSD headquarters at 1025 Second Ave. will reopen in 2019.


By Ken Epstein

The Oakland Unified School District is on a fast track to renovate and reopen its historic administration building, which has been closed since January 2013 when a water leak flooded the building. The buildings at the site, located along the Oakland Estuary between 10th and 12th streets, is now named the Dr. Marcus Foster Educational Complex. The buildings at the site include the Paul Robeson Administration Building and the Ethel Moore Building – adjacent to a high school, Dewey Academy.

The “aggressive” timeline for completing design, permits and construction calls for moving into the complex in July 2019, one month before the district’s lease expires for its temporary headquarters in downtown Oakland, according to Joe Dominquez, the deputy chief who oversees the Division of Facilities Planning & Management for OUSD.

The plan to move back to the site of the old district headquarters has been in the works for a while, and now the priority is to let the public know what is being planned and to actively involve the community in the process, said Supt. Kyla Johnson-Trammell.

In the short run it may have worked to lease property, but “in the long run being housed in our own facility is economically effective,” she said.

The extensive renovation will involve seismic retrofits, ADA upgrades and replacement of all systems: heating, cooling, electrical, plumbing and IT. In addition, walls, windows and roofs will be repaired or replaced.

The cost of renovating the four-story Robeson Building, 56,000 square feet, and the three-story, wood-framed Ethel Moore Building, 14,000 square feet, is estimated at $40 million for the Robeson and Ethel Moore buildings and $49.5 million for the two buildings and the construction of a multi-purpose room for Dewey Academy, according to Dominguez, speaking at a recent school board meeting.

A building assessment is being completed, and a more exact cost estimate is being prepared, said Dominguez. The district will pay for the project with Measure J bond funds by utilizing a lease-leaseback agreements according to the district.
Under such a plan, the school district leases its property to a developer at a nominal cost and then leases the completed project back from the developer. At the end of the lease, the property reverts to the district.

The water leak that occurred during the night of Jan. 7, 2013 in the Robeson Building caused “excessive flooding on all four floors and significant damage to the entire structure,” according to 2015 district memo by then General Counsel Jacqueline Minor.

District staff vacated the building, moving temporarily to numerous school sites.

Paul Robeson

Instead of repairing its existing headquarters, OUSD leased space at 1000 Broadway in 2013 and in 2015 renewed and expanded its lease of space for central office functions.

The 2015 lease, which expires at the end of August 2019, is now costing the district about $3 million a

Marcus A. Foster


According the district 2015 memo, the insurance settlement for the damage covered the cost of  lease payments until May 2016.

Marcus A. Foster was an extremely popular OUSD superintendent, who served from 1970 to 1973. He was assassinated in 1973 after a school board meeting by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army.

Paul Robeson, 1898 – 1976, was an athlete, singer and actor and an outspoken advocate for racial justice and workers rights. A revolutionary and anti imperialist, he was blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

Published September 1, 2017, courtesy of the Oakland Post

Outside Fiscal Team Examines School District´s Precarious Finances

Community questions FCMAT’s support for closing schools and restricting wage increases

By Ken Epstein

In an attempt to gain a better picture of its financial condition, the Oakland Unified School District has reached out for the help of the Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team, (FCMAT), which has produced a report detailing it findings and recommendations.

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

The 51-page report, released Aug. 15, focuses on 20 key fiscal indicators, including deficit spending, unbudgeted hiring of top administrators, maintaining financial reserves, miscalculation of enrollment, bargaining agreements and excessively growing costs of special education and cafeteria programs.

The district released its own estimate of its present situation to accompany the FCMAT report, which was presented at last week’s school board meeting.

“The current financial situation is stable but fragile. OUSD has little room for mistakes,” the district’s Aug. 24 statement said.  “It is imperative that we implement and sustain sound financial management practices to strength our financial position.

“It is especially important that OUSD spend within approved balanced budgets.”

FCMAT, which is state funded but independently run, has a contentious history in Oakland.

The organization played a major role in the district during the period of the state takeover from 2003 to 2009 when the power of the school board was suspended and voters had no influence over educational policy. At the time, the organization was blamed by activists for the lack of wage increases, closing of schools and the loss of many excellent teachers and administrators.

Some of FCMAT’s findings and recommendations are:

Deficit spending and fund balance – The district had a structural deficit in each reporting period last year except in one period when it overestimated enrollment and attendance. The district fund balance fell, which means its required financial reserves were in jeopardy.

“Deficit spending is eroding away your fund balance,” said Michelle Giacomini, FCMAT Chief Management Analyst at last week’s board meeting.

“We should not expect to see fund balances drop … when you had a lot of one-time money coming in from the state,” said Deborah Deal, FCMAT Intervention Specialist.

Growing costs of special education and early childhood programs – Special education grew last year by $6.2 million over 2014-2015 and now totals a $51.5 million “encroachment from unrestricted funds.”

The early childhood program was supported with $1.3 million of unrestricted and $2 million of Title I funds,” yet overspent by $1.2 million as the district hired staff for …(a) program while the numbers of anticipated students did not materialize, “according to the report.

The food service program required contributions of $2 million, about $1.1million more than budgeted, the report said.

Impact of charter schools – “Charter enrollment has a significant effect on the district’s enrollment and has increased by 1,965 during the last three fiscal years,” the report said.

Call for school closures – Recognizing that school closures are a hot button issue, the report criticizes the “abundance of small schools and failure of the governing board to address the issue.”

Restrict employee raises – The district is giving excessive raises to employees, the report said. “The district has bargained more than a cost-of-living increase in each of the last three years,” it said.

Former superintendent hired unbudgeted positions –  FCMAT said, “The former superintendent rushed new unfunded positions through the process without regard to budget appropriation.”

Hiring based on inflated enrollment estimates – District attendance turned out to be 426 students lower last year than estimated in the adopted budget. However, the district did not make cuts in staff and programs to match actual program needs.

Holding superintendent accountable – The FCMAT report both said the school board is responsible for district finances and should not interfere with the superintendent’s management of the district. FCMAT staff had no answers for what board members should do if they are not being kept informed or are given wrong information.

After the report, some members of the public commented.

Trish Gorham, president of the Oakland Education Association (OEA), said, “There´s a lot of good information here. But interpreting it and making conclusions from that data is a different thing. We can come to different conclusions.”
“To say that raises can only be based on the cost of living is incorrect,” she said. “It was based on increased revenue and was a sound decision.”

Kim Davis of Parents United for Public Schools criticized the  “unwillingness of the board to take hold of its responsibility and supervise the actions of the (former) superintendent.”

She said that top management increased by 550 percent in two and half years.  “You all approved the contracts,” Davis said. “Most of them were approved without discussion.”

Education activist Mike Hutchinson called for the district to hire an internal auditor, a position that has long gone unfilled.

Published September 1, 2017, courtesy of the Oakland Post

Oakland Schools Open with Students and Community Volunteers Hard at Work


Oakland Supt. Kyla Johnson-Trammell, second from left, is joined at a press conference on opening day Monday by students, parents and teachers at Oakland SOL, a new school in East Oakland. Photo by Ken Epstein.

By Ken Epstein

Oakland Unified School District Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell kicked off the first day of school with a tour of hill and flatland schools, starting the day at Montera Middle School, which she had attended as a child.

She visited Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in West Oakland, taking part in a backpack and school supply giveaway courtesy of Kaiser Permanente, Lend a Hand Foundation and others.

At Fremont High School in East Oakland she visited an architectural drawing class, a multilingual media arts class and woodshop. At Franklin Elementary she went to classes and to the cafeteria where students were eating lunch.

She also visited Rudsdale Newcomer Program at Hillside Academy where more than 100 employees of the Golden State Warriors were assembling furniture, beautifying the grounds and painting the campus.

Johnson-Trammell’s last stop of the day was for a brief press conference at the brand new dual-immersion language middle school, Oakland SOL, which was created through a three-and-a-half year partnership between the district and students, parents and community members, including Oakland Community Organizations (OCO).

What was most outstanding about the day, she said, was “seeing all of the community and all of the city support for our schools.”

“It´s been a great day seeing all of the hard work,” she said. “That’s how we´re really going to have community schools, having everyone pitch in together.

“I know many times people outside of education think we are relaxing in June, July and August but all of us here know the real deal. That’s when the real work happens,” she said.

“After all of the planning and the thinking, we’ve (finally) been able to see the fruition of all of that,” said Johnson-Trammel.

School Board President James Harris underscored the excitement the board, district staff and the school community feels about having such a highly qualified, homegrown superintendent.

“We are very excited as a school board and as a community,” he said. “I don’t think I´ve ever seen this level of excitement about our leadership, about our superintendent,” he said. “I am extremely happy to be able listen to a superintendent talk about coming up in Oakland.”

“Our students can see the path to their success,” Harris continued. “We have our own legends living today, who came from this soil.

“It’s important that we know that Oakland is much more than the news headlines, and it is a place of winners. It is a place of people with faith. It’s a place of people with commitment.”

Published August 25, 2017, courtesy of the Oakland Post

Oakland SOL is City’s First Spanish and English New Public School in 10 Years

Hard work and vision of educators, families and community make middle school a reality

Some of those who worked to create Oakland SOL, the city’s new dual-immersion Spanish and English middle schooll, were (L to R): SOL’s principal Katherine Carter, Luz Alcaraz and daughter Nathalia, Almarie Frazier and daughter Kamari, OCO organizer Katy Núñez-Adler and Ajene Snaer. Photo by Ken Epstein

By Ken Epstein

It was a coincidence that Oakland’s first new public school in more than a decade, called Oakland SOL, opened its doors Monday – the same day as the solar eclipse.

However, the School of Language (SOL) itself was not an accident but the product of community perseverance and vision.
Created through three-and-a-half years of hard work and careful planning – overcoming countless obstacles – this dual-language immersion, English and Spanish, middle school was developed as a partnership between the community and the Oakland Unified School District.

This year, the school – located at 1180 70th Ave. near International Boulevard – will serve 75 sixth graders and will phase in seventh and eighth grades during the next two years.

The school is still accepting new students – open to families that want their children to learn English and English-speaking students who want to learn Spanish.

At Oakland SOL, which is based on the energy and commitment of its families, the parents and students chose the principal and teachers. The site itself was a ”fixer-upper,” according to the parents, and families pitched in to paint and make the needed improvements.

“The district was had budgeted money to fix up the space. However, funds were severely reduced because of the budget deficit,” according to one of the organizers.

Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell enthusiastically endorsed the school, saying that community-based schools like Oakland SOL are the path forward for improving the Oakland Unified School District.

Exhilarated after finally being able to see the fruition of their efforts, members of the parent and student design team talked to the Oakland Post on Monday afternoon about what it took to make their school a reality.

The idea for the school started at Manzanita SEED – an East Oakland elementary school – when parents began to think about the need for a dual language immersion middle (sixth through eighth grade) school their children could attend after they finished fifth grade.

The families soon realized that other schools and other parents shared their interest, and they all would be stronger if they worked together.

Teaming up with Oakland Community Organizations (OCO), which is based on a network congregations and schools throughout the city organized to improve conditions, they began to involve families and students from different schools and different backgrounds and cultures.

“We started involving families in different school communities, to make sure that there were opportunities for families from different cultures and different socio-economic backgrounds to participate,” said Alcaraz, a parent and member of the design team, as well a member of the board of OCO.

Team members learned to write grants and proposals to OUSD and other partners, which helped pay for them to visit schools in other communities and helped research existing models for what they wanted to accomplish.

“Some members of the team helped write grants, but this was not done with a lot of money,” said Alcaraz.

Besides parents and students, the design team included educators, including design team leader Katherine Carter, who is now principal at the school.

A lot of the work was done by volunteers, and OCO provided staff support to help with organizing, she said.

“In reality, my experience was that it was faith and commitment that led to this school,” she said. “I wanted this for my daughter Nathalia.”

“It’s been a long haul, but it doesn’t feel like that long because it’s what our hearts wanted.”

Almarie Frazier explained that she got involved because she wanted to make sure her daughter Kamari could continue to be bilingual when she went to middle school.

An OCO organizer “invited me to come to meetings about building connections with other parents. That´s how I got caught in the little web,” she said.

“I didn’t think about coming in and volunteering for all these years. But it was a great experience, getting to know better some people I wouldn’t usually get to interact with on a daily basis,” she said.

“This is our future – we live in a diverse place,” said Frazier. “I feel like I was part of something. I helped build it.”

Ajene Snaer, a sixth grader at the school, has been part of the design team from the beginning as a second grader.

“When I think about it, (I realize) I actually helped to build this school,” he said.

“We started with just a few people,” he said, “and it ended up being a big group of people, agreeing on the same things and making it into a reality.”

To find out more about the school or enroll a student call (510) 636-7992 or email

Published August 25, 2017, courtesy of the Oakland Post

Youth at MLK Freedom Center Join Struggle to Empower Voters

Sophia Quintana of Berkeley and active member of the MLK Freedom Center registers voters at July 4 naturalization ceremony in Seattle, WA.

Sophia Quintana of Berkeley and active member of the MLK Freedom Center registers voters at July 4 naturalization ceremony in Seattle, WA.

By Ken Epstein

Young people who participated in an intensive six-week voter registration and community engagement project this summer recently attended a labor breakfast celebration in their honor, where they talked about their efforts to register new voters and reflected on what they learned and how it transformed them.

The “Civic Engagement Pilgrimage,” organized by the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center, which is based at Merritt College in Oakland took a diverse group of 65 young people, mostly high school students from Oakland and Washington state, on a journey from Washington to Portland to Bakersfield and Fresno in California, where they registered voters and had in-depth discussions with elected officials, community and tribal leaders in urban and rural areas and Indian nations.

The breakfast was held Aug. 4 at the offices of the Alameda Labor Council in Oakland, attended by Congresswoman Barbara Lee, former Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris and Peralta Community Colleges Chancellor Dr. Jowel C. Laguerre, who are strong supporters of the work of the freedom center.

The young people said they heard the same words over and over from people in different communities: “Our voices don´t matter; nothing you do will change the system,” according to Laelah Jackson, a junior at Berkeley High.

“It is important to educate and be educated,” she said.  “What we´re doing is bigger than each of us. “It’s the ‘we’” that makes the difference.

“We learned that we live in very trying times night now,” said Angela Drake, a student at Castlemont High School. “We have to give hope to each other. No one is going to do it for us, but us.”

The young people said that in the course of their discussions with people and the classes and trainings among themselves they learned critical thinking, experienced growing self confidence and a sense of “love and solidarity” with each other and the people.

The Martin Luther King Freedom Center, which was created by Oakland’s MLK Day March and Rally Committee, began its work in 2001.  Executive Director Dr. Roy Wilson has led the organization for the past 10 years.

Based on the lessons of summer´s listening sessions and discussions in communities, the center plans to launch intensive voter education and registration efforts this year, including work in congressional districts in California´s Central Valley.
For more information on the Freedom Center, go to

Published August 17, 2017, courtesy of the Post News Group