Oakland Unified Has Too Many Schools 

The reason why Oakland teachers are the worst paid in the county is that the school district spends tens of millions a year on schools it doesn't need.

Oakland public school teachers are among the lowest paid in California. In Alameda County, they rank dead last in terms of average pay at $54,157 a year, according to the California Ed-Data Partnership, a state information clearing house. The next lowest in the county are the Sunol public schools, where teachers average $62,740 annually, followed by Albany and Alameda public schools, which pay teachers $64,092 a year on average. So why do Oakland teachers make so much less than their peers? It's simple, really. With 107 schools, Oakland has far more than it can afford.

In a face-to-face interview last week in his downtown office, Oakland's new superintendent of schools, Tony Smith, estimated that the district needs to close 25 to 30 schools in the next few years. Each of those schools, many of which are far smaller than the statewide average and are losing enrollment every year, drain the district of precious funds because they must have their own principals and support staff, including secretaries, attendance clerks, and janitors. All of those extra personnel costs soak up a lot of money. When asked whether the district can sustainably maintain so many schools and give teachers raises as they demand, Smith responded emphatically: "No. There's no way unless we close 25 to 30 schools." But even his calculation may be too conservative.

Closing schools in order to pay teachers more money may seem like a radical idea. But in the wake of last week's one-day teacher strike over low wages, Smith and other top district officials are searching for ways to shift more funds to teachers. And they're increasingly realizing that other districts pay better because they have far fewer schools. In fact, state statistics show that Oakland has far more schools per student than any other district in the county. Oakland's schools, in short, are just too small, depriving the district of millions it could save through economies of scale.

The City of Alameda, for example, has 19 public schools that serve 10,271 students, according to Ed-Data. That works out to about 541 kids per school. By contrast, Oakland has 107 non-charter public schools for just 38,282 students, according to district data, giving it an average school size of only 358 students. Statewide, the average public elementary school has 585 students, while the typical middle and high school has 904 students, according to the US Department of Education. In other words, Alameda's schools are a bit undersized compared to other California districts, and Oakland's are even smaller, and if it wants to pay teachers as much as Alameda does, it would need to close about 36 schools.

The best paying district in Alameda County is Pleasanton. Its teachers average, according to Ed-Data, $81,928 a year. You read that right. Pleasanton teachers are paid nearly $30,000 a year, on average, more than Oakland's are. Pleasanton's secret? It has large schools, and not very many of them. The average school size in Pleasanton is 928 students. If Oakland wanted to pay as high as Pleasanton, it would have to close 58 schools.

The obvious need to close schools has been an open secret in Oakland for several years. The first State Administrator, Randy Ward, noticed the problem in 2003, not long after he arrived. So did interim Superintendent Roberta Mayor after the school board appointed her in 2008. But Ward and Mayor both quickly learned that closing schools is the electric third rail of Oakland school politics. Opposition from parents was so fierce that Ward decided to hire a bodyguard after he closed several schools. Mayor, too, came under intense criticism when she tried to open a community dialogue about closing small schools.

So how did Oakland end up with too many schools? Part of it was caused by shifting demographics and part of it was by design. The number of school-age children dropped significantly in Oakland in the past decade and the school district's enrollment plummeted accordingly. In 2000, the district had about 54,000 students compared with just 38,000 today. As a result, the district has dozens of schools with empty classrooms, operating at far less than capacity. "We've lost about 16,000 kids in the past ten years, but we have roughly the same number of schools," Smith explained.

Oakland also has been ground zero for the small schools movement on the West Coast. Started under Superintendent Dennis Chaconas and continued under Ward, the small schools program sought to break up large schools into smaller learning environments designed to give students more personal attention. And although the program may be responsible for some academic gains in Oakland — the district has enjoyed the best test score increases of any urban school system in California — small schools are expensive to run. Large schools that used to have just one principal now have three or four principals on a single campus. Each small school also has its own support staff.

Although Oakland teachers' union President Betty Olson-Jones did not return phone calls for this story, the union is well aware of the problem of too many schools. During hearings earlier this year, the union argued before a fact-finding panel that the district's rush to small schools was too costly. The union contended, according to the fact-finding report, that the district's "priorities are skewed" in part "by the recent growth of decentralized small schools, each needing a principal and staff."

The union also has argued that the district has too many administrators. And that's true, when one realizes that principals are administrators. In fact, Oakland has the highest number of administrators per student in the county because it has too many schools. According to Ed-Data, Oakland employs one administrator for every 151.7 pupils. Alameda, by contrast, employs one administrator per every 385 students. And Pleasanton's ratio is 1 to 319.

Large urban districts with big schools pay even higher teacher salaries because they employ fewer administrators per student. The average teacher in Long Beach Unified, for example, earns $71,734 annually. And that district employs just one administrator for every 327 students.

Another problem for Oakland, although it's less glaring, is that its class sizes are too small. In fact, the district has the smallest class sizes in the county, and yet the Oakland teachers' union has been advocating for even smaller class sizes, apparently not realizing how expensive they are. It appears to be a common misperception. But the reality is — the smaller the classes, the more teachers you need. And having lots of teachers costs more than giving raises. Look at Pleasanton again. It has 21.4 students per teacher compared to Oakland's 18.8. It may sound odd, but if Oakland wants to pay higher salaries so it can compete with Pleasanton for teachers, it not only needs to close a bunch of schools, but it needs to lay off some teachers, too.

But don't expect the teachers union to rally publicly to lay off its own members. The union also will likely not advocate for school closures either, even though it knows Oakland needs to do so. During last week's one-day strike, the majority of Oakland parents appeared to side with teachers when they kept their kids home and refused to cross the picket lines. And teachers would be loathe to ruin that relationship — an almost sure thing should parents realize that their neighborhood school is being shut down so that teachers can get a raise.

Instead, the teachers have focused on less-controversial financial issues that on closer examination offer no real answer for achieving significantly higher salaries. One of the union's primary arguments is that the district spends too much money on consultants. According to the district's latest projections, it expects to spend about $14.7 million on consultants this year from its $252 million unrestricted general fund. Giving roughly 6 percent of the budget to consultants may sound like a lot, but a substantial portion of that total comes from requests by school principals — and thus is a byproduct of having too many schools.

Several years ago, Oakland shifted to a decentralized budgeting system that gives principals substantial financial power. Essentially, the district hands principals a pot of money and then they spend it on what they feel is best for their schools, including teacher salaries. According to Superintendent Smith, many principals end up spending some of their budgets on consultants who provide specialized programs for teachers and students that the district doesn't offer. When spread across 107 schools, it adds up. Slash the number of schools, and the consultant expenditures will drop, too.

The district also plans to spend about $53.4 million from its $165 million restricted general fund on consultants, but much of that money goes to special education and after-school programs — and so it's restricted money that can't be redirected to teacher salaries, Smith explained. The school board, however, may severely curtail the amount of money that schools spend on consultants next year in order to bridge a projected $85 million budget gap. Smith also wants to change Oakland's budgeting system to allocate more money for schools in low-income areas.

In the end, closing schools may be the most difficult thing the school board will ever have to do. But it will enable the district to pay higher teacher salaries and thus compete with other districts for top teaching talent. The question is: Will teachers realize that and help the board weather the storm of angry parents upset over school closures, or will the union instead choose to go on strike for an extended period and demand raises without offering a viable solution for how to pay them?

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