Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Oakland Unified May Eliminate Nearly 340 Positions in One Year to Stay Fiscally Solvent

Layoff decisions must be made by Feb. 28. Possible cuts include classroom teachers.

by Theresa Harrington
Wed, Aug 15, 2018 at 3:57 PM

The Oakland school board deliberates during Aug. 8, 2018 meeting. - THERESA HARRINGTON FOR EDSOURCE
  • Theresa Harrington for EdSource
  • The Oakland school board deliberates during Aug. 8, 2018 meeting.

As it grapples with how to deal with its ongoing budget difficulties, one of the state’s more financially troubled districts Wednesday considered a plan that could result in hundreds of staff, including many teachers, being laid off.

Oakland Unified, which is still digging its way out of state receivership imposed on it 15 years ago, is facing continued financial challenges. This is despite getting a major infusion of state funds in recent years intended to help educate low income and other high needs children through the Local Control Funding Formula. The district has also lost a significant number of students to charter schools and has been criticized for budget mismanagement by independent and county officials.

As a result, the district anticipates deficits of $20.3 million in 2019-20 and $59 million in 2020-21 if it doesn’t make $30 million in ongoing cuts a year from now.

In the next few months, Oakland Unified officials will meet with employee unions to identify up to 340 positions that could be eliminated in 2019-20 to balance the district’s budget.

The Oakland school board on Wednesday unanimously agreed to revise the district’s three-year budget to reflect these possible upcoming cuts after the Alameda County Office of Education rejected the budget adopted by the board in June. That budget showed nearly $30 million in budget reductions in in books and supplies in 2019-20 and 2020-21, resulting in negative balances of $10 million in those categories for two years in a row.

The county nixed that plan, saying it was not acceptable because it did not comply with the district’s Local Control and Accountability Plan, which requires Oakland Unified to provide adequate books and materials to students and teachers. To remedy the problem, the district decided to spread the $30 million per year over two years across salaries, benefits, supplies and contracts, based on a separate “commitment to fiscal solvency” resolution the board unanimously approved Wednesday.

It says the district projects it will have negative fund balances of $20.3 million and $59 million respectively each of those two years, so it should consider eliminating at least 234 certificated positions which include teachers and principals and 104 classified, management and confidential positions beginning in 2019-20 to save about $26.4 million. The job cuts must be identified by Feb. 28, along with $400,000 in cuts to books and supplies and $3.5 million in cuts to services and operating expenses. The resolution also requires the board to increase the district’s reserve from the minimum 2 percent to 3 percent “given the district’s history of budget and fiscal miscalculations,” to address “unforeseen budgetary increases.”

Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell said during the meeting that the county required more detail from the district because of its past failure to implement needed cuts.

“This is truly the county and the state leaning in more, saying, ‘We expect you to make these reductions as a district that you haven’t in the past,’” she said. “In the past, just saying, ‘We’re going to make the reductions’ would have been good enough. Now, the county is saying, ‘You need to be more prescriptive over where you may make these reductions, so we as a county have more comfort that you are going to make these reductions.’”

The resolution is tentative because the board has not yet identified the specific cuts it will implement to eliminate its deficit, said Marcus Battle, the district’s recently-hired chief business official. It intends to work with unions to identify possible alternatives to layoffs by Jan. 31, according to the resolution. The cuts suggested in the resolution were an example of what the district needs to do if it doesn’t identify other expense reductions or new revenue sources, he said. Battle also noted that the county required the district to identify its cuts by February, in time for layoff notices to be mailed out in March.

Although no union representatives addressed the resolution or revised budget, one teacher noted later in the meeting that the union is at impasse and there is talk of a strike. Although school starts Monday, the district is still trying to fill 29 teacher vacancies, including 19 in special education, Johnson-Trammell said.

Oakland has a history of miscalculating its budget and spending money without proper internal controls, which has been documented in several independent reports by the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance organization, or FCMAT, as well as the Alameda County Civil Grand Jury. It is currently paying back a $100 million state loan due to past fiscal distress and is working to address the issues raised by FCMAT and the grand jury.

Johnson-Trammel said this will include “learning from the past,” and changing district culture so that policy changes are implemented effectively.

“We’ve created new policies in the past,” she said. “But sometimes they aren’t always implemented. We need to focus on training.”

The Wednesday board action was required after the county rejected the district’s budget for the 2019-20 school year. “Previously, we did not have to state the details,” Battle said. “We just said the reductions could come from salary, benefits, books, supplies, other line items of expense. But the county requested more specificity.”

Board member Shanthi Gonzales expressed concerns that the resolution “does definitely signal that we expect to be reducing staffing next year.”

She also asked how the majority of reductions ended up in books and supplies, which she had not seen in the budget when the board adopted it in June. Battle struggled to explain this, saying the district’s computer system should have flagged large negative balances in that expense category as an “error.”

“This particular error should have been caught, to be honest with you,” he said, adding that the district’s finance department is being restructured, but currently lacks proper checks and balances to catch such problems.

Gonzalez asked that future budget presentations show three-year trends so board members can see the shifts they are approving.

“Yes,” Battle said. “We are going to get the type of information you want to see early so you can see the trends.”

Two district residents said the budget process lacks transparency.

Mohammed Mordecai, a citizen watchdog who routinely comments on agenda items, said the resolution passed by the board on Wednesday night gives the appearance of a commitment, but was “written in such a way that there is no commitment.”

Mike Hutchinson, who graduated from Oakland public schools and ran unsuccessfully for the school board two years ago, said it was premature for the district to focus on staff cuts.

“It seems all these cuts are going to fall right on the backs of our employees, when we don’t have the minimum staff to run the district,” he said, adding that he believed contracts with outside consultants should be cut. “The problem was, when you voted on the last budget, there were no budget breakdowns at all…We have to do business a different way, otherwise this is going to keep happening.”

Board President Aimee Eng said the board has created a special committee to identify budget reductions that will begin meeting later this month.

The board also learned that the governor’s final budget will force Oakland Unified to cut another $2.2 million from its 2018-19 budget, due to lower-than-anticipated one-time funds. Although the governor’s budget increased the cost of living adjustment for school districts from 3 percent to 3.71 percent, it reduced one-time funding from $344 per student to $184 per student, resulting in a net loss of $2.2 million for the district, said Ofelia Roxas, the district’s newly-hired chief financial officer. This change will be reflected in the board’s September budget presentation.

Several board members called the budget picture “sobering,” but a few pointed out that the district is also exploring options for selling or leasing surplus property, which could help ease its fiscal stress.

“We’re sitting on the most sought-after asset in Oakland, which is land,” said board member Roseann Torres.

Editor’s Note: This is part of a continuing series on how the West Contra Costa and Oakland Unified school districts are responding to California’s new accountability system.

This story was originally published by EdSource.org.

Bicycle Advocates Decry Arrest of Najari “Naj” Smith

After the arrest of the popular Richmond bicycle advocate at Oakland’s First Friday, supporters organize ‘Biking While Black.’

by John Geluardi
Wed, Aug 15, 2018 at 12:29 PM

Najari “Naj” Smith was leading a group of about 40 young riders when he was arrested by Oakland police.
  • Najari “Naj” Smith was leading a group of about 40 young riders when he was arrested by Oakland police.

When a popular youth organizer and bicycle advocate was arrested by an Oakland police officer during the group’s regular First Friday bicycle ride, news spread rapidly through Richmond, causing at first concern and then outrage.

Najari “Naj” Smith spent the first weekend in August in jail after being arrested during a regular group bicycle ride in Oakland that included three bicycle organizations that have primarily African American members. The arresting officer charged Smith with creating excessive noise.

Smith is a member of the Richmond Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee and the founder and executive director of Rich City Rides, a nonprofit bicycle organization that teaches young people bicycle mechanics, gives them opportunities to work for their own bicycles, and offers guidance on healthy lifestyles and positive social interactions through group bike rides, public path maintenance, and civic advocacy on transportation issues.

“Naj is a well-known and well-respected person in Richmond,” said Mayor Tom Butt, who plans to contact Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf about the arrest once he learns more about the circumstances. “It looks like this is a case of ‘Bicycling While Black.’”

Rich City Rides has organized an event on Aug. 31 in support of Smith called “Biking While Black.” Smith is scheduled for a court appearance on the same day. There is also a petition being circulated calling for the charges against him to be dropped.

Richmond Councilmember Melvin Willis said he intends to participate in the Aug. 31 event to call for justice. “This is something the entire Oakland City Council needs to take a stand on,” he said.

At the Aug. 3 bicycle ride, participants formed a “bonding and healing circle,” a tradition started by the bicycle organization Red, Bike and Green in 2008.

Smith said that during the circle ritual, an Oakland police officer broke through the line and stopped Smith, without any warning, by grabbing the handlebars of his bicycle. The officer said he was being detained for excessive noise coming from the stereo trailing on a small cart behind Smith’s bicycle. Smith said he immediately complied with the officer’s request and turned off the stereo. The officer then ordered Smith to stay put and momentarily walked away.

Smith, who was leading a group of about 40 young riders, thought the officer was going to write a citation, but when he returned, he put Smith in handcuffs, confiscated his bicycle and stereo equipment, and took Smith away to spend the weekend at Santa Rita Jail. Smith made the $5,000 bail two days later and has a court date set for Aug. 31 on charges of creating excessive noise.

“I cooperated with the officer as much as possible,” Smith said. “Everyone in the group was upset and I was trying to put the best example forward. There is a lot of tension with the Oakland Police Department and I didn’t want the arrest to turn into a mess.”

Oakland Police Department spokesperson Felicia Aisthrope said Smith was detained for interfering with traffic and playing music too loudly, and that he did not have proper identification. Aisthrope added that the department has reached out to East Bay bicycle organizations in order to start a constructive conversation about the circumstances of Smith’s arrest. “It is important that our community concerns be heard, and that discussions and future solutions be shared,” she wrote in an email.

Oakland attorney Walter Riley is representing Smith pro bono. Riley said the police department’s claims are insufficient. He said the Oakland Police Department is well aware of these bicycle organizations and their emphasis on creating positive interactions with the community. Furthermore, Riley said the police showed poor judgment in arresting Smith, who was leading a large group of young people.

He added that Smith, 39, has never had any contact with police or the justice system before this incident and that Smith has devoted his life to making healthy changes in the lives of young people. He also pointed out that Oakland police officers disproportionally stop African Americans.

“This is not a case of an individual racist officer,” Riley said. “This is the police department as a whole. No matter how well intended you are there’s something in this system that wants to bring you down.”

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