Oakland can’t seem to break red ink habit
Changing a culture is hard to do.
But until the Oakland Unified School District drastically shifts the way it operates internally, the district will be mired in an interminable financial crisis.
The most recent penny-pinching emergency is a $15.1 million deficit in this year’s budget that will require schools and the central office to slice, carve and cut costs as if the expenditures were a Thanksgiving turkey.
The Oakland school board is expected to vote
on proposed cuts on Nov. 27. That means people will probably get laid off, making this year’s holiday season one to remember for all the wrong reasons.
Oakland has been here before.
In 2003, the district ran up a $37 million deficit and had to take a $100 million bailout from the state. The state took control of the district for six years, and the district remains on the hook for $40 million of the bailout loan, which should be fully repaid in 2026.
The state Department of Education appointed a trustee to monitor district finances in 2009. But even with the trustee, as well as oversight from the Alameda County Office of Education, finances still have been bungled.
“We all question where the state trustee was,” said Trish Gorham, president of the Oakland Education Association, the local teachers union. “How did those purse strings get unraveled?”
A lot of fingers point toward Antwan Wilson, the previous schools superintendent who packed his book bag in February and left to run the Washington, D.C., schools. With Wilson at the helm, the district’s spending went into overdrive.
As reported by my colleague Jill Tucker, the school board last year budgeted $10.4 million for supervisors and administrators but spent $22.3 million.
“It was clear that the district was becoming top loaded with expensive personnel,” Gorham said.
“What we saw were increases in those areas, but not increases necessarily in specific support for kids and school sites to allow them to serve children,” said Kim Davis of Parents United for Public Schools, an advocate for parents with children in Oakland public schools. “You shake your head and it makes you sick to your stomach, because the kids are the ones that are ultimately going to suffer.”
Here’s what made me sick: In 2016, the district planned to spend $20.1 million on books and supplies, but spent less than half of that — $6.8 million, according to the district’s budget.
Really, what’s more important: paying executive-level salaries or ensuring schools have the resources kids need so they have a chance in this world?
Last year, the district’s enrollment was 400 students lower than expected, yet Wilson failed to adjust staffing to reflect that. It cost the district millions.
If the central office adds staff, it should be only for critical positions, such as a chief financial officer and an internal auditor, two positions currently unfilled that are essential for financial oversight.
“It’s hard to retain staff like we’d like to when it feels like there’s constant chaos and crisis,” said Shanthi Gonzales, a first-term school board member. “We have some issues in the school district with internal controls.”
Gonzales sits on the budget and finance committee, which meets twice a month. The committee, which formed early last year, has been digging into the district’s accounting. It’s helped sharpen focus on issues that might get only a passing mention at board meetings where drilling down on details isn’t possible with the raft of items typically on an agenda.
“When you encounter the information more often, you begin to notice trends, you begin to notice themes over and over again from staff,” Gonzales told me.
One trend Gonzales is intent on stopping is the pillaging of the district’s reserves — the rainy-day fund that’s supposed to cover, say, a $15 million budget hole. An adequate reserve fund would ensure that the district could weather some storms without having to do midyear budget cuts.
What’s more: $1.2 million of the $15 million the district has to cut is for replenishing the reserve fund so it reaches the state-required level.
It’s clear that Kyla JohnsonTrammell, the superintendent who replaced Wilson, inherited a financial quagmire. What isn’t clear is if she can transform the culture that led to this mess. Still, she currently has support.
“The good news is Dr. Johnson-Trammell is very committed, I think, to making the changes that are necessary,” Davis said. “I do think that they now understand the magnitude of what the problem was. They understand that there were systems that were not in place to protect our kids.”