Oakland school district has too many schools, 'no accountability' and 'lack of trust:' grand jury

- Oakland Unified School District faced a multi-million dollar deficit this year and nevertheless “lost control of spending” and repeatedly ignored calls to consolidate schools, the Alameda County civil grand jury found in its annual report released on Tuesday.

During its nine-month investigation, the jurors found that the OUSD’s school openings are “emblematic of system-wide failures” that include excessive hiring and program spending as well as operating nearly double the number of schools that can be financially justified. 

There is “no accountability” and a “lack of trust,” the jurors wrote, which is why there is also such high teacher and administration turnover. Grand jurors said they “were struck by the animosity between the public and the board and the superintendent,” where members of the public “generally did not believe the numbers.” Finance officers also testified to the jurors that they were instructed to withhold “bad news” from the board and other decision makers, the report states. 

This is at least the third time the grand jury has criticized OUSD. But this report is the first time that the issue of operating too many schools was the primary of focus of the investigation.

In response, OUSD Board President Aimee Eng issued this statement:  “It is an important document that we take seriously. Our first step is to review the report to understand issues and recommendations that the jury has identified in OUSD. As we remain committed to achieving fiscal vitality and stability, it is critical that we receive outside analysis and feedback such as this report and the recently completed Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team report to better inform our work. We hope the information shared by the grand jury will help guide us on our way towards a sustainable future in which all Oakland’s students receive a high quality education.”

Particularly telling to the  jurors was the fact that despite facing a $15-million budget deficit during the middle of the year, the district allowed two new schools to open, the School of Languages and Rudsdale High School. One school serves 53 students. The other serves 125. 

While the efforts to address students with niche needs at specialty schools is laudable, jurors found, it is also an expensive endeavor. Opening a school can cost as much as $1 million to pay for all the staff, and reopening a vacated site also requires construction costs to bring the buildings up to code.

“The school board abandoned the district’s established budgeting process by approving them without proper funding and without a plan to ensure they would be sustainable,” the grand jury wrote. “The decision put further strain on an already overstretched budget, which, among other things, meant taking money from other underfunded schools and inching the district closer to insolvency.”

Aside from the too-many-schools issue, jurors found other problems, too. Those include:

  • Errors in enrollment estimates reduced the district revenue by $3.9 million.
  • Failure to reduce teacher overstaffing to match actual enrollment cost another $3.2 million.
  • The board used the self-insurance fund to help the district stay afloat, underfunding it by $30 million.
  • Skyrocketing pension and special education mandate costs.

The context of all this is that the district has been shrinking, losing state dollars that come with enrollment. Currently, OUSD has 36,900 students, down from a high of 54,000 a decade ago, and operates 87 schools making the average school size 412. To compare, Fremont Unified School District has a student population of 35,000 and operates only 42 schools. Its average school size is double that of Oakland. San Jose Unified School District operates 41 schools with a student population just over 30,000, making its average school size 731 students.

Then there is the matter of what the district has in the bank. At the onset of the year, OUSD budgeted $763 million for expenses, which was $15 million more than it had available. In December 2017, trustees voted to cut $9 million, although the grand jury noted that not all these cuts were made because of prior contractual obligations which ended up “further exacerbating the district’s financial woes.”  

As for why the district has suffered this fate? 

Jurors put most of the blame on “management and governing problems” as the chief reasons why OUSD has been on average between $20 million and $30 million in debt for the last 15 years, and “may help to explain why one in five Oakland public schools scores in the bottom 5 percent statewide in math and English language arts proficiency.”

In fact, experts testified that seven in 10 African-American students read below grade average. Since 2014, about 48 percent of the students failed to meet the lowest level of English language and literacy achievement levels. In 2016, only 1/3 of high school seniors were prepared to go to college, experts told the jurors. 

Jurors noted that the new superintendent, Kyla Johnson Trammell, the fifth in nine years, found herself mired in this situation when taking the post and immediately promised to address these problems and make the changes needed.

"The grand jury was impressed by her and her willingness to address tough issues," said grand jury forewoman Jane Sullwold. "The jury was most concerned about the difficulties in implementing those choices. Especially resistance from the community, labor groups and the board of education. We are encouraged by the statement from Ms. Eng that the board intends to look closely at our recommendations." 

Jurors recommended eight suggestions to help her achieve that goal. Some of their advice included being more transparent with the public, sharing campuses between district-run and charter schools and not hiring any new staff or instituting any new programs until there is money in the budget to fund them.

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