Layoffs likely, no guarantee classrooms will be spared in wake of $15M-Oakland school crisis

The Oakland Unified School District superintendent said Wednesday that layoffs are likely one of the many solutions to reducing costs following a sudden announcement earlier this month that the district must cut $15-million from its budget to remain fiscally solvent.

In addition to layoffs, Supt. Kyla Johnson-Trammell  said during an interview in the KTVU newsroom that said vacancy freezes and a reduction in “professional service contracts” are also the other most likely scenarios that the school board must vote on Dec. 13 in terms of what to cut and what to keep. She was not specific about who would be laid off because the school board ultimately needs to decide, but the majority are expected to be from the central office.  She was also not specific about what “professional service contract” means, or who could be affected by that. But in general, professional service contracts apply to consultants who work for the district on a short-term basis.

What's most upsetting many parents and teachers is is the estimated $5 million that is poised to be cut from the classrooms  – and not the central office. About 300 parents stormed a school board meeting on Wednesday urging the board not to take away from the students. “Chop from the top,” they chanted.

Johnson-Trammell stopped short of saying that the classrooms would be spared. “We’re doing our best to  stay away from the classrooms,” she said. “The majority of cuts will come from the central office.” 

She said she has asked principals to come up with their “worst- case scenarios” and propose what they would cut if they had do. She said this is a “last resort,” but something the district needs to look at.

As for blame? Johnson-Trammell did not specifically blame outgoing Supt. Antwan Wilson, who left after a year and a half for a job in Washington, D.C. by name. Many accuse Wilson of overspending on high-priced consultants and not keeping a better eye on the money. “Our expenditures exceeded our revenue in professional services,” she acknowledged,  recognizing that hiring outside consultants is one part of the financial problem.

 But she did say that a big part of the overall problem is that superintendents in Oakland keep leaving, and lasting reforms are harder to achieve. She has worked in the district for 18 years under nine different superintendents. To make things work well, she said, there need to be better consistency and follow-through. “Our expenditures exceeded our revenue in professional services,” she acknowledged.

Johnson-Trammell also didn’t blame the board, for keeping a better watch on the purses strings. “At this point,” she said, “it’s not productive to put the blame on any one individual. There is some collective responsibility of why we're here. The board has committed to doing a better job now than in the past at looking at the budget.” She said the board just passed a resolution to keep a higher-than-2-percent reserve for emergencies such as this one.

As for other reasons why the district is in this mess? The administration is operating as if it’s the year 2000, she said, when there were 50,000 students district wide, as opposed to the year 2017, when there are only 36,000. Enrollment brings in revenue, she said, and the district overhead for many of the administrative duties has ballooned past what the schools can afford.

And at the board meeting this week, Johnson-Trammell told the crowd that increased spending on Oakland athletics, mental health services, libraries, and other programs was done without focus on balancing the budget.

These cuts come nearly 15 years after a  $100 million bailout and state takeover in 2003, with $40 million still owed to California from that crisis.

As for another state takeover? Johnson-Trammell said that the threat isn’t “imminent,” but “it's a possibility if we don’t remain fiscally solvent. That's why we're doing these mid-year reductions.”