Oakland Unified school board members give themselves raise in wake of budget crisis

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In the wake of the Oakland Unified School district facing a fiscal crisis and the need to lay off dozens of staff and slash $9 million from the budget, five out of seven trustees decided to give themselves a bump in pay this week.

The school board voted on Monday to award themselves a monthly increase of 5 percent, or nearly $40 a month, bringing the total salary of the job to $826.88 a month or nearly $10,000 a year. That's about $70,000 annually for the full board, and the money would likely come from the General Fund.

"I realize this sucks optically," trustee Shanthi Gonzales said at the meeting, adding that she lost her job and the small stipend is helpful. "But I work my butt off." 

The board last got a raise in 2010.

Outgoing president James Harris, who publicly apologized to the community in November for the sudden announcement that the board would have to slash $9 million from the budget in the middle of the school year, recommended the hike. 

Only trustees Jody London and Nina Senn voted no. 

Two days later, on Wednesday, the board voted to lay off or reduce the hours of about 50 district employees to make ends meet because of prior overspending. 

“After the bruising past several months that we have just experienced and just the grief and the anger that is in our schools and in our community, it would very much send the wrong signal right now to approve any increase for ourselves,” London said at the  meeting following a lengthy discussion over the raise. London also said she refused a similar raise opportunity in 2009 when there was a recession, because the timing was inappropriate. London strongly urged her colleagues to vote no with her. "I think it would send the wrong message," she said.

London and Senn said they were considering rejecting the raise or, if that adds to administrative costs, donating the increase to their local schools.

The raise puts Oakland board members well above their San Francisco counterparts, who make $500 per month and serve 58,000 students, about 20,000 more than Oakland, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

In addition, Oakland school board members are eligible for full health benefits for themselves and their families, which costs the district an estimated $22,000 annually.

In an interview Friday morning, Harris told KTVU that the issue is being blown out of proportion and the media is jumping on an opportunity to criticize people who spend as many as 40 hours a week on average working for the school district. "We probably make about $1 an hour," he said. "And yet we're getting insulted and dragged through the mud."

As for whether the decision is tone deaf considering the timing of it all, Harris said the timing is actually key: The board can only vote on raises in the first week of January, otherwise they miss the opportunity. He also credited the board of the last seven years for not accepting a raise. "Where were the stories about that?" he asked.

He said that most board members spend about "2/3 of their stipends on school sites, bus trips, field trips, when schools can't afford things." He added that he'd like to see board members get even more money so that they "can make more contributions."

And if the district wants to attract talented members of the community to serve on the board, then taxpayers should reward them with significant stipends.

 "How can you get people to stay if you don't want to pay them?" he asked. 

For her part, incoming board president Aimee Eng said that she will be donating her stipend to support teachers with classroom supplies. She said supported the raise" because I was unwilling to bind future board members to that stipend amount -- with the gentrification dynamics and growing cost of living in Oakland, we will truly see a situation where only wealthy people can run for city council or school board, which in and of itself is unacceptable."

Parent activist Kim Davis agreed the raise is small and the trustees deserve more than the "pitiful" pay they receive.

But she added that in her opinion, trustees haven't done their job as well as they could have in the wake of overseeing the budget. And they shouldn't be rewarded.

 "Now is not the time," Davis said. "To give yourselves a raise at this time is shocking."