Theresa Harrington/EdSource Today
Skyline High cross country team members stretch during after-school practice on Aug. 27, 2018. The Oakland Unified school district recently announced cuts to some sports with fewer participants, but spared cross country and others with larger teams.

Acknowledging it made a mistake in cutting 10 sports that affected more girls than boys, Oakland Unified announced Monday that it is restoring girls’ golf, tennis and lacrosse.

The move came after an anonymous donor came forward to pay the approximately $35,000 it will cost to keep tennis and golf teams going this fall at high schools throughout the district, said spokesman John Sasaki at a Monday news conference. A separate donor is funding lacrosse, which is only played at Oakland Tech High, at a cost of $3,000.

In addition, the district has converted bowling to a club sport, but still has six other sports on the chopping block: boys’ and girls’ swimming, boys’ tennis, wrestling and volleyball, and girls’ badminton. The decision to cut 10 sports to save about $500,000 was announced suddenly last week in letters to parents and staff as teams were gearing up for the fall season.

The cuts were part of an overall strategy to reduce costs in the district by targeting programs that are not core to classroom instruction, Sasaki said.

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The district faces budget 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. A board committee charged with identifying the positions will hold its first meeting Wednesday evening.

“It’s no secret that our district has had tough financial times the past couple of years,” Sasaki said. “We had repeated round of cuts last year. And that was a very big challenge for us. The last thing we wanted to do was cut sports.”

The district tried to cut those sports that would affect as few students as possible, Sasaki said, noting that the sports initially cut represented half of all sports played, but only affected 20 percent of students. However, he said once district officials saw that the 530 students affected included 347 girls and 183 boys, they knew they would have to reconsider the decision to make it more equitable.

“We all jumped into action,” he said. “We knew that this could not continue, so we had to take a different course of action.”

Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell did not attend Monday’s press conference.

In a letter to the community sent out last Friday, she said the district was behind in making its budget cuts. “It wasn’t until a few days ago that staff determined how best to make the necessary reductions.”

She said the district is “looking for more sources of funding to save as many of these sports as possible.”

 

Theresa Harrington/EdSource Today

John Sasaki, spokesman for Oakland Unified, explains cuts to after-school sports.

Although federal Title IX law requires schools to offer equal opportunities to boys and girls, this did not appear to have been taken into consideration when the initial decisions about cuts were made. Now, the district is exploring its legal obligations, Sasaki said.

He acknowledged that sports provide students with many benefits and often result in students being more engaged in school, getting better grades and learning leadership skills. He said the district was pleased to restore fall sports first and is working to restore other sports, including wrestling, which is a winter sport.

Some students at Skyline High in the northern part of the city said they believed the decision to cut sports with fewer students participating was unfair, since some individual sports such as wrestling do not attract as many athletes as more popular sports with larger teams, such as football or track and field.

“I think it’s really not fair because we only have three tennis courts,” said Bonnie Guan, the 17-year-old captain of the schools’ 16-member girls’ tennis team. “We can only have 12 players at a time. If we have too many players, we can’t accommodate them.”

Guan said she was very sad and disappointed when she was pulled out of class last week and told that the district had cut girls’ tennis. But that all changed when she learned late Monday afternoon that her team could continue playing this year after all.

She said she was not aware that Title IX was an issue because the district has so many coed sports. Last year, boys’ tennis was cut at her school because it did not attract the 10 players needed to sustain the team, Guan said.

Theresa Harrington/EdSource Today

Emmanuel Hibbert, 18, captain of the Skyline High wrestling team, recently found out the district has eliminated his sport to save money.

Emmanuel Hibbert, the 18-year-old captain of the approximately 10-member co-ed wrestling team, said his sport attracts athletes who like to rely solely on their own skills, rather than depending on others to help win a match. Hibbert said he and some of his teammates will continue conditioning and training this fall in the hopes that wrestling will be restored by November, when practices should begin.

“It teaches people how to persevere through suffering,” he said. “There’s a mental aspect. This is senior year. It’s time to show everybody what you’re made of and what you’re worth. And if I don’t get this chance to show everybody, I’ll be quite sad.”

Hibbert said the sport also teaches students how to overcome failure if they lose. He compared wrestlers to the elite Navy SEALs, saying there are fewer of them, but they are special because they’re not afraid to work hard and take the road less-traveled.

“We don’t want people who are going to take the four-lane highway,” he said. “We want people who are going to dig their own path.”

Bianca D’Allesandro and Nicole Pierce-Davis, co-principals at Skyline High, said the crisis has empowered students, who are mobilizing to save their sports. Students peppered School Board member Shanthi Gonzales with questions about the cuts and possible solutions during a forum earlier in the day, the co-principals explained.

Students asked how they could make up physical education credits they would have earned for the sports, how this would affect their chances of getting college scholarships and whether it would be possible to convert other sports still on the cut list to club sports.

Sasaki blamed the last-minute notice to teams on the district’s new budget tracking system, called ESCAPE, which was implemented in July, delaying the budget development process.

Once the Oakland Athletic League, which runs after-school sports, realized it wasn’t getting as much money as it did last year, it notified teams about the cuts, he said.

Much of the money in the league’s current $1.1 million budget goes toward transportation and security, Sasaki added. He said the school board directed $500,000 in cuts and left to staff to decide what would be cut. Staff decided to cut sports.

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