Theresa Harrington/EdSource Today
Aimee Eng, president of the Oakland Unified School Board and a member of the district's Special Committee on Fiscal Vitality, talks about proposed budget cuts at the Oct. 18, 2018 committee meeting, while board member and committee member James Harris listens.

After working for months to come up with a plan to balance its budget for next year, Oakland Unified may not need to cut jobs as deeply as originally expected. A proposal to save $16.5 million includes eliminating at least 53 jobs instead of the more than 300 originally anticipated.

The job cuts would save $7 million in the district’s central office. An additional $3 million could be saved by cutting staff and other costs from the district’s 86 schools. The school-based cuts could include teacher jobs.

But more cuts would be needed to pay for increases in teachers’ salaries and fund other priorities, according to the district’s Special Committee on Fiscal Vitality, which is charged with coming up with recommendations for the spending cuts.

Those are the biggest categories of savings identified so far as the district struggles to come up with up to $30 million in cuts for the 2019-20 school year to avoid a budget deficit in the future. Although the board previously agreed to make $30 million in cuts next year, a higher-than-anticipated ending balance in June, along with possible state aid from the legislature to help offset a portion of the district’s deficit over the next three years could mean Oakland Unified won’t have to cut as much next year as initially expected.

The committee is working on coming up with a three-year budget-cutting plan as the next step in a budget crisis that has been going on for several years. The district’s woes prompted the state Legislature to agree to potentially include funding in its 2019-20 state budget to help the district offset a portion of its deficits.  The state’s offer requires the district to submit a three-year budget plan by March to be approved by the state and county, according to language in AB 1840, the state’s education trailer bill. 

The district has been criticized by the Fiscal Crisis and Management and Assistance Team (FCMAT) and an Alameda County Civil Grand Jury for mismanaging its funds and spending beyond its means.

But now that the district has to come up with spending cuts, some board members say they are worried that reductions in school-based funding in the district’s $566.5 million budget could end up hurting students.

“There’s no way to get to a sustainable budget without touching school sites,” said Shanthi Gonzales, chairwoman of the special committee, adding that central services cuts or reallocations of money should be aimed at improving student achievement and meeting other district goals, including hiring and retaining teachers.

It will be up to each school to decide how to make the cuts, according to a presentation at the committee’s Thursday meeting by Marcus Battle, the district’s chief business officer. The committee is made up of three board members, including Gonzales, board president Aimee Eng and board member James Harris.

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“All proposed reductions to district-wide staffing must not directly impact students or core classroom instruction, if possible,” Battle’s PowerPoint presentation said. “The impact of any recommended staffing reductions will be fully reviewed and impacts fully known.”

The committee expects to make more detailed recommendations to the board next month after a district-wide effort to get community feedback on the proposal. The board expects to vote on recommended cuts next February, in time to send out layoff notices in March.

The board is also working to meet a deadline set by the Alameda County Office of Education and the state based on the legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown that could provide money to help offset the district’s deficit over the next three years.

The board expects to discuss the budget reduction process at its meeting on Wednesday, when it will hear from representatives from the county office of education, FCMAT and the state’s Department of Finance about the requirements attached to possible bailout funding over the next three years approved by the state Legislature as part of AB 1840.

Battle said flat enrollment over the past few years, along with increased special education, pension and workers compensation costs have contributed to the district’s past practice of spending more money than it was taking in.

But he said a higher-than-anticipated ending balance in June is expected to leave the district with a 2 percent reserve at the end of next year, which could reduce the amount of spending reductions needed in 2019-20. However, if no cuts are made, the district would be $30 million in the hole at the end of 2020-21, he said.

“We’re clearly not out of the woods by any stretch,” he said.

And these cuts don’t include money needed to replenish other district funds that have been depleted, or any new expenditures the board may decide are necessary. He also outlined two revenue-generating ideas that could provide the district with about $2 million next year.

Theresa Harrington/EdSource Today

Marcus Battle, chief business official for Oakland Unified, presents proposed budget cuts to the Special Committee on Fiscal Vitality on Oct. 18, 2018.

Battle said the district expects to earn an additional $1 million next year by renting out school facilities and an additional $1 million in state aid by offering Saturday School to students who missed classes during the week. Schools that opt to participate in the Saturday program would receive a portion of the state aid generated, he said.

The committee members said they want to consider additional targeted expenditures to improve student achievement and help retain and recruit teachers through pay increases and additional mentoring programs, which could require the board to make deeper cuts. These new costs would also include offering 8-period days at high schools, Gonzales said.

Theresa Harrington/EdSource Today

Oakland Unified board member Shanthi Gonzales chairs the district’s Special Committee on Fiscal Vitality, which plans to recommend up to $30 million in cuts for the 2019-20 school year to avoid deficit-spending.

According to the plan outlined by Battle, the central district office is expected to slash 10.8 positions out of 543 from the 14 departments overseen by the superintendent’s office; 21.5 positions out of 813 from the 20 academic services departments that include academic innovation, counseling and school networks; and 21.5 positions out of 123 from the 17 operations departments, which include budget offices, printing and mailing and technology services.

To explain the central office cuts, Battle noted that, compared to other districts statewide, Oakland Unified had more school administrators per student than any other district in 2016 and more district-level administrators per student than all but three districts, based on data compiled by School Services of California, a consulting firm that assists districts in budgeting and a range of other matters.

Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell said Saturday that it was too soon for her to comment on the proposal. She said she would have more to say after reviewing it and receiving community and staff feedback.

An additional $6.5 million in cost-savings, Battle said, could be accomplished through reducing contract services, eliminating vacant positions, reducing energy costs, consolidating printing costs and telephone services, altering the bell schedules to cut transportation costs and leveraging “restricted” funds to pay for general fund costs.

The district plans to seek community feedback on the proposed cuts through surveys and meetings over the next month.

Feedback that the district has received so far has come from the principals who have completed a survey listing those services not critical to their school’s “functionality and achieving student outcomes.” The services that got the lowest ratings are in the central office where the 53 job cuts are proposed to come from:  Innovations Office, Organizational Effectiveness Office, Juvenile Justice Office, Office of Equity and Communications Office.

Principals were asked: “How critical is this department to maintaining YOUR school’s functionality and/or achieving your student outcomes” on a scale of  0 (meaning not critical) to 100 (meaning very critical), with 33 meaning “slightly critical.” The survey also recommended that no cuts be made to special education or custodial services.

Carmelita Reyes, principal of Oakland International High, said at the Oct. 11 special committee meeting that principals care about equity and restorative justice, but they don’t need someone at the district office to help them achieve those goals. “I don’t think anyone is saying eliminate these as concepts,” Reyes said. “But the question is: ‘How can we build them into our daily work?’”

The Office of Equity employs 22 staffers to run the district’s African American Male Achievement Program and female achievement program, as well as other programs for Hispanic, Asian Pacific Islander and LGBT students.

“It’s the only place where we focus on the needs of black and brown children,” Christopher Chatmon, deputy chief of equity told the committee during a Sept. 19 meeting. “We’re trying to target structural racism.”

Its programs, he said, have improved attendance, grades and graduation rates among African-American and Latino students, while lowering suspensions and referrals.

Eng said the district should use this budget crisis as an opportunity to “think about where we are and where we need to be — using this to really look different as a school system.”

Battle said he expects to have firmer budget numbers in January, after California’s next governor issues his proposed 2019-20 budget.

Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments this year in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts as a way to illustrate some of the most urgent challenges facing many urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.

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