Credit: Isara Krieger
Students participating in a community building circle, which is a key component of restorative justice, at Fremont High School in Oakland.

The Oakland City Council has agreed to give $1.2 million to Oakland Unified to restore funding to two programs, including restorative justice, but the money is just not enough to make up for budget cuts to both programs for the 2019-20 school year.

The funds also fall significantly short of the $1.7 million that school librarians say is needed to fund school libraries.

“Although it’s a huge amount of money and we appreciate the city for doing this, that’s not all the money we need,” said district spokesman John Sasaki.

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Restorative justice, or RJ as it is commonly called, is an alternative to punitive discipline that focuses on building positive school climates by creating strong bonds among students and teachers. And, when dealing with behavior problems like fights and bullying, the practice prioritizes mediation and conflict resolution among the students involved over traditional punishments. Among its goals is reducing in-school conflict, suspensions and expulsions.  It uses discussion circles and one-on-one mediations to address issues students are dealing with at school and in their daily lives. The practices are also used to resolve conflicts among students or between a teacher and a student; and to reintegrate students into school after extended absences. Oakland Unified’s program has been featured by national experts as a model for the program.

The funds could help save the 20 program facilitator positions cut in the restorative justice program. The district is seeking outside funding to restore the program’s full approximately $2 million budget for the 2019-20 school year. The council agreed to allocate $690,000 of the money to restorative justice to partially offset $1.2 million that was cut by the school board. The $1.2 million paid for three program managers plus half the costs of the program facilitators. Schools would need to cover the other half of the costs.

“These are expensive programs and we need more and we’re looking to find more sustainable funding,” Sasaki said. “We haven’t even determined whether we’re going to use this in one year or try to spread it over a couple of years. We’re going to try to see how best to help the programs. That’s still being worked out.”

The council acted April 16 to approve the funding to try to avert the layoffs of about 25 of the roughly 150 workers who are slated to lose their jobs on June 30. The layoffs stem from the board voting in March to cut $20.2 million to balance the district’s 2019-20 budget and help pay for teacher raises. (Oakland teachers struck for seven days in March, winning a four-year agreement with an 11 percent pay raise and a one-time 3 percent bonus. The board expects to approve the agreement on Wednesday.)

But the city’s money won’t enable the district to completely fund its restorative justice program or foster youth case managers and libraries.

The funding cuts triggered outrage by students, who demanded that the programs be kept in place.

Theresa Harrington/EdSource Today

A sign made by Oakland Unified students fighting budget cuts in the restorative justice program.

Foster youth case managers work with about 200 foster youth in 25 district schools to provide support and guidance, while also serving as liaisons with guardians and other agencies. The board cut $510,000 that paid for five foster youth case managers.

In addition, the board decided to redistribute $1.6 million in library parcel tax money from about 30 schools to 49 schools where at least 85 percent of students are low-income, leaving some schools without funding.

Theresa Harrington/EdSource Today

Library supporters urge the Oakland Unified school board to allocate more money to libraries.

The council acted in response to a letter from Board President Aimee Eng that sought $1.2 million over two years, including $690,000 for restorative justice and $510,000 for Foster Youth case managers. In a separate letter, district librarians asked for $1.7 million to supplement parcel tax funding, which is not enough to fully fund all district libraries.

Instead of providing an additional library grant, the council agreed that the $510,000 should partially fund both restoring foster youth case managers and libraries. A joint council and district Education Partnership Committee, which will meet in May, can clarify how the money will be spent, said Council President Rebecca Kaplan.

Uncertainty over how much each program will eventually receive makes it unclear how many layoffs will be rescinded and which libraries will be able to operate.

Barbara McClung, the district’s director of behavioral health services, who oversees restorative justice and the foster youth case managers, said she expects the city funding will cover the costs for most of the school facilitators in 2019-20, if schools are able to come up with money for the other half, along with one central office manager. But the district needs additional outside funding to retain all three central office managers, she said.

The district has received a philanthropic grant of about $372,000 from an anonymous donor that could pay for one restorative justice coordinator and a couple of program managers, McClung said, adding that money from the city and other sources could help save the entire program.

“It was looking very dire,” she said. “And now it’s looking very hopeful and I’m really grateful.”

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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