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June 13, 2019

Everything you need to know about the proposed Oakland school closures (part 2): The district’s excuses for closing schools get an “F”

By Katie Ferrari

In part one of this series, we explored why school closures are disruptive and traumatic to the poor and working-class black and brown children they disproportionately impact. Closures drive public education out of democratic control and into the market by making space for more charter schools: 14 of the 18 traditional public schools the Oakland Unified School District closed between 2004 and 2016 re-opened as charters. In addition to taking public money without being democratically accountable, charters are rarely unionized, so teachers lack the collective power to win higher wages and benefits. Billionaires are intensely invested in expanding charter schools because keeping worker power, wages, and benefits down keeps their taxes low too.

Since the early 2000s, Oaklanders have pushed back against every school closure plan. But if school closures have such negative impacts and are so consistently opposed by the community, why does the district keep pushing them? Oakland Unified School District’s (OUSD) school board and superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell give two interconnected but misleading reasons for closing schools: money and quality. According to the district, there are too many schools in Oakland and not enough money to run them all well.

In this installment of Majority’s school closures series, we’ll dissect these arguments. In Part Three, we’ll examine the real reasons the district continues to push closures. (Hint: Billionaires set on privatizing education and profiting off of public goods are involved.)

Excuse #1: Not enough money, part I

OUSD’s claim of not having enough money to fund all 87 of its traditional public schools is accurate in one glaring way: Every school district in California is grossly underfunded. California has the world’s fifth-largest economy, but ranks 41st in the United States for per-pupil funding. In 2014, California’s per-pupil spending was less than half of New York City’s. That’s why educators and students from across the state convened in Sacramento on May 22 for a day of action to demand more money for education and more accountability for charters. It’s also why a ballot proposition to split Prop 13 and raise commercial property taxes is on the docket for the 2020 election.

On top of California’s chronic underfunding of education, OUSD is in debt. In 2003, the district was forced into state receivership by then-governor Jerry Brown and others. The state bailed the district out with a $100 million loan, but a series of state-appointed school superintendents, all graduates of the pro-charter Broad Academy, squandered much of this money on consultants and administrative spending that didn’t benefit teachers or students. Under Supt. Antwan Wilson, the district’s total spending for classified (non-teaching) supervisors and administrators grew by sixty-nine percent. By 2016-17, the district was spending $22.3 million on classified positions.

OUSD still owes $40 million on this loan and expects to continue paying it off until 2026 at a rate of about $6 million per year. It’s important to remember that until the loan is fully paid off, the district is still under partial state control: The Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT), a quasi-public entity based in Bakersfield, and state trustee Chris Learned, who reports to Karen Monroe, the Alameda County Superintendent of Schools, have the final say on financial decisions. Case in point: the strike ended on March 4 when teachers ratified the contract, but the school board did not approve the contract until April 24 because it was waiting for fiscal assessments of the new contract from FCMAT and the Alameda County Office of Education (ACOE). As long as the district owes money on the state loan, it is also at risk of going back into full state control if it doesn’t maintain at least 2% reserve funding.

This debt adds to the strain and chaos within OUSD, but it doesn’t have to: California currently has a $21.5 billion budget surplus and could easily forgive the debt, as Oakland City Council president Rebecca Kaplan and Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) have called on the state to do. Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (D-Berkeley), who represents parts of Oakland and benefited from more than $3 million in independent expenditures by anti-public education groups in her election, has not publicly come out in support of debt forgiveness, but her office told us she would be in favor.

On top of the debt, OUSD is also claiming a $30 million deficit. The Oakland Education Association (OEA) counters that the district has manufactured this deficit to justify closing schools and underpaying teachers. The OEA points out that the district massively inflated the supplies budget to $41.1 million in 2018 but then only spent $1.4 million on supplies in the first three months of the school year.

Excuse 2: “AB 1840 made us do it”

The district also likes to claim that AB 1840, a bill passed last September, requires them to close schools. AB 1840 gives grants to certain California school districts that are running deficits. These grants do not need to be paid back but still come with strings attached.

Under this bill, OUSD can get three years of pay-outs. In the first year, 2018-19, the district can receive 75% of its projected operating deficit. To be eligible for that payout, OUSD needed to “update or develop short- and long-term financial plans.”

That’s all. They just had to create a plan for cutting spending and balancing the budget in the short and long run. AB 1840 does not require that this plan involve closing or consolidating schools or selling district property.

OUSD chose to write a financial plan that cuts costs by closing 24 schools. They could have written a plan that balanced the budget by paring down central administration costs, but they didn’t.

Excuse 3: Not enough money, part II

Despite chronic underfunding, the debt, and the supposed deficit, the district’s claim of “not enough money” is only partially true. OUSD has enough money to keep schools open: The contract teachers won by striking is based on the money that exists in the district already.

The problem is that the district is spending the money it does have on the wrong things: too many administrators and consultants who are not supporting teachers and students. Remember how Wilson skyrocketed classified spending to $22.3 million in 2016-17? This number has only continued to mushroom: OUSD projects spending $94.5 million on classified salaries in the 2018-19 school year. This level of spending is not normal: OUSD spends $30 million more on its central office than other comparable school districts in California. In the 2014-15 school year, if OUSD had reduced its central office spending to the comparison group average, it could have freed up $14 million.

And yet, in the midst of all this increased spending, the district has cut professional development like summer institutes that enabled teachers to work through new textbooks together. Math teachers now have to write their own grants to fund their attendance at math trainings.

OUSD has also seemingly worked against itself by encouraging the unchecked growth of charter schools because increases in charter enrollment create a decline in revenue for the district. In California, districts receive money from the state for each student’s daily attendance at a district-run public school, so when a student switches from a traditional public school to a charter, the district loses that funding. The district now has a lower revenue, but certain operating costs, like building maintenance and staffing, remain the same. Last year, a report by In the Public Interest found that Oakland’s charter schools have a net cost of $57.3 million to OUSD per year, or $1,500 per student.

To an outside observer, the district’s encouragement of charter schools, combined with its plan to close dozens of traditional public schools, seems like a suicidal move. We’ll examine this dynamic more closely in Part Three.

Excuse 4: Closures save money. (They don’t.)  

Closing schools doesn’t actually save money––and OUSD knows it. A 2011 Pew report that studied closures in six large urban districts found that “the money saved as the result of closing schools….has been relatively small in the context of big-city school-district budgets.” The biggest savings came when “closings were combined with large-scale layoffs.” In 2008, Washington D.C. closed or consolidated 23 schools. A 2012 audit revealed the closures had cost $39.5 million, a figure that was almost four times what the district had expected to save.

OUSD knows that closures don’t save a substantial amount of money. On page 13 of their January 23, 2019 presentation to the school board, the district estimated that closing Roots would save just $345,000 in the first year and only $380,000 five years later. (Contrast that to the $14 million OUSD could have saved by trimming central administration in 2014.)

Nearly half of the projected savings would be lost to attrition: students leaving the district for charter or private schools or moving to other school districts as gentrification continues to price working-class families out of Oakland. The district admitted this during February’s pre-strike fact-finding: they passed around a report to teachers that included “Fact 25: Potential savings from attempted school closures are offset by implementation costs and a loss of enrollment primarily to charter schools.”

Excuse 5: “Too many schools for them to all be good”

The other reason OUSD gives for closing schools is that Oakland has “too many.” The district says they are “spreading [their] resources too thin” and that the solution is to close the under-enrolled and “failing” schools so that every school can be a quality one.

There are a few issues here. The first is how OUSD defines a “failing” school and its own responsibility in creating “failing” schools. As discussed in Part One, OUSD defines schools as “failing” based on under-enrollment and test scores. The district has directly contributed to the under-enrollment of its public schools by rubber-stamping the growth of charters in Oakland. Using test scores to define school quality ignores the direct correlation between income and test scores. As America’s vast racial wealth gap continues to expand, OUSD and the country as a whole need to find better ways of assessing a school’s performance. Lastly, the district is closing schools it never fully funded or equipped to succeed.

The next issue with OUSD’s argument is that studies on school closure show that student performance only improves if the school students move to is better than the one they came from. OUSD has no system in place to guarantee that students whose schools are closed will be placed in a better school. As the district continues to spend the limited amount of money it has in all the wrong places, there is no guarantee that whatever money (if any) closures yield will be reinvested into the remaining schools.

The third flaw in this argument is that OUSD doesn’t even discuss closing the 45 charters in Oakland. If the district began phasing charters out when their leases are up, the $57 million charters are draining from the district each year could be reinvested in neighborhood public schools. Closing charters won’t happen overnight, especially because OUSD has granted exceptionally long leases to some charters, like a 40-year lease to KIPP Bridge Academy in West Oakland and a 30-year lease to American Indian Public High School, which is run by the notoriously corrupt American Indian Model school. Nonetheless, returning the district to 87 traditional public schools rather than the current total of 132 schools is a key element in this discussion that the district has conveniently overlooked.  

The last major flaw in this reasoning is that the district is ignoring the need to reduce class sizes. Remember the $57 million charters are costing OUSD each year? With that money, OUSD could reduce class sizes in all elementary schools to 18 students per class, double the number of nurses and counselors in all schools, and still have $10 million left for other improvements. The current class size caps for Oakland elementary schools are 24 in Kindergarten, 27 in grades 1–3, and 30 in grades 4 and 5. Numerous studies show that reducing classes to 18 students improves learning outcomes, especially for low-income and minority students. With smaller class sizes that facilitate student learning, Oakland’s traditional public schools would not be considered “under-enrolled.”

Closing schools instead of funding them

The district is keen on pushing the narrative that the only solution to struggling schools and under-enrollment is closing traditional public schools, but the facts tell a different story. Decades of research show there are truly effective solutions to under-enrollment and low test scores: smaller class sizes, fewer charters, and more responsible spending in the central office.

In the next installment of this series, Majority will examine the real reasons behind the school district’s push for school closures: It’s what the billionaires who control the school board want.