To fix the budget crisis, Oakland needs collaboration instead of conspiracy theories

If you’ve been following news about Oakland schools, you know that we’re facing a financial crisis. The district is considering, once again, how to make painful cuts with real consequences for students. To make matters worse, deeply misleading narratives about surpluses or hidden money have led to more confusion and mistrust in our community. 

As part of our Budgeting for Impact campaign, we’ve long advocated for greater transparency and smarter spending. OUSD needs to do a better job managing its budget. We need to keep the money close to students and put our resources towards the most impactful programs. The fact that budget cuts are needed is not an Oakland-specific problem. The financial crisis is a systemic reality that districts across California are facing. To overcome this crisis, Oakland needs collaboration, not conspiracy theory. 

Stay tuned for more myth-busting information from GO (be sure you’ve liked our Facebook page for those updates) this week. But let’s start with the facts: 

1. Rising Pension and Healthcare Costs

California teachers hope for – and rightly deserve – a secure retirement. By law, they receive a guaranteed lifetime retirement benefit or a pension. Districts are obligated to contribute a portion of their budget to fund these pensions, the cost of which has sharply increased in recent years. This is a statewide trend that has been widely reported (here, here, and here). 

Specifically, in Oakland, pension costs more than doubled in just 4 years, from $545 per student in 2013-14 to $1,151 per student in 2017-18. Next year alone, OUSD will see a $3 million dollar increase. As both pension costs for retired teachers and healthcare costs for the current workforce continue to grow, these obligations take up a greater share of new money that districts have received each year – money that would otherwise benefit students more directly. Check out this video for more information on the statewide pension crisis. 

2. Increased Special Education Costs

The federal government has continuously failed to fulfill its mandate to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), a law passed to ensure that children with disabilities receive free and appropriate public education. This lack of federal funding leaves the burden on states and districts to fill in the expense gaps. On average, local districts have to make up 61 percent of the special education costs using their unrestricted funds.

To make matters more challenging, the costs of special education are rising. In California, special education costs have increased by just over 20 percent over the past decade — from $10.8 billion to $13 billion in inflation-adjusted figures. In OUSD specifically, the special education expenses are more than double the revenue they receive to cover these costs.

3. Fixed Operational Costs of Maintaining School Facilities With Low or Declining Enrollment

Many of Oakland’s schools are under-enrolled (for example, there are high schools that have historically served over 800 students and now only have just above 300 students enrolled) located in areas where few students live, or both. OUSD projects more than 10,000 seats will be empty across 87 schools this year. Both OUSD and the most recent Alameda Grand Jury Report have addressed and recognized that they are spreading their resources too thin, while maintaining the status quo that will not improve outcomes for our students.

From Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell:

“We want to ensure we have the right number of high quality schools in the locations where Oakland’s students and families need them. This will allow us to maximize our resources so we can provide more of the services our students deserve.”

4. Flat or Stagnant School Funding

California spends $11,000 per student. That’s only half as much as the top funded state in the nation: more than $22,000 in New York. Even though costs are rising across the state, funding levels have remained mostly flat. Since the 2015-16 school year, we’ve only seen a small increase of a few hundred dollars per student in Oakland. Combined with all the rising costs mentioned above, this stagnant funding level only exacerbates the financial hardships districts are facing. There are upcoming opportunities to increase funding for our schools like a statewide facilities bond measure on the ballot next week, the Schools and Communities First measure on ballots in November, and a potential local facilities bond measure also on that ballot for Oakland schools specifically.

The Pathway Forward

To overcome this budget crisis and to be able to provide a stable learning environment for current and future students, hard decisions must be made. Failing to make these decisions will be even harder and could lead to state or county takeover of Oakland schools. This would mean that decisions would be made for us, not by us. Oakland needs to work together and put students at the center. 

In a hopeful example of collaboration, our neighbors in West Contra Costa recently saw their school district and teacher and school worker unions come together to issue a joint statement acknowledging that while they may disagree at times, they are committed to finding common ground in the interests of students. This kind of collaboration can be true in Oakland, too, if we are willing to come together.

Contact your board member to share what values you want them to keep at the center as they make decisions and share your voice in OUSD’s community survey on the budget reductions and priorities. 

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