A sign lays on top of stacked chairs in the Oakland High School Library. Credit: Pete Rosos

The Oakland Unified School District is expecting an enormous infusion of cash assistance thanks to several federal and state aid packages approved over the past year. It’s welcome relief to the district, which has had its share of financial difficulties over the years, but OUSD officials noted that they need to quickly spend the money or else give it back.

During a special board meeting Tuesday evening, district officials laid out how they hope to allocate the windfall, which includes about $58 million from the federal COVID-19 relief bill passed in December that must be spent by September 2023, and about $40 million from Assembly Bill 86, the state measure to support school districts in reopening, which has to be spent by August 2022. From the most recent federal aid package, the American Rescue Plan, OUSD is anticipating about $127 million that must be spent by 2024, said Lisa Grant-Dawson, the district’s chief business officer.

“We’re being given a significant amount of funding that we have to be so strategic and smart about because we have it for such a short time,” said superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell. “We want it to make a big difference in terms of our students.”

Much of the funding must be specifically allocated toward addressing learning loss caused by the pandemic or supporting in-person learning.  

Board members said the money could be used to support students’ transition back to in-person learning and suggested hiring staff to respond to students’ emotional and mental health needs, hiring staff to support reading and math interventions, offering credit recovery programs and other opportunities to re-engage with school. 

“I think we need a chronic absence team at every school: Individuals who are familiar with the school community who reach out to families to help them problem solve to get to school every day on time,” said District 1 Director Sam Davis. “Getting back into that pattern of coming every day and on time is going to be a challenge after a year away.”

Some schools have experienced spikes in chronic absences during the pandemic, including Castlemont and Fremont high schools, where 43% of students have missed more than 20% of their classes, which is more than twice the number of chronically absent students in previous years. 

Student board director Jessica Ramos drew attention to students’ mental health needs and suggested OUSD could hire Oaklanders who are familiar with students’ backgrounds and experiences as campus community managers to connect with students as they return to school.

“We just don’t know how students are feeling at home. We just see them through screens. We don’t see what’s going on behind the screen,” Ramos said. “One of the things we have to realize when we come back is that students have gone through a lot.”

Ramos also called for the hiring of more teachers of color and reiterated her support for the reparations for Black students policy, which the board will vote on next week. 

Director Aimee Eng emphasized support for flexible credit recovery programs, which offer students a chance to retake classes that they failed or complete make up work in order to receive class credits to graduate. She also suggested expanding the district’s campus-based wellness centers to provide more mental health resources for students. Eng, who represents District 2, has been working with Ramos on a proposal that would provide credit recovery opportunities to high schoolers who have become disengaged during distance learning.

District 5 Director Mike Hutchinson called for a $40 million investment in the district’s hybrid learning program to continue offering the option for students next year, and encouraged his fellow board directors to be ambitious in spending the funds. He also advocated for an end to school closures, which district leaders have said are necessary to save money. Hutchinson said the district should instead invest in school libraries, reduce class sizes, and bring music and sports to every school. 

“We won’t have a bigger responsibility than we’re facing right now and over the next few months,” Hutchinson said. “We have an opportunity to provide the transformational change that I know my community has been asking for for decades. We need to set our sights big and not squander this opportunity.”

Director Gary Yee proposed summer time retreats for students and staff to begin rebuilding relationships with each other after a year of virtual interactions. He also wants to reopen school playgrounds during the summer and hire high school or college students as “playground directors,” to give kids the opportunity to play, and young adults interested in youth developments the opportunity to build up those skills. 

District officials are anticipating drops in enrollment in future years that could impact how much attendance-based funding OUSD receives from the state, and some board members suggested using some COVID relief funding to build up the district’s reserve fund, in case it has to be put towards covering future costs. That may not be possible, Grant-Dawson said, since most of the one-time funding must explicitly be spent on something, and not just saved. 

Even with federal and state relief money, OUSD will still likely have to make budget cuts this year, but the amount could be closer to $5 million, far less than the $16 million originally anticipated. District staff recently put forth a plan to cover the deficit using $11 million of the funds OUSD received from December’s COVID bill, plus $5 million that the district would receive from Assembly Bill 1840, legislation that provides financial support to school districts paying back state loans if they take certain steps to stay fiscally solvent, like making budget cuts, selling property, or possibly closing schools. The cuts would be made by laying off eight full-time positions and realizing the $1.8 million in savings from implementing the George Floyd Resolution, which disbanded the school police department, according to the plan floated by staff. 

OUSD received about $54 million from the CARES Act, the federal government’s first pandemic assistance package signed last March. Of those funds, about $33 million had to be spent by December, with much of it going towards COVID-19 preparations and response. OUSD used much of its allocation to hire custodial staff, purchase Chromebooks and other technology for students and teachers, hire and train substitutes, special education support, operate learning hubs, pay stipends for teachers, and hire safety leads. The district’s spending plan for the CARES Act funds are detailed in the learning continuity and attendance plan that the school board approved in September.

District staff will take board members’ suggestions from this week’s meeting into consideration as they craft next year’s budget, which will be adopted at a board meeting in June.

Ashley McBride reports on education equity for The Oaklandside. She covered the 2019 Oakland Unified School District teachers’ strike as a breaking news reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. More recently, she was an education reporter for the San Antonio Express-News where she covered several local school districts, charter schools, and the community college system. McBride earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University, has held positions at the Palm Beach Post and the Poynter Institute, and is a recent Hearst Journalism Fellow.