Oakland Unified School District board members at a meeting in August 2021. Credit: Kathryn Styer Martínez

Have Questions about OUSD’s budget?

Check out The Oaklandside’s guide to understanding OUSD’s finances and the situation the district is facing right now. 

The Oakland Unified School District board has just a few weeks to decide how to slash nearly $50 million from its budget for the 2022-2023 school year.

Lower student attendance rates due to the pandemic, plus a desire from district leaders to increase compensation for all staff means that OUSD is facing higher expenses and lower revenues over the next few years, if these patterns continue. 

Additional pressure from the Alameda County Office of Education means that if the school board can’t come to a decision, their salaries, and the superintendent’s, could be withheld.

On Jan. 12, the board had its first discussion about balancing the budget, led by superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell and her staff, who are recommending $49.3 million in cuts

Structural problems have caused budget shortfalls for years

Johnson-Trammell first laid out the priorities for the district during this process: offering modern classes for students like language and computer science programs, work-based learning and dual enrollment for high school students, while providing mental health and academic support, and investing in the district’s workforce.

According to Johnson-Trammell, there are structural challenges straining the school system’s finances and threatening these priorities. When compared to the 50 largest school districts in California, Oakland has the highest ratio of schools to students (80 schools for roughly 34,000 students), and the third-highest number of teachers per student. With fewer students spread across more schools, the district has to spend more money on operations. District leaders have argued that reducing the ratio of schools to students can save money, and on Wednesday, the school board also voted to bring back the possibility of permanent school closures or mergers. 

Oakland Unified also has the lowest average teacher salary, and its teachers have the lowest average years of teaching experience, despite the fact that the district spends more on teacher salaries than 85% of peer districts. Thirty-seven percent, or 867, of K-12 teachers in OUSD have five years of experience or fewer, and 61% have less than 10 years of experience. In California, the average teacher has 12 years of experience

“Bottom line: Unless we address a long-standing structural issue, we will continue to undermine our mission and vision, and full-service community school model, and be forced to maintain fiscal solvency through further reductions in subsequent years,” Johnson-Trammell said. 

Central to the district’s budget problems is the “base fund,” a pot of money OUSD uses to pay for salaries and benefits, among other things. District leaders say they want to prioritize salary increases, but base fund dollars, which come from the state, are contingent upon the district’s average student daily attendance numbers (ADA), which have been in decline. When OUSD created the budget for the current school year, the district used ADA from the 2019-2020 school year, which was 33,911. Because the pandemic has caused big declines in student attendance, California has allowed districts to use ADA from previous years for the last two budgets. But for the upcoming school year and beyond, districts must use current numbers. 

For the 2022-2023 school year, the district has assumed that ADA would be 30,551, or 92% of the total projected number of enrolled students. Currently, however, ADA is 90%, a small difference, but large enough to create a multi-million dollar budget gap. And ADA projections could drop further, said Lisa Grant-Dawson, the district’s chief business officer, if current attendance rates don’t increase. This means that the state will be sending OUSD less revenue in future years.

District staff are proposing transfers and cuts to balance the budget

About $16 million in cuts the district is recommending would be achieved by shifting several dozen teacher, clerical, and other positions and investments from the “base unrestricted fund” to what’s called the “supplemental” and “concentration” funding, which the district receives from the state because of the number of “high needs” students it serves—foster students, homeless students, English language learners, and low-income students. The district is expecting an increase in supplemental and concentration funding, which will allow OUSD to pay for those positions from those sources instead of the general pool of unrestricted funding. 

While those shifts will enable the district to retain those positions, it means that those portions of supplemental and concentration funding can’t go to other student supports for those targeted groups, which raised concerns from school board directors. 

“It feels like that’s almost a haphazard use of concentration funding,” said District 1 Director Sam Davis, the board’s vice president. “It might not be a strategic use of the concentration funding, which I know we all want to see being used for community services and social-emotional support and academic support for students.”

Superintendent Johnson-Trammell laid out her team’s rationale behind the recommendations. 

“These are strategic decisions not to reduce staff and to still be solvent because we can’t afford to pay for all of these in base [funding], as well as everything else that has to be in base [funding],” Johnson-Trammell said. “And as a result, what we should be able to use to realize our mission and vision—our supplemental and concentration [funds]—have no money left. And so we over-rely on parcel taxes and philanthropy. That is a structural dilemma that we have to wrestle with.”

Johnson-Trammell noted that Oakland Unified receives the fourth most revenue and second most local restricted revenue (from sources like parcel taxes and philanthropy) when compared with peer districts, and yet it still has budget problems.

Other reductions to the unrestricted fund totaling about $7 million include eliminating 22 vacant positions, phasing out co-principals at Skyline and Fremont high schools, and cutting OUSD’s deferred maintenance budget, which means that long-standing facility needs, like flooring and roofing projects, or window and furnace replacements, will have to wait a little longer. Another $3.5 million could come from layoffs of four assistant principals and 28 teachers in response to the district’s decline in enrollment. Staff didn’t specify what school sites those cuts would come from. 

About $13 million in cuts to the central district office include layoffs of almost 10 full-time equivalents in the departments of English language learners and multilingual achievement, linked learning, academic innovation, and the office of equity, reducing the research, assessment and data and enrollment office staffs by two employees each, and fewer investments in training, technology and supplies. 

Directors Aimee Eng and Shanthi Gonzales requested that staff provide a breakdown of the reductions school by school.

“Particularly because of some of the equity impacts, it’s hard to understand what the impacts are going to be without that,” said Eng, who represents District 2.

On Jan. 13, the board is scheduled to hold a budget and finance committee meeting to further discuss the budget. A special board meeting will be held Wednesday, Jan. 19 to analyze how Oakland Unified measures up to other comparable school districts. And at the board meeting on Jan. 26, school board directors are expected to vote on final budget cuts.

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.