Oakland Unified School District Board Vice President Sam Davis poses for a photo outside of Piedmont Avenue Elementary School. Credit: Amir Aziz

This school year was one of the most challenging in years for anyone working in education. 

In Oakland, it was the first completely in-person year since 2019, and the effects of the pandemic were felt all around, through student absences, teacher shortages, lower enrollments, and new procedures to keep everyone safe and healthy.

Midway through the year, the school board announced a plan to close several schools over two years, igniting a controversy that consumed most of the subsequent school board meetings. The year even ended with the resignation of one school board member who had served for seven years.

This is the first in a series of Q&As with each of the directors on the Oakland Unified School District board, who are tasked with leading the district, maintaining the budget, creating school district policies, and working with the superintendent. 

We’re kicking off with District 1 Director Sam Davis, who was first elected in 2020 and serves as the board’s vice president. Davis is the parent of an OUSD high schooler and previously taught in OUSD’s adult education program.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Reflecting on your first year and a half on the board, are there any views you held about OUSD prior to becoming a school board member that have now changed? 

One of the impacts of becoming a school board director is realizing the impact of my words. It was easy to criticize as a parent activist. Now working with senior leadership, I see the challenges that they face and what they’re balancing. 

I think one of the tensions in running a school district is we’re always asking people on the ground at schools to be so flexible and to kind of roll with all the different crises that come at them every day, and yet there’s so much in our system that’s really inflexible in terms of contracts and laws and you know, the threat of litigation and compliance that we have to do with federal and state regulations. That really impedes flexibility. 

And so, at the same time, we have to be really rigid in certain ways and really flexible in others and I think that creates so much tension. It’s what creates some of the tension between folks on the ground at school sites and people who are in the central office. We’re having to balance all of those requirements.

Why do you feel it’s necessary for OUSD to close schools?

Overall, I think the pressures of declining enrollment and the long-term fiscal pressures on Oakland Unified are really severe. We do have this flood of one-time money that’s very confusing, but in the long term, we see the clouds of inflation and potential economic decline coming and we also have ongoing declining enrollment. 

In the past, it was really the increase in charter schools, and now currently, it’s the other demographic pressures—because other school districts have declining enrollment and are trying to poach some of our students in neighboring districts. 

We have people moving out of the city, and the impact of the pandemic, so we really have seen enrollment decline by 2,500 students over the past four years. That’s a big hit for a school district to take and when you go to school sites, you see some schools that are really overcrowded and feel impacted that way. You see other schools that are really under-enrolled and under-resourced, and that’s the financial crisis. 

When people say, “Where’s the financial crisis?” I mean, you go to a school site and you hear people saying, “We don’t get paid enough. We don’t have enough resources. We don’t have people maintaining our site the way it needs to be maintained.” That’s the financial crisis that you see at schools in Oakland, compared to when you go to schools in other districts. 

There are 80 public schools and 30-some charter schools in Oakland. It’s a lot of schools given the number of students that we have in the city and we have seen some charter schools close in recent years. As enrollment declines, I think we’ll see more. It’s really challenging for the district to maintain the number of schools that it’s had. This has been an ongoing debate and controversy in Oakland in recent years. But with the impact of the pandemic, it’s just made it more severe.

Could the school closure process have been handled differently? How?

Director Eng and I put forward a resolution last fall that made a number of recommendations in terms of how we saw it going, to have more community involvement and more of a process. I do think that the district needs to do a better job of communicating the needs and answering people’s questions as to how schools were chosen. 

There’s a segment of people in OUSD that have been following this that had heard all the rationales, and then there’s another segment of people that had not, and I think they were really blindsided by the speed at which this happened and did not understand the rationale or the process. And so I think we as a district could have done a better job of explaining it to folks.

director davis seated behind the dais
Director Sam Davis, board vice president, sits on the dais at the first in-person board meeting in 18 months on August 11, 2021 in Oakland, Calif. Credit: Kathryn Styer Martínez

How were the schools chosen?

It was primarily on sustainability in terms of the number of students and declining enrollment.

And then I think there was a separate consideration that had to do with the challenge of operating really small K-8s because of the level of resources needed to provide a full set of courses to students in grades six, seven, and eight at a very small K-8. 

But for the other schools, the K-5 schools it was primarily about enrollment and just the resources needed to sustain a very small school.

It’s clear that a lot of people feel very emotional about this and feel really betrayed. How do you plan to rebuild trust with the members of the public who feel betrayed by this decision?

I think the district needs to demonstrate through its actions by supporting families through the process. I’ve heard that a lot of families from the schools impacted have chosen new schools. And there is a commitment to providing more resources at the schools where the majority of those families are going. So I think the district has to follow through on that and demonstrate by its actions that families will be supported through the process. 

There are a lot of people who are very upset, and there are also a lot of people who are more quiet, but understand the pressures that the district is under. Whether they’re at a school that has higher enrollment and they see the impact on their school of having to subsidize under-enrolled schools, or the number of elected officials that didn’t have the courage to say publicly that they understood why we were taking the actions that we did, but privately had said that to me. 

It’s been a very controversial process. And it obviously is upsetting to people to lose their school, of course it would be. But I hope that we can use the resources that we do have to support people well through the changes.

In your district, Hillcrest K-8 is the only school affected by these school changes. How is OUSD helping those students and families transition next year?

I’m trying to find out more about that. I don’t have an answer to that right now.

In your view, what is the root of the district’s financial issues, and how can things be improved? 

One thing that would improve is just for people to recognize the existence of the issues. And so I know other people have questioned, does the district have a deficit? And it’s difficult when there’s a debate about facts. 

But if you look at the budget presentation, there are parentheses around this net increase and decrease in fund balance. There’s a parenthesis there, and that’s because it’s a negative number, which means there’s a deficit. And so I think recognizing that and being honest about that is an important step toward addressing the problem. 

It’s because enrollment is declining and our funding is based on daily attendance. And over time, if your expenses continue to increase because of inflation, but your revenue stays flat, or decreases, or does not increase at the same rate as your expenses, then you have a deficit. That’s how that happens. 

There are so many costs that are going up because Oakland Unified serves a city with a lot of really severe needs. And because of some of the disparities in enrollment with charter schools, we have proportionally a very high number of students with disabilities and we have very high numbers of newcomer students who’ve been in the country less than three years. We have large numbers of families in crisis. We’re a public school district and we have to serve and respond to the needs of students in our city, and these are the issues of an urban school district. And so those costs are high, compared to some districts in the suburbs that don’t have any of these challenges. And so we do get additional funding from the state because of the local control funding formula, but we do have very high costs.

The problem is really that the state and federal governments do not provide the resources necessary for the district to meet its responsibility to those students and families. Only a fraction of special education costs are reimbursed, and there is virtually no dedicated funding for newcomer students. I think Oakland has the highest concentration of newcomer students among large districts in the state.

What investments should OUSD make to reverse these enrollment trends? 

I think we’re doing a good job of trying to pivot on that and investing more in the many wonderful things happening in our schools. There are amazing people working incredibly hard and creating really fantastic programs. I was just at the summer music program that’s run by Randy Porter and Zack Pitt-Smith and they have these amazing musicians from all over the Bay Area coming to work with young people. It’s just a hidden gem and nobody knows about this amazing program happening in the summer and I think they maintain those relationships during the year as well, like SF jazz and the Oakland Symphony. 

There’s really wonderful stuff happening in our schools. And people often don’t know that and we need to do a better job of advertising it and making people realize what opportunities there are. We have many issues in Oakland, but we also have tremendous resources just being in the Bay Area. And just amazing people who, like Oakland educators, are just fantastic. And so we need to lift that up more. 

I think we’re trying to up our social media game and we did a good job over the past few years, with Oakland In The Middle, and there’s a project to do that as well with elementary schools and high schools. So that there’s just more buzz about the wonderful things happening in our schools.

What’s the most effective way for community members who want to improve OUSD to get involved?

To volunteer at a local school and just to find out how to help. The Oakland Literacy Coalition does a great job of plugging people in. The Oakland Public Education Fund registers volunteers and can get them plugged in. I think it’s just going to the local school and asking them, you know, how can I help? There are, again, amazing volunteers that do some fantastic stuff. 

I was just talking to someone yesterday, a dad at a school, and he got the Parent Square notification that we need people for our committees, and he just applied. He seems like a great guy. And it’s like, Wow, you’re really jumping in there. We do need people on the committees.

Oakland Tech Student Walkout 18
Director Davis attends a student walkout at Oakland Technical High School in November protesting sexual harassment on campus. Credit: Amir Aziz

How can school board meetings and governance be improved?

It’s a real challenge. I think we as school board members need to think about how we talk about the district, how we treat each other. People are watching how we talk about our policies, how we treat each other. 

This is one of the perspectives of being on the board now and working with senior leaders and thinking, how are we going to attract, at some point in the future, a good pool of superintendents or highly qualified chief business officers? I mean, I want Lisa Grant-Dawson to stay as long as she can, but if at some point in the future we’re hiring a new general counsel or any of those positions, those people who are highly skilled will watch our board meetings and see how we talk about the district and how we treat each other. And that’s going to make them think about whether they want to come to Oakland. So I think it’s on each of us as board members to think about that and how we behave.

Which academic outcomes are most crucial for OUSD to focus on right now?

I think it’s right there in our strategic plan. It’s improving literacy by the third grade, it’s our graduation and A-G rates in high school. Those are the big ones. I think there’s a lot of underappreciated statistics in terms of chronic absences … all of these have been turned over by the pandemic. There’s many measures that are not available for the past two years and other ones that are completely skewed because of the impact of the pandemic. 

We have to look at chronic absence, we have to look at suspension rates. We have to look at all of the parameters in the Healthy Kids survey that tell us how people are feeling about their schools. But the primary ones are definitely A-G and literacy by third grade.

This is a question I pulled from the interview questions that you all asked to the District 6 applicants: What successes have you seen in OUSD that deserve more attention or investment?

I was heartened to hear so many of the applicants lift up the work in high schools for “College and Career for All.” They’re having a presentation from the ECCO internship program on July 14 at 5 o’clock and I’m just really excited to go and see the more than 600 students who’ve been involved, whether it’s internships or career technical education, college classes through Peralta, or summer programs like Cypress Mandela or other community based organizations. There’s amazing work happening on getting students excited and interested in their future career plans. 

Then there’s all of the work during the school year in the career pathway academies and dual enrollment classes. Measure N success has been really moving. And I’m very excited to be working on that.

Do you think it’s problematic for OUSD to be relying on a parcel tax to support that work?

It’s more than a parcel tax. It’s also the structure that comes along with it. Because those funds are not just lumped in with everything else in our budget; schools have to create a plan and bring that plan to the commission and present it, and then are held accountable to it. And that funding is dedicated to the items in that plan. 

So it’s not just funding, but it’s actually a structure for accountability and for planning. And that’s why I feel like the “college and career for all” work has been so effective compared to other initiatives in OUSD that may not have that level of transparency and accountability.

What advice would you share with someone who’s considering running for the school board for the first time?

I think that the most important thing is to have a network of people that you can really rely on to keep you connected to what’s happening on the ground at schools. Because that’s what motivates me to keep on going. It was really hard sometimes this spring, especially because the pandemic did isolate me to some degree from what was going on at schools. I just felt awkward as a school board member going and visiting a school when they were just dealing with everything that they had to do to handle the pandemic. 

When I get to go see what is actually happening in schools and talk to people on the ground and meet parents who recognize the challenges that we’re dealing with and understand the difficult decisions that we have to make, that keeps me grounded in the work. And I think that’s really important for anybody who’s going to be doing this. They have to be connected to folks at the schools that they’re trying to help.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Just recognizing that we’ve come through a really hard year. Oakland Unified, I think it goes from crisis to crisis. 

And this time, we weren’t the only ones going through the crisis. I talked to someone in San Francisco Unified and she said, “Oh, it’s so unfortunate that this was when you became a school board member because this is the hardest time in public education ever.” But I think in Oakland Unified we sometimes get numb to the crises because it’s one after another. 

But we just have to recognize that this was a year just unlike any other, and we made it through, and it’s going to take us a while to recover. And let’s hope that the pandemic stays kind of in this endemic phase and that we get to have some degree of normalcy next year, but we’re all still recovering from distance learning, from the mental health impacts of the pandemic, the academic impact, and I think we have to have some patience with each other and some grace for each other as we come through this.

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.