With three of its seven seats up for election in November, the Oakland Unified School District board will have a new makeup—and possibly new priorities—when it convenes in January. Two incumbents, District 2 Director Aimee Eng and District 4 Director Gary Yee, are stepping down. In District 6, interim Director Kyra Mungia, who was appointed three months ago to serve out the remainder of Shanthi Gonzales’ term, will be competing against two other candidates for that seat.
Four new directors were elected in 2020, which means all the school board members will be fairly new to their roles when the next term begins. And they’ll be taking their seats at a precarious moment: Over the past few years, the board has made major decisions on the district budget, school closures, enrollment, and charter schools in an attempt to stabilize the district, which has faced years of financial hardships, declining enrollment, and instability caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The district is now charged with catching students up, while also dealing with staffing shortages that have plagued school districts across the state and country.
With so much at stake this November, we decided to preview some of the big issues that new and current board members will have to address over the next few years.
Stabilizing the OUSD budget
One of the main charges of the OUSD board is to pass a budget each year and make adjustments during the school year if cuts are needed. Last year, the board made about $40 million in cuts midway through the year, resulting in layoffs and the elimination of unfilled positions across the district.
OUSD has struggled with its budget for years and has been under county and state oversight since 2003 when OUSD received a $100 million loan and was placed under the watch of a state administrator.
While the loan continues to be paid off, a trustee from the Alameda County Office of Education, Luz Cázares, has veto power over the board’s financial decisions. Last year, Alameda County Superintendent L.K. Monroe issued the district a “lack of going concern” notice over possible budget shortfalls, and warned that she might even withhold compensation for district Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell and board members if they did not comply with her requests.
But under the leadership of chief business officer Lisa Grant-Dawson, who was hired in 2020, OUSD was able to shed its lack of going concern status, and is currently on track to pay off its loan within the next year. The district still needs to pass a financial audit to be completely free of the extra oversight.
At the same time, OUSD has received tens of millions in additional funding from COVID-relief bills, which the district has put towards safety precautions, technology, tutors, summer learning, mental health supports, and more. The latest state budget will also flood the district’s coffers with millions more in Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) dollars this year, along with grants to expand the district’s community schools, which school board directors will have a say in how to spend.
“We’re in an incredibly bizarre moment right now in public education: Schools, for the most part, have more money than they have ability to spend it,” said Alysse Castro, the incoming Alameda County Superintendent, who will take office in January. “We have enormous staffing bottlenecks, so even if you have money to pay people, there aren’t always people available to hire.”
Castro, who will oversee all of the county’s school districts, added that her office will help districts identify the most effective ways to invest their new funding and examine areas where more money hasn’t led to better outcomes.
One of the budget-balancing options that Monroe laid out in her letter to the board in December was consolidating schools. Three months later, in February, the board approved a plan to close, shrink, or merge 11 schools over the next two years. That decision sparked a massive backlash from community members who opposed the closures.
The closures have been a topic of public comment at every meeting since then, and the board has taken two more votes to affirm their decision. District 5 Director Mike Hutchinson, one of two vocal opponents of school closures on the current board (along with D7 Director VanCedric Williams), views the upcoming school board elections as the best opportunity for the district to reconsider school closures.
“We can change the closure list to a school redesign list. The only way we can do that is by changing the school board,” Hutchinson said at an August school board meeting. Hutchinson is currently running for re-election in District 4, since the redistricting process placed his address in a new district this year.
At the end of the 2021-2022 school year, Community Day School and Parker K-8 closed, RISE Community School and New Highland Academy were merged, and La Escuelita, which served transitional kindergarten to eighth grades, became an elementary school. At the end of this school year, five more schools are scheduled to close: Brookfield Elementary, Carl B. Munck Elementary, Grass Valley Elementary, Horace Mann Elementary, and Korematsu Discovery Academy. Hillcrest, a K-8 school, will lose its middle school.
The board must also consider what to do with the closed school buildings. Kaiser Elementary, which closed in 2019, is now an early childhood center. Last year, the board voted to turn two former school sites into affordable housing for district employees.
Enrollment and school choice
Closing schools could also lead to adjusting the attendance boundaries—the zones that dictate a student’s default neighborhood school—for those that remain open. Currently, the district has an open enrollment system, which means it does not restrict students from attending schools outside of the zone where they live, but it does give enrollment priority to students living in a school’s surrounding neighborhood. Some schools in Oakland deemed more desirable have lengthy waitlists.
Researchers who examined OUSD’s open enrollment system found that it can be more difficult to navigate for low-income families of color in Oakland, who may not have access to the same information about schools as other families, or who may value qualities that are harder to quantify, like diversity and community, in addition to test scores or graduation rates.
Last year, the district’s equitable enrollment committee presented the board with a few strategies to diversify OUSD schools, many of which are stratified by race and income. The board then approved three equitable enrollment pilots, which will give priority to low-income students of color who want to enroll at three schools: Chabot Elementary, Sequoia Elementary, and Edna Brewer Middle School.
Like school districts across the state, Oakland Unified is facing declining enrollment, which could exacerbate budget troubles since OUSD funding is based largely on attendance rates. Last year, the OUSD board approved an enrollment stabilization policy, which directs more funds for marketing and other strategies to increase enrollment in district schools. OUSD has also hired an executive director of enrollment, who will oversee strategies to grow the district’s numbers.
Charter schools have been a point of contention in OUSD for two decades. As the number of charter schools in Oakland has grown, the number of students attending district schools has shrunk, leading to less funding for OUSD. But charger growth has tapered off of late: Oakland currently has 39 charter schools, down from 45 in 2020, that enroll around 16,000 students—roughly a third of the total public K-12 population in Oakland.
While charter schools are managed by their own appointed boards, the OUSD board is responsible for evaluating charter school petitions and changes. Over the past two years, just one charter petition has come to the board for approval, which the board denied. Last year, OUSD denied a petition from Aspire ERES Academy to increase its enrollment. School leaders had been hoping to expand and move into a new building since it had outgrown its Fruitvale location. After the school board’s denial, leaders at Aspire Eres felt they were unable to continue at the current campus and closed the campus at the end of the 2020-2021 school year.
The enrollment stabilization policy that the board approved last year also directed district staff to remove charter schools from OUSD enrollment systems, district maps, and other marketing materials. Then-school board Director Shanthi Gonzales, who introduced the resolution, felt that the district shouldn’t be advertising schools that compete with the district for students.