Oakland Unified school board members sitting behind the dais during a board meeting.
OUSD Board President Mike Hutchinson talks to the community during the meeting held on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. Credit: Carla Hernández Ramírez

The Oakland Unified School District board received a bit of good news on Wednesday as it prepares for what is shaping up to be a brutal budget season, with directors needing to trim millions while also hoping to raise staff salaries and move the district out from under state receivership.

A district financial audit, conducted by the firm Eide Bailly LLP, revealed that OUSD is making progress towards becoming more financially responsible, according to a presentation to the board on Wednesday. The audit examined the district’s internal financial controls and procedures for the fiscal year that ended in June 2022. While the report showed fewer errors than previous audits, there is still room for the district to improve on things like tracking staff vacation accruals, accurately recording student attendance and absences, and internal communication between departments like payroll and human resources. 

The progress is an important step for the board, which is hoping to move the district out of financial receivership this year. To do so, it must pass a financial audit and pay off the remainder of $100 million in state loans it received while under a state administrator from 2003 to 2009. Until then, a trustee from the Alameda County Office of Education will continue to oversee the school board’s budget decisions. The board is hoping to pay off the loan this year, three years ahead of schedule.

District 1 Director Sam Davis pledged to introduce a resolution directing district staff to prepare for the audit that could bring OUSD one step closer to financial independence.

“I think it’s a real opportunity for us now to become fully independent, to get full control over our own finances as a district and what that would mean for us as a community, for Oakland, for our schools, and for our independence,” said Davis.

Last month, after the board voted to keep six schools open—reversing a decision the board made a year ago to close schools as a cost-saving measure—county trustee Luz Cazares and Alameda County Superintendent Alysse Castro expressed concerns about how the district would afford it, especially since the board made its decision before receiving a report on the budget impacts of keeping those schools open. 

Over the next few months, the board will begin talks about the 2023-2024 school-year budget, which must include $110 million in reductions to account for expiring COVID-relief money. The board will also need to account for an estimated $5 million in staffing costs required to keep six schools open, and more expenses for those facilities—expenses that were previously expected to come off the books.

At the same time, board directors have expressed a desire to raise salaries for teachers and other school-site staff across the district. Contract negotiations between the district and the Oakland Education Association teachers union have been ongoing since November. The previous contract between OUSD and OEA, which was ratified following the weeklong teachers’ strike in 2019, expired in October 2022.

More than 100 members of the Oakland Education Association teachers union held a rally outside of Wednesday’s school board meeting calling on directors to uphold their commitments to invest in district schools.

“We want every student in a community school that is safe, stable, and racially just. We want a voice in decisions made in our community schools,” said Keith Brown, the president of OEA. “We want OUSD to follow through on its commitment to Black students. We want to be proud of this district where we work, and where we send our own children to school.” 

The union is proposing a nearly 23% salary increase for its members, which union leaders said would bring their pay in line with median teacher salaries in Alameda County. In 2019, the district and union settled for an 11% salary increase. 

On Wednesday the board also held a discussion about legislative priorities for the district—identifying what policies district leaders and lobbyists will advocate for in Sacramento that will be beneficial to OUSD. Board directors called attention to security needs on school campuses, more funding for facilities improvements, and changing the state’s funding formula to reward enrollment as opposed to attendance, since school attendance has dipped overall during the pandemic. 

Another big area of focus for the board is establishing a stronger teacher pipeline, and directors discussed how the state could support that through more affordable teacher credentialing programs, ensuring housing affordability in Oakland, and creating more flexibility for current employees to get teaching credentials. 

District staff will take the board’s ideas and create a policy platform to present to the board in March, when it will be voted on. 

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.