OUSD school board sitting behind the dais during a meeting
The OUSD school board at a meeting on Jan. 11, 2023. Credit: Carla Hernández Ramírez

Layoffs, fewer resources at schools, and reorganizing the central office are all options the Oakland Unified School District board is considering in an effort to make more investments elsewhere, like increased compensation for employees. 

During Wednesday’s school board meeting, district staff emphasized that while the district is not in financial crisis and is projected to have about a $14 million surplus in its 2023-2024 budget, it won’t be enough to cover all district expenses plus additional spending to support academics at school sites and staff retention.

“These two areas are going to require significant investments in the tens of millions,” said Troy Christmas, OUSD’s senior director of strategic projects. “We don’t have extra tens of millions laying around, so we’ll have to look within the tens of millions we have deployed elsewhere.”

District officials presented the report to give board members an understanding of OUSD’s financial situation: Enrollment is declining, attendance rates have not rebounded to their pre-pandemic numbers, and the gap between enrollment and attendance (which is how the district is funded) is growing. 

The reductions could come from eliminating or reducing the size of departments in OUSD’s central office that provide services to schools. Those could include the linked learning office, the office of equity, the Oakland Athletic League, health services, special education department, or others. The board could also decide to keep some of the central office positions intact using one-time funds, but that money could expire by 2024 or 2025. Other cost-saving options include eliminating unfilled positions, layoffs at school sites, and repurposing supplemental funds that OUSD receives for specific student groups. 

Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell noted that while OUSD is in a much better position today than it was when she became superintendent in 2017, there’s still a need to cut costs to move OUSD from just getting by, to thriving.

“We were trying to make sure that we were okay for the next six months, six years ago,” she said. “The question on the table that we have to start deliberating, and the board will need to take action on next week is, what fundamental adjustments to how we’re structured are we going to make so that we can invest deeply in quality?”

About 73% of OUSD’s $750 million budget goes to staffing, including salaries and benefits. In previous discussions, OUSD chief business officer Lisa Grant-Dawson has said that a 1% salary increase for all staff would be about a $4 million increase annually. A 3% raise would be about $13 million per year, and a 6% increase would be about $26 million per year. 

OUSD is currently negotiating a new contract with the Oakland Education Association, which represents nearly 3,000 teachers, substitutes, counselors, and nurses. The union has asked for a 23% increase, which it claims would put Oakland in line with median teacher salaries in Alameda County.

School board directors highlighted the need to increase enrollment and attendance rates to become more financially sustainable, especially in transitional kindergarten and kindergarten. About half of the 4 and 5-year-olds in Oakland end up in OUSD schools. 

“I think that’s where I would really want us to push for enrollment in whatever means we can do, to get those students into our classrooms,” said District 6 Director Valarie Bachelor. “That also needs to happen in 6th and 9th grade. That’s where we can really gain a lot.”

On Monday, District 1 Director Sam Davis will host a community town hall about the budget, and on Tuesday the board will convene for a special meeting to vote on budget adjustments. 

“You are the board that is the closest to achieving fiscal sustainability after 20-plus years,” Grant-Dawson said Wednesday. “I don’t think anyone wants to go back to what that was.”

How will the board fill the vacancy created by Nick Resnick’s resignation?

Wednesday’s meeting was the first since Nick Resnick, who was sworn in to represent District 4 in January, handed in his resignation. 

Resnick had been facing a legal challenge by District 5 Director Mike Hutchinson, who also ran for District 4 last year and was found to be the rightful winner after the county registrar discovered it had made an error in its original ranked-choice tabulation. The District 4 election is being contested in Alameda County Superior Court, and a trial date was set for March 16 to determine whether Resnick or Hutchinson is the winner. If a judge does rule in Hutchinson’s favor, he’ll move to District 4 and the board will need to fill the District 5 vacancy.

The board has 60 days to fill a vacancy, and can either appoint someone, as it did to replace former District 6 Director Shanthi Gonzales last year, or hold a special election. 

OUSD’s student directors and other student leaders urged the school board to consider student input when deciding how to move forward. 

“As students, we believe it’s important to have students represented in the process as we are affected most,” said Student Director Linh Le, who attends Oakland High School. “Students are directly affected by the decisions that will be made by whoever fills the empty seat on the school board.”

Student leaders have been pushing for the youth vote, which Oakland voters approved in 2020 to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in school board races. But theThe registrar didn’t implement the necessary changes in time for the 2022 election, disappointing many of the youth who’d have been working on the measure since 2019. 

Now that there’s a vacancy on the board, student leaders on Wednesday suggested it could be an opportunity for the school board and other allies to pressure the registrar to implement the youth vote, and expressed their support for a special election rather than a board appointment to fill the vacancy. 

“We do not believe that appointing someone allows for much community engagement or gives an opportunity to residents of that district to be more meaningfully involved,” said Student Director Natalie Gallegos Chavez, also a student at Oakland High School. 

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.