The OUSD school board at a meeting on Jan. 11, 2023. Credit: Carla Hernández Ramírez

The Oakland Unified School District board failed to approve any budget cuts at a meeting on Tuesday night, hindering its progress at a moment when the district is hoping to free itself of financial oversight by Alameda County and facing a March deadline to send layoff notices.

While some teachers and community members viewed Tuesday’s inaction as a win, some district leaders questioned how OUSD can improve if a majority of directors are unwilling to make budget cuts to invest in other areas, like teacher pay.

“Two of the main priorities that we’re really trying to fund going forward are academic progress and educator retention,” said Board President Mike Hutchinson, who was in favor of making cuts. “Unfortunately for our budget, it’s a zero-sum game. In order for us to create resources to prioritize new and different things, we have to create those resources by making budget adjustments.”

The budget-cut proposals put forward in a report by district staff for the 2023-2024 school year included layoffs of about 98 positions, including literacy tutors, library technicians, instructional aides, and restorative justice facilitators. The plan also calls for reducing school site funding, paying for some positions with one-time funds that will expire in the next year or two, eliminating vacant positions like paraeducators who work with students in special education, and merging at least 10 schools.

Teachers, school staff, and community members on Tuesday expressed their opposition to the proposed cuts as well as the school board’s process. While budget cuts have been a topic of discussion at board meetings since January, the detailed report voted on Tuesday wasn’t revealed to the public until Monday evening. The board was criticized in a similar fashion last year for making critical decisions about school closures over a short period of time without meaningful community engagement.

“We’re reverting to this austerity measure that is only going to impact our school sites more,” said teacher Vilma Serrano. “I can’t believe there isn’t another approach we can think about when we’re losing so many school site staff everyday. I’ve heard from my members across the district how people are leaving mid-year, mid-day, and this is all we can offer the staff that stays? More work?”

What’s next?

District staff or board members could still bring alternative budget proposals to a future meeting, but time is running short. Oakland Unified faces a March 15 deadline to send layoff notices, which must be approved by the board ahead of time. The next regular school board meeting is March 8. 

Board members supportive of the budget cuts made it clear that some action must be taken if the district wants to improve outcomes in OUSD and regain complete control of their finances from the county.

“I know some people were shocked to see school closures and mergers being brought up again. But it’s been an ongoing conversation because we have lost 3,000 students over the past five years,” said District 1 Director Sam Davis. “We are slow-walking our way back into fiscal receivership. We have a real shot at getting out of it.”

Some of the positions that were proposed to be eliminated, like the early literacy tutors, were funded by grants that have expired, said Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell. Those positions will either have to be eliminated or shifted to another funding source, she said.

“If you do not take that action, then the district has to find additional funds for those positions, in addition to any new investments,” said Johnson-Trammell. “Those types of decisions, over the years, is what gets the district into financial trouble.”

The board still has to finalize the 2023-2024 budget, which is also contingent on state funding. Each year, the state offers cost-of-living adjustments that typically increase the base funding that school districts receive. The May revision of the governor’s budget could see a lower cost-of-living increase than what was anticipated when Gov. Gavin Newsom’s initial budget outlook was released in January. The change could result in nearly $10 million fewer projected dollars for OUSD, further complicating the board’s financial decisions, said the district’s chief business officer, Lisa Grant-Dawson.  

The school board is at a pivotal moment in trying to shed increased oversight from Alameda County over its finances. Until OUSD pays off its state loan and passes a financial audit, a county trustee has veto power over any budget decisions the board makes. Last year’s controversial school closure plan was viewed as a step in the right direction by county officials, and last month’s decision to not move forward with the plan brought scrutiny from Alameda County Superintendent Alysse Castro and trustee Luz Cazares

“Although we’ve really improved our financial outlook, it doesn’t mean we have the flexibility to do whatever we want whenever we want. We as a board are dedicated to not being in this same situation next year,” Hutchinson said. “This is not going to be an easy process. There’s a lot of pressures on us as a district. Not only do we need to improve the services that we provide, but we’re still under fiscal oversight from both the trustee and the county.”

New school board dynamics taking shape

Tuesday’s vote on the budget cuts was surprising in that it put directors who in the past have been politically aligned, especially on the issue of school mergers and closures, on opposite sides. 

The budget plan received support from Hutchinson and District 7 Director Clifford Thompson, while District 1 Director Jennifer Brouhard, District 3 Director VanCedric Williams, and Director Valarie Bachelor voted against the plan, and Davis abstained. The layoffs, which had a separate vote, were supported by Hutchinson, Davis, and Thompson, and opposed by Brouhard, Williams, and Bachelor.

Brouhard, who began her term in January, maintained that she was voting in accordance with the platform that got her elected in November: stopping school closures and ensuring more budget transparency. A retired teacher, Brouhard admitted that she had intended to suggest amendments to the plan, but instead voted against the proposal altogether.

“I’ve been in leadership in OEA where negotiations have come up and the teachers’ salaries have been pitted against everybody else. That never sits well with any teacher,” she said. “I just can’t be a part of these cuts.”

Hutchinson, who has long campaigned against school closures and as a community member often criticized previous school boards for hasty budget decisions and a lack of community engagement, expressed his disappointment with Brouhard’s decision and the divisions on the board. 

“What we’re being asked to do today shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. There’s certain consequences to everything we decide to do,” he said. “I’m really disappointed that this is how this has broken down now.”

The school board currently has a vacant seat, after former Director Nick Resnick resigned last week in the wake of an election scandal that erroneously declared him the winner. Six remaining board members could mean more tied votes, which could lead to more gridlock. The board has until April 22 to appoint a new member or call a special election. 

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.