Citing inflation and rising construction costs, the Oakland Unified School District board authorized a $65 million increase in spending on Wednesday for several improvement projects funded by Measure Y, a facilities bond that Oakland voters approved in 2020.
While the total bond amount of $735 million won’t change, the higher price tag for some projects means that others planned under Measure Y may not get all the improvements they were promised. District officials pointed to ballooning prices for labor and materials for causing the costs to rise beyond what they anticipated.
“Construction costs have gone up 28% in the last two years due to the pandemic, wars, and supply-chain issues,” said Kenya Chatman, the district’s executive director of facilities, during Wednesday night’s school board meeting. “We usually have a 3% escalation, but we are now projecting 8 to 10% per year in construction escalation.”
Projects at McClymonds High School, Coliseum College Prep Academy (CCPA), and Roosevelt Middle School will receive additional funding from Measure Y to cover their rising costs. To make that possible, OUSD will reduce the scope of improvements that were planned at Melrose Leadership Academy, and take money out of Measure Y’s district-wide initiatives and contingency funds.
Voter-approved bonds are the primary way that school districts can raise money for facilities improvements. An OUSD report published in 2020 identified $3.4 billion in needed upgrades across 108 school sites and other district-owned properties. The average age of an OUSD facility is 75 years. The biggest needs include site modernizations, upgrades to electrical and plumbing systems, classrooms, science labs, and cafeterias, and seismic renovations. Other issues, like run-down sports fields, energy inefficiency, and poor accessibility also need attention.
“Like a lot of urban districts, we have aging schools and there’s not sufficient funding anywhere from the state to really address urban schools and the needs they have for their facilities,” said OUSD board member Sam Davis, who chairs the district’s facilities committee.
The recommendation to reallocate Measure Y dollars came after months of discussion by the facilities committee (composed of directors Davis, Clifford Thompson, and Valarie Bachelor) and OUSD’s citizens’ bond oversight committee. They decided to prioritize McClymonds, Roosevelt, and CCPA because those schools had been promised dollars from previous bond measures for projects that were later de-funded, and are located in areas with the highest socio-economic need.
McClymonds is the only comprehensive high school serving West Oakland, and the school and alumni community have been advocating for years for the district to invest more there. After Wednesday’s school board decision, the total amount of Measure Y funding for McClymonds will increase from $65 million to over $91 million.
McClymonds has struggled with low enrollment for years, and many are hopeful that the improvements will revitalize the campus and attract more stsudents. Members of the school community had urged the district to give McClymonds the same amount that was allocated to Fremon High—about $133 million—from Measure J, a 2012 bond measure. Fremont used the money on a new academic building, science labs, and upgrades to its athletic fields and gym.
McClymonds has also dealt with environmental concerns like lead in the water and carcinogens in the soil, which will be mitigated with Measure Y funding.
District 3 Director VanCedric Williams, who represents McClymonds, told the board on Wednesday that the increased Measure Y funding won’t solve all of the school’s needs, and that he expects to introduce measures to fund additional projects there in the future.
“Let’s not get it twisted: This is only an increase to cover costs, it’s not an actual increase to the budget of McClymonds,” said Williams.
OUSD has a rocky history managing bonds
OUSD has been criticized in the past for mismanaging bond funds. A 2019 report by an Alameda County grand jury found that poor leadership and planning led to out-of-control spending on the district’s bond programs.
“Constantly changing priorities left the district without a facilities master plan, contributing to a district full of under-enrolled schools,” the grand jury wrote. “Poor financial stewardship of the district’s nearly billion-dollar bond program coupled with unnecessarily costly policies that do not directly benefit students have left OUSD with little to show in the way of completed school projects.”
Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell, who has led the district since 2017 when it was near financial insolvency, urged the board to remain fiscally prudent so that OUSD can maintain good credit and continue to use bonds in the future to support facilities upgrades. When she was first appointed superintendent, she said, the district’s bond rating had dropped and, as a result, OUSD was at risk of not being able to sell the bonds required to finish construction at Fremont.
“I had to personally go down with my chief of staff and talk to the bond investors directly and convince them to invest in the district because they were so disheartened about our financial status,” she said. “The work is going to need to happen to go after the next bond to get to [the work needed at Melrose Leadership Academy] and all the others. But in order to do that, we have to keep our bond rating high, and in order to do that, we need to stay solvent.”
She attributed some of the dysfunction with past bonds to turnover in the superintendent’s office and on the school board. New people would come into office with an idea for a facilities project and redirect bond funds, she said.
McClymonds was among the campuses earmarked for improvements through Measures B (2006) and J (2012), only to have many of those projects postponed.
“McClymonds is the only high school in West Oakland, and you have to have at least one high school in every region of the city,” she said. “It was very important to myself and a lot of people [to prioritize McClymonds] here because it has been passed over. But we’ve got to keep commitments, even with transition in leadership. It starts to not only erode trust, but keeps us from being able to make progress.”
Coliseum College Prep Academy, a 6-12th grade school on OUSD’s Havenscourt campus, will see its Measure Y funding increase from $35.5 million to $55 million to support a campus expansion and increased enrollment. Upgrades will also address environmental concerns, heating and ventilation improvements, ceiling and roof replacements, and other modernizations.
Roosevelt Middle School’s Measure Y funding will also increase $20 million, to roughly $90.5 million to support seismic and building improvements.
While the changes were unanimously supported by the board, some directors and community members expressed concerns about not being able to fulfill promises to other schools.
Melrose Leadership Academy (MLA), a dual language school serving transitional kindergarten to eighth grade across two campuses, will see $13 million less, lowering its Measure Y total from $49.5 to $36.5 million. The original scope of improvements at MLA included upgrades at both the Maxwell Park and Sherman campuses, but the new project scope will only address issues at the Maxwell Park site. The school board also unanimously voted to prioritize MLA in a future bond measure.
Some MLA parents, who had joined the Measure Y project committee at their school to give input on how to direct the funds, said they were not informed about the reduction.
“I was one participant in six different monthly meetings with staff from the facilities department and architects to review decisions and provide input … meanwhile, district staff were preparing the cut before you today and it’s created a lot of cynicism and distrust amongst the Melrose Leadership Academy parent community,” said David Foecke, an MLA parent. “So I truly hope that as this process moves forward, we can have a truly consultative process that takes our opinion into account, that is more transparent and accountable than what just happened.”