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State Takeover In Oakland A Cautionary Tale For San Diego School Board

Aired 12/13/11 on KPBS News.

San Diego's Board of Education is considering dramatic budget plans to avoid the kind of state takeover that happened in Oakland in 2003.

— San Diego city school leaders could commit Tuesday to more than 800 layoffs next year to maintain financial solvency. Last week members saw the first draft of plans to accommodate possible mid-year state funding cuts and balance the district’s 2012-13 budget. It included about 55 layoffs in January and hundreds more over the summer.

The mid-year layoffs would affect non-teaching staff, like custodians.

“The recommendation before you to eliminate custodial crew leaders at certain sites was not made by custodians, the recommendation was not made by custodial operations," said Lance Wren, a leader of the local chapter of the California School Employees Association, the custodians' union. "I don’t know who made the recommendation – but eliminating crew leader positions is an unsound plan, that will result in more problems.”

And here’s the thing: after Wren’s comments, Board President Richard Barerra gave the staff drawing up the final mid-year cut plans some direction.

“I would encourage, before you come to us with the recommended list next week that there is some conversation with the people who would be affected operationally,” he said.

Earlier that evening Barrera and other trustees said they were going to do what it takes to keep the district in the black. If they don’t balance the budget – they lose their say in how the budget gets balanced and the chance to do things like direct the staff to take Wren’s comments into consideration.

And that’s exactly what happened to Oakland Unified School District nine years ago.

“One day the superintendent called us in and informed us we had a serious financial deficit and that we needed to either try to borrow the money from the state or try to make $65 million worth of cuts in several days, several weeks,” said Noel Gallo, a member of Oakland’s board of education then and its president now.

The board didn’t make those cuts and the district ended up getting a $100 million emergency loan from the state to balance its books. When the state bails out a district that way the superintendent is fired and the board loses control. They become a group of advisers to a state administrator. Oakland’s state administrators did things like close schools, layoff employees and block salary increases.

The district's first state-appointed administrator was Randy Ward, who is now San Diego County's superintendent of education. Ward was the one that closed schools, he also promoted what had been a community-led effort to create new, smaller schools across the district.

“He made the decision to really embrace that program and really put it on steroids in a way," said Heny Hitz, who heads Oakland Parents Together. "The schools that were successful were those that were really developed from the bottom up.”

The takeover coincided with the ramping up of No Child Left Behind and under state control the district continued to use a scripted reading curriculum called OpenCourt.

“So what we saw in the classroom," said Betty Olsen Jones, who was a classroom teacher when takeover started and is now the teachers' union president, "was that we were expected to follow pacing guides and follow OpenCourt to the letter - you'd be on the same page as the classroom next to you. But it really got down to your test scores.”

During the state takeover student test scores did rise somewhat, but they had been increasing before insolvency hit, too. What seems to matter more than the specifics of any state-made decisions to Hitz and Olsen Jones is that those decisions were made without input from the people they impacted. There was no opportunity to push back.

When the board of education regained control in 2009, the financial problems that brought in state administrators in the first place weren’t solved. According to Gallo, another legacy of the state’s control is additional financial burdens.

“Now we owe the state about $80 million," he said, "and we’re making an annual payment to the state for $6 million. And so what that means is that we’ll have a part-time trustee until we’re able to pay back the loan and the state controller’s office will do our audits.”

The district pays a salary to that part time trustee and about $400,000 a year for those audits. The district’s enrollment has declined from about 48,000 at the beginning of state control to just over 38,000 now – fewer students means fewer state dollars coming in to cover those costs.

So, the board is making cuts. In October they voted to close five schools.

"The community was quite upset and still is about this closing of the five schools," Hitz said. "I think there might have been a different way to go about it. I had been talking with people in the administration – and it’s a big difference now that I can actually do that, in terms of - look, why don’t you just go to the school and say we have a problem your enrollment is such and such, how can we solve this problem together?”

It’s that opportunity to debate the best solutions to the tough problems schools face that San Diego school leaders say they’ll do everything they can to preserve.

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