Part 4: OUSD & FCMAT – Mixed Grades, Mixed Feelings

This is the last of our mini blog series on the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team’s (FCMAT) Fiscal Health Risk Analysis of OUSD, issued in August. So far, we have provided context, summarized seven areas in OUSD “passed” and 8 areas that OUSD “failed.” This blog is about the 4 areas in which FCMAT gave OUSD a “Mixed” grade.

Before we wrap up this series about OUSD’s FCMAT report, we want to acknowledge the pain, frustration, anger and worry that so many people feel in the current situation – and expressed at last night’s board meeting.  All of us who live, work, and raise our families here in Oakland, want our children – all children, no matters their zip code, race, income, immigration status, or country of origin – to have a great public education. And that takes adequate, stable, and wisely-used resources.

Using resources well requires robust and reliable financial systems. Below are four areas in which OUSD has some work to do but that OUSD also has some strengths:

  • Enrollment and Attendance: This area covers how the district forecasts and manages student enrollment, whether it staffs appropriately for the number of students, and how it tracks and boosts student attendance. Average Daily Attendance (ADA) is the basis by which California distributes per pupil revenue, so this is critical. Of the 10 questions, OUSD received a “Yes” (positive) on 6 questions and “No” (negative) on 4 questions, although we saw two important inconsistencies between these answers and the text. The first inconsistency is related to the enrollment trend. FCMAT reports “the district has lost 55 students from 2013-14 to 2016-17” and shows a chart that shows minor enrollment fluctuations around 37,000 students over the past 4 years.[1] But the report also answers “No” to the question “Has the district’s enrollment been increasing or stable?” This fuels the misperception that OUSD enrollment has declined over the past several years, which then could divert attention from the poor decision-making and weak financial systems that produced the current situation. The second inconsistency in the report is related to enrollment tracking. The report describes “cell formula irregularities” in Excel spreadsheets used to project enrollment that “once realized, did not cause management to reduce staffing accordingly.” This seems like a series of serious missteps, but FCMAT didn’t seem to take data quality into account in its answers to questions about enrollment projections and analysis.
  • Cash Monitoring: This section covers how the district manages its cash flow. It’s not enough to have a fund balance on paper; the district also needs cash in the bank to pay bills on time. During the recession, this was hard because the state provided IOUs instead of cash, but the state is now paying districts on time – and yet OUSD “is experiencing cash flow shortages requiring temporary borrowing.” Some of the borrowing is internal, between funds. OUSD has also “borrowed from the county treasurer to meet cash flow needs for general fund operations.” But at least, the district repays inter-fund borrowing as required, and balances its checkbook every month.
  • General Fund: This section looks at whether the district matches the duration of revenue sources with the duration of expenses. Unfortunately, OUSD regularly uses one-time or time-limited funds for ongoing salaries and doesn’t reduce expenses even when revenues might not be available to cover them. The overall rating is mixed because, on the plus side, the percentage of the district’s unrestricted general fund spending on salaries is at or below the statewide average, and no material changes in litigation are anticipated.
  • General Ledger: This section covers some standard accounting practices, like recording financial activity accurately and in a timely manner. Fortunately, FCMAT says the district is heeding these (i.e. “Yes” answers to 4 of 6 questions). OUSD receives a mixed overall rating because the district recorded its beginning balances incorrectly and failed to make some accounting adjustments to reflect actuals inflows and outflows.

Phew. That’s it on the specifics of this important FCMAT report: the good, the bad and the mixed up. To summarize: budget cuts alone will NOT keep us from ending up back here again. To restore fiscal vitality, OUSD must make significant changes to its fiscal management, governance practices, managerial practices, and culture.

So Now What

For those of you who are wondering: “What can I do?” here are a few ideas:

Keep paying attention. Our public school system needs taxpayers and voters to get informed, stay engaged and become active. Don’t blindly concur with simple slogans. The situation is complex and the solutions require real tradeoffs and more critical thinking than a catchy chant can capture. Read more, visit OUSD’s fiscal transparency website, and track OUSD Board discussions and decisions.

Contribute to the Oakland Public Education Fund’s A-Z Fund. Some schools have PTAs that can raise enough money to make up for the cuts; others don’t. This Fund will steer donations towards schools that are serving students with the greatest needs.

Volunteer your time. Many schools still need tutors and classroom assistants. Mid-year budget cuts also mean fewer enrichment programs and fewer field trips. Make up for that gap by finding ways to share your passion – whether its watercolor painting or Afro-Cuban drumming or culinary science – with students. And if you have professional experience working in finance, personnel, or technology, your expertise would be valuable to OUSD’s Board and leaders. (Does OUSD need a Finance Advisory Council?)

A few final thoughts:

We need to get back to focusing on improving educational outcomes for student in our classrooms.  Righting the ship financially is important, but it is the means not the end. Too many Oakland schools are not adequately educating our children, and numerous improvements can still be made on a shoestring budget.

Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell is a leader we all need to support. She inherited this mess, and is taking on the challenge with courage, poise, intelligence, and care – exactly what we would expect from an alumna of Oakland public education.

Oaklanders are tough fighters, creative entrepreneurs, and compassionate citizens. We can use these assets to be part of the solution – and we will all need to work together to support our students through this adversity.

[1] OUSD’s 20 Day Count report showed that enrollment is 302 students higher than the 20 Day Count last school year.

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Part 3: OUSD and the FCMAT Report – The 8 Areas of Concern

Welcome to the third in our mini blog series on the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team’s (FCMAT) Fiscal Health Risk Analysis of OUSD, issued in August. We provided historical background, and then yesterday looked at the seven areas in which FCMAT gave OUSD a passing grade.

Today, we cover the 8 areas that FCMAT identified as areas of concern. This should shed some light on the underlying causes of yesterday’s payroll blunder as well as why we are facing a budget crisis again:

1. Deficit Spending: Although it should be obvious, this is the core of OUSD’s financial problem: OUSD spends more than it brings in, has done so for years, and does not seem to have a plan to stop deficit spending. It’s time to break this bad habit. The proposed $15 million mid-year cut, while painful, would demonstrate the start of some needed fiscal discipline.

2. Fund Balance: The District’s fund balance is the accumulation of extra funds that don’t get spent each year. The most scrutinized fund balance is in the unrestricted General Fund, which is the main operating fund, is the most flexible, and is the one with a state-required minimum. Well-managed districts have healthy fund balance – when revenues are up, they save for a rainy day. OUSD’s fund balance is now less than the state-required minimum. Also, OUSD doesn’t seem able to accurately forecast whether it can restore that fund balance. The FCMAT report narrates the events during the 2016-2017 school year, during which the projected fund balance steadily dropped as new financial information came in.

3. Reserve for Economic Uncertainty: By the end of 2016-2017, OUSD’s fund balance was less than the legally-required 2% (i.e. $11.3M). And to make matters worse, OUSD lacks a plan to restore the reserve in subsequent years. No wonder the state is concerned.

4. Bargaining Agreements: Over 90% of the District’s employees are represented by one of 7 different bargaining units. The collective bargaining agreements are negotiated every few years between the district and each unit, and dictate employee wages, hours, duties, and working conditions. FCMAT answered Yes to 5 of 7 questions in this section, indicating district compliance with the required bargaining process. However, FCMAT gave the district an overall “No,” indicating this is an area of concern, because all had received wage increases greater than the Cost-of-Living-Adjustment (10-15% over the last two years) and the district didn’t have a financial plan to sustain these compensation increases. Five of seven bargaining agreements have expired.

5. Encroachment: This is the term used when some programs are not able to cover their expenditures with their designated revenue sources and thus “encroach” on the General Fund. (The gentler term is a “contribution.”) OUSD’s programs for students with special needs has required the biggest subsidy, which is typical for most urban districts, although OUSD’s encroachment on special education is 18% higher than other districts. In addition, the Cafeteria and Child Development programs both required roughly $2 million contributions from the General Fund in 2016-2017.

6. Position Control & Human Resources: The vast majority of any school district’s expenditures are employee salaries and benefits. Therefore, good financial management includes “checks and balances” on all staffing decisions. Unfortunately, FCMAT answered “No” to 6 of 7 questions in this section. Based on FCMAT’s analysis, the district does not control unauthorized hiring, is not able to control over-staffing, and lacks the internal controls to prevent fraudulent activity. Given these findings, it’s a relief that we don’t see massive payroll errors more often.

7. Budget Monitoring & Updates: This section covers the activities that a district should do to monitor and stick to its budget. OUSD does 8 of 13 of these things but still receives an overall “No” from FCMAT. This section of the report helpfully describes each breakdown in OUSD’s financial “system” and concludes with the by-now-obvious statement “The district should address issues identified throughout this report that have a major impact on its budget.”

8. Leadership/Stability: This section receives “No” answers to all four questions. OUSD had high superintendent turnover for decades: 24 superintendents in the last 50 years. This report makes clear the financial impact of that leadership instability, scolds district and site administrators for not adhering to policies, regulations, and chides the Board for not following standards established by the California School Board Association (CSBA) for good governance.

In FCMAT’s own words:

“Based on the information in this report, the district has lost control of its spending, allowing school sites and departments to ignore and override board policies by spending beyond their budgets. In many cases, board policies are knowingly ignored and/or circumvented without consequences.”

Tomorrow we will close out this part of our #OUSDBudget series with a look at the four areas that FCMAT characterized as “mixed.”

Part 2: OUSD and the FCMAT Report – The “Good” News

Yesterday, as part of our #OUSDBudget series, we provided some background on the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team’s Fiscal Health Risk Analysis of OUSD, issued in August. Today, we delve into the seven of twenty areas where FCMAT said OUSD was not doing too bad.

According to FCMAT, OUSD earned a positive rating in three of twenty areas, based on “yes” answers to all the questions in each topic area:

  • Debt: Surprisingly, OUSD scores well on this, despite still owing the state $40 million from the last time the district was bailed out. FCMAT’s rating is based on OUSD not having lots of non-voter-approved debt, having sources of funds identified to pay off the debt it does have, and accounting for pension liabilities correctly.
  • Multiyear Projections: OUSD received a favorable response on all five questions in this category, which are focused on the process for creating multi-year projections. Unfortunately, FCMAT didn’t ask about the historical variances between OUSD’s projections and their actual expenditures.
  • Charter Schools: FCMAT reports that OUSD’s Charter Schools Office is doing its job well, monitoring the financial condition of each charter school authorized by OUSD. (In Oakland, all the charters – and their budgets – are under the oversight of OUSD but independently managed by not-for-profit 501c3 governing boards, which is why charter budgets are not affected by OUSD’s cuts.)

In four areas, OUSD passed overall even though it failed on some specific questions in that category and some of FCMAT’s answers left us scratching our heads.

  • Management Information Systems: Overall, the District passed this category based on “Yes” answers to four of seven questions – although we disagree with the “Yes” answers to the questions “Are the district’s financial data accurate and timely?” and “Are key fiscal reports accessible, timely, and understandable?” If these were actually true, we shouldn’t be in the situation we’re in.
  • Budget Development & Adoption: Similarly, OUSD scored an overall positive in this category based on “Yes” answers to 8 of 10 questions – but some of those answers were contradicted in another part of the report. For example, FCMAT notes that the biggest dollar problem in the 16-17 budget was “the result of over-projecting ADA“ but then answers “Yes” to the question “Are projections for ADA, enrollment, revenue, and unduplicated pupil count accurate and reasonable?” Similarly, the report it points out that the District does not have a functional position control system for hiring, even while answering “Yes” to the question “Does the district use position control data for budget development?”
  • Internal Controls & Annual Independent Audit Report: FCMAT gives OUSD an overall Yes on this section despite concluding that the district does not implement appropriate measures to discourage and detect fraud, has not received an audit without a material finding, and “many employees report a lack of consistency and continuity with district policy and procedures,” such as “spending beyond site/department budgets.”
  • Facilities: Overall FCMAT rates the district positively on this topic, based on 8 of 10 “Yes” answers, despite noting they weren’t provided with the legally required audits of the bond measures and that the district “may be out of compliance in this area.”

So, that’s the “good” news – the seven areas in which FCMAT gave OUSD’s fiscal health a passing grade. Yet even in these areas, however, there is clearly a lot of work still to be done. We’ll be looking for the proposed Action Plan to include strengthening financial information systems and reporting, increasing accuracy in budget development and ensuring employees stick to established policies and procedures. Tomorrow, we will review the eight sections that raised concern.

OUSD and FCMAT: Preparing for the Dec. 13 Report

Next Wednesday, on December 13, OUSD’s Board is expected to vote on extremely painful midyear budget cuts. In the midst of that pain, and in response to a recent report by the state’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT), the staff is supposed to present an “action plan'” to strengthen the district’s fiscal management.

If we ever want to end the cycle of budget crises, this FCMAT action plan and, more importantly, its actual implementation, are critical. 

Continuing our #OUSDBudget series, we’ll be posting a few blogs this week on FCMAT’s findings on OUSD’s fiscal management to provide context, share a glimmer of good news, lay out the bad news, and consider implications for the future of Oakland public education. Each one will be a relatively 1-2 page quick read versus the 40-page report.

Our goal with this is for the educational leadership of Oakland across all sectors to share a common understanding of the problems so that we can be the generation that breaks the decades-long cycle of budget crises.

Who or what is FCMAT?

The Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT, pronounced “Fick-Matt”) is a non-profit organization created by state law (AB 1200) in 1991 to help local education agencies manage their finances.

OUSD and FCMAT have had a decades-long, on-again, off-again relationship. FCMAT first looked at OUSD’s finances in 1999. During State Receivership in 2003-2008, they were brought in regularly; this 350 page report from 2007 reveals just how deep some of OUSD’s fiscal problems go. In a subsequent 2008 report, as part of its analysis to justify returning the district fully to local control, FCMAT gave OUSD as score of on 6.23 out of 10 rating on Fiscal Management – a solid D-minus (but it was a huge increase from up from 0.73 in 2003!).

The Most Recent FCMAT Report

The OUSD Board requested FCMAT’s help again earlier this year in April 2017 (coincidentally, the same month back in 1999 – 18 years ago – when the Board first voted to request FCMAT support). At the August 23 OUSD Board meeting, FCMAT presented its “Fiscal Health Risk Analysis.”

The report analyzes 20 factors based on answers to 117 specific questions. A “No” answer to a question basically indicates a weak financial management practice. FCMAT’s rule of thumb is that an overall “No” in more than seven areas is “cause for concern,” requiring “some level of fiscal intervention.”

OUSD failed in eight areas (out of 20). It also passed seven and had mixed reviews on four. (One was not applicable.)

In response, at the Sept. 6 meeting of the newly reinstated Budget & Finance Committee, Directors Eng, Gonzales, and Torres passed a resolution calling for a plan of action in response to the FCMAT report by the second meeting in October. On October 25, staff asked for an extension, which the Board agreed to.

The Action Plan Coming December 13

The Action Plan is now scheduled to be presented at the December 13 Board meeting. Over the next few posts, we will share our thoughts on the FCMAT report and Action Plan. What are yours?

For more reading:

Potential Solutions to OUSD’s Budget Crisis

As soon as we launched our #OUSDBudget series, people started asking: “But what can the District do?”

Being solution-oriented is one of our organization’s core values, and OUSD leaders are actively discussing options – so we felt it was time to offer some specific ideas in the spirit of partnership.

We start with ways to increase revenue, which seem to have gotten less attention and yet are particularly important to pursue because they can improve the quality of education our students receive, while also improving our fiscal solvency.

But increasing revenue may not be enough, and cuts may be unavoidable. All of the expense reduction options will be controversial and unpopular – as is always the case in unfortunate situations like this. Of course, we’ll want to keep any cuts as far away from the classroom as possible. But any cuts will inevitably affect students – which no one wants. And unfortunately, they will affect teachers and staff who are working hard to serve our students.

Effective leadership requires making tough decisions. OUSD’s current budget crisis was created over many years by a revolving door of Superintendents. We now have a strong, home-grown leader with the potential to provide stable long-term leadership. She will need to make hard choices, weighing tradeoffs within and between multiple unpleasant options. The path back to fiscal vitality will not be easy. State receivership is not inevitable, but it will take solidarity, compromise, and sacrifice.

Revenue

Strategies to increase revenue still require tradeoffs but could simultaneously strengthen the district’s finances and improve education quality for students:

 

  • Maximize attendance: CA public schools are funded based on “Average Daily Attendance” – not enrollment. Every day a student is absent, the district gets $85 less. A 1% increase in the average daily attendance would translate into over $5 million more in revenue. The practices that maximize attendance and minimize chronic absenteeism are well-known; not-for-profit Attendance Works has loads of ideas and resources. Call families promptly. Buy alarm clocks. Get bus passes. Install washing machines. Provide flu vaccines. Use short-term independent study. Ask other families to help. Create incentive programs. OUSD is probably doing some of this but might be able to do more. In addition to financial benefit for the district, this approach provides clear academic benefits for students.
  • Increase enrollment by expanding the most popular schools: We all know that some OUSD schools are in high demand, and that some students who don’t get into these OUSD schools leave the public system entirely. Over 17,000 Oakland students enroll in private or parochial schools, or transfer to a nearby district (officially or through creative addressing). OUSD could keep some of these students in the district by expanding enrollment capacity of the most in-demand schools. Some in-demand schools have small campuses, so the district may need to get creative: reconfiguring existing space or adding portables; opening a satellite campus with the same program under the same management team; or swapping campuses with a nearby school with a larger facility. Any of these approaches would require the district to work closely with school leaders to understand what is possible, what a successful expansion would require, and what might be some unintended consequences. The brilliant folks on OUSD’s Research, Data & Assessment team have already compiled helpful data in the Strategic Regional Analysis, and these conversations hopefully are part of the district’s Blueprint. If a dozen high-demand schools each added 30 more students each, that would result in a 1% increase in OUSD enrollment, bring in $5 million more revenue, and give more students access to our strongest schools. The time to make these decisions is now: enrollment for the 2018-2019 school year launches November 13!
  • Sell under-utilized assets: OUSD has more land and buildings than it has ever used – even at peak enrollment. It has properties that have been unused for years and are declining into disrepair, depleting resources and leading to blight. It’s a sellers’ market now, though selling to maximize revenue would likely require state legislation. Even if the district doesn’t want them to go to a private developer, OUSD might be able to find another public agency that could put those properties to good use – affordable housing, health clinics, parks, art studios, not-for-profits. The going price for one parcel could be millions of dollars. If the district doesn’t want to sell, some public agencies or not-for-profits might be willing to take a long-term lease, providing a steady unrestricted revenue stream. These assets can get more money into our classrooms rather than being a drain on resources.
  • SELPA reform: OUSD’s Special Education programming requires millions in additional funding from the General unrestricted fund. Thanks to the recent ERS report, it’s also now established that Oakland’s special needs students receive $10 million less for services because most charters have left OUSD’s SELPA (Special Education Local Planning Area). Redesigning the SELPA so charters return can be a win-win-win: more revenue for both OUSD and charters, and more importantly, better services for all Special Education students in Oakland.

Expenses

Increasing revenue may be insufficient; cuts may be unavoidable. We hope that cuts are made in strategic ways that enable long-term viability.

  • Cut top executives’ pay: The senior leaders in OUSD work very hard, are deeply committed to Oakland students, and are incredibly talented; capable district leaders for big urban districts like OUSD are too scarce and absolutely deserve to be paid well for the difficult jobs they do. But in a daunting situation like this, we think it’s important to send a strong message that everyone needs to sacrifice. If the top 20 leaders take a 5% pay cut, it could save the jobs of a several employees working at minimum wage without affecting students in the classroom.
  • Benchmark for infrastructure: As we have pointed out in previous blogs, OUSD spends more on central office services on a per pupil basis than comparable districts (about $400 per pupil more or $14 million total), so reducing expenses will require cuts to OUSD’s central office. For core “infrastructure” departments (like finance, personnel, legal), detailed headcount and budget data for several districts similar in size and student composition could inform these “right-sizing” decisions. It’s worth a reminder that since OUSD’s expenses are about 80% personnel costs ($435M out of $547M in the General Fund, according to OUSD’s Annual Statement of Receipts and Expenditures for 2016-2017), there is no way to do significant expense reductions without layoffs. Good and hard-working people – our neighbors, friends, relatives, and our students’ family members – will lose their livelihoods. No one in education can possibly take these decisions lightly. If layoffs are necessary, we hope the district will do so in a way that is as respectful and considerate as possible – providing lead time, options, and as much support as possible.
  • Prioritize “school support” services based on school requests: In addition to classic “central office” departments (like finance and HR), part of OUSD’s centralized spending includes what it calls “shared services” or “school support,” such as Professional Development or Parent & Community Relations. Because not all districts centrally organize all these functions, OUSD needs a different strategy other than benchmarking to identify potential expense reductions. We’d recommend determining the scope of support that these departments provide, calculating the cost-per-pupil, and asking principals if they would pay for that service if the money were in the school’s budget under the principal’s direct control. If school leaders don’t believe these “school support services” merit the costs, perhaps OUSD and school leaders can deploy those resources more strategically?
  • Maximize staff utilization at sites: Before consolidating or closing any schools, OUSD should first ensure that each teacher in each individual classroom is teaching the maximum student caseload that the contract allows. This might require consolidating classrooms, creating multi-grade classrooms, or getting waivers to create hybrid roles for some teachers. I know this may sound harsh: some students require more time and attention than standardized ratios allow, and it would mean asking even more of teachers who are already working hard and doing their best with limited resources. Sadly, this degree of attention to the cold hard numbers may be what is required for OUSD to avoid state receivership. And it could lessen the greater disruption that would come from school closures or consolidations.

Like everyone else in Oakland, we are dismayed to find OUSD in this precarious position again – despite three consecutive years of per-pupil funding increases providing 28% more in General Fund revenues even with flat enrollment. Yes, the state needs to fund public schools at higher levels – but that’s not an excuse for us to spend beyond our means. We hope that these ideas will contribute to a more comprehensive discussion of options, spark some creativity, and get all hands on deck to explore what it will take to avoid OUSD going back into receivership.

Does Oakland have too many schools?

7 Facts to Consider

It’s a new school year, and OUSD still faces major financial challenges. We are picking back up on our #OUSDBudget series. Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell has prudently named “Fiscal Vitality” as priority #1 in her draft workplan for the year. The work plan also prioritizes creation of the district’s Blueprint for Quality Schools, intended to be kind of a master plan for the district. Both these priorities raise the big question: Does Oakland have too many schools?

IMHO, the answer is: YES.

But, like so many other aspects of public education, the answer is actually not so simple. It is possible to have a city-wide portfolio of many small schools (like OUSD has) and be financially viable as a district – but it requires flexibility, prioritization, and purposefulness, none of which are strong suits of large bureaucracies. The real issue is under-enrollment of many schools, combined with a persistent failure to make trade-offs.

Here are seven facts to consider:

FACT 1: Oakland has more schools than comparably sized cities.

In its 2016 report, Educational Resource Strategies provides the numbers: OUSD operates nearly double the number of schools as districts serving comparable numbers of children. Getting to the median would require OUSD to reduce its portfolio by approximately 30 schools.

FACT 2: More schools typically require more central office staffing to oversee.

In the state bureaucracy, every public school has a unique, 14-digit California Department of Education-assigned County-District-School (CDS) code, which is used to report Average Daily Attendance, disburse funding, and report on student outcomes. Each unique CDS code represents a different budget to keep track of, a different code to use for classifying employees, additional reports to file, additional row or columns on every spreadsheet for every activity where information needs to be gathered, analyzed and reported. It means an additional principal or office manager to contact and inform and support and follow-up with. This all results in additional work – and therefore additional staff – in every central office function: more budget analysts, more HR generalists, more IT people. This can be mitigated through technology, but unfortunately, because OUSD has not historically invested in technology, many tasks are unnecessarily manual (and time-intensive) processes. And certainly, there are some central office activities that cannot be automated, like coaching principals. The relatively high number of schools is one of the reasons that OUSD spends more on its central office compared to similar-sized districts.

FACT 3: Small schools can be more expensive to operate (on a per pupil basis) than large schools.

On average, OUSD spends one-third more per pupil at its small (<350 students) schools than at larger schools. The difference is much bigger at the middle and high school levels than at elementary schools. Again, from the 2016 ERS report:

In some cases, small schools are operating in buildings that could house many more students – in which case we’re paying for heating and lighting and maintaining more space than we really need for that number of children. But this is not the main driver of the cost difference between small and large schools. In any school, personnel (i.e. salary and benefits) comprise the vast majority of the budget, so it should be no surprise that this is where the difference lies.

In classic “factory model” schools (which, let’s face it, most of our schools still are), specialization and economies of scale go hand in hand. Secondary schools require subject-specific teachers (i.e. different teachers for math, English, science), and these subject-specific teachers are more likely to be “fully utilized” at a large and fully enrolled school with a typical schedule (i.e. where you have enough students for a Physics teacher to teach 6 periods of Physics, and each Physics class is enrolled at maximum capacity). In contrast, a small school may end up employing teachers who teach fewer periods or smaller classes (which is arguably better for teachers and students, although it is not fiscally “efficient”).

FACT 4: Small schools can be financially viable, even at relatively low California per pupil funding levels.

Small schools are not necessarily more expensive than large schools. Within Oakland and across the state, there are many examples of small public schools that are financially viable on the average per pupil funding levels. To do so, they must be frugal and flexible with their resources. For example, a small school might hire a part-time teacher as a reading interventionist, partner with a community organization to provide art or music lessons in exchange for weekend space, or ask a math teacher to teach coding in addition to algebra. This can be hard to pull off (can you find a teacher who is credentialed to teach both biology and art?), and labor contracts might constrain some “creative” arrangements. It also usually means making some trade-offs. For example, it can be very hard on teachers to prepare for and teach multiple courses, cross-subject collaboration is harder with part-time staff, and limited funds may mean fewer special subjects and extra-curriculars.

FACT 5: School districts can be financially viable at all levels of enrollment and numbers of schools (up to a point).

California has about 1,000 school districts, ranging in size from 6 students in Little Shasta Elementary to Los Angeles Unified at nearly 640,000 students (see ) [1]. The 20 CA districts closest in enrollment to OUSD operate an average of 47 schools, representing a wide range: from 20 to 76 schools. OUSD operates the most schools by far: 93 (including Adult Education and other specialized schools) –22% more schools than the next highest district.

[1] In this link, as in some of the CDE data sets, they include in-district charter enrollment.  Notice OUSD shows up at almost 50K students.

As far as we know, all these districts are financially solvent, although some (like our neighboring Fremont) have also made budget cuts. So while OUSD’s enrollment and budget may be smaller than it was 10 years ago, theoretically it should be able to structure itself so that expenses don’t exceed [1]revenues. Of course, that will take organization-wide fiscal discipline and doing lots of things differently.

[1] In this link, as in some of the CDE data sets, they include in-district charter enrollment. Notice OUSD shows up at almost 50K students.

FACT 6: Smaller schools can be good for students, families and community. So can bigger schools.

Nearly 20 years ago, Oakland embarked on a deliberate strategy to improve the quality of schools by making them smaller, based on the belief that smaller schools could become more tight-knit communities in which students and families were known well and supported. Known as the Small Autonomous Schools Movement, this effort subdivided large schools into multiple small schools, each with a school leader that was given flexibility with budget, staffing, and program decisions to execute a vision collaboratively created with teacher leaders and the community. Many (but not all) of these schools outperformed their predecessors, creating nationally recognized proof points of the benefits of this approach.

Subsequently, OUSD launched its Full Service Community Schools initiative. This brought other public agencies and community organizations into schools to provide a host of additional services to students – health and wellness, counseling, family engagement, etc. This work has also gotten results and is viewed as a national model. It is also a model that requires scale: partnering service providers of all types need to serve many families to be financially viable.

Lucky us; we have two effective models for serving our families. But they are different approaches and both require resources to implement well. This is why the work to create the “Blueprint” is so important: how are we going to decide which schools and communities need a Full Service Community School, and which need a small school, and which need something else?

FACT 7: Not all small schools are small for the same reasons.

Some were deliberately designed to be small; if they are serving students well, can they grow without losing what makes them special? Some can’t get bigger because of the physical constraints (e.g. a small building); can we add another floor to an existing building? Some are in hard-to-get-to locations with fewer children in the area; can the district or city provide transportation?

Financially, some schools have the “luxury” of remaining small because they are getting extra dollars per pupil – through district subsidy or parent fundraising or philanthropic grants (although these sources don’t always address the additional central office burden). The district’s practice of cross-subsidization means that school and district leaders may not make the same financial and program trade-offs as they would if they had transparent information and direct access to the public dollars generated by their students.

But some schools are small because very few families are choosing them. Often, but not always, it’s because families have legitimate concerns about school safety or academic performance, despite years of hard work to improve them. Sometimes, they are also important neighborhood institutions. Often, even when students have gone elsewhere, these schools are staffed as if they were fully-enrolled – so they end up with more expenses than the revenues warrant. These under-enrolled schools contribute to the district’s financial woes and present a real conundrum for our leaders and community.

If we, the citizens of Oakland, want the district to be financially viable, AND we want many good schools representing a variety of models to meet the needs of different families and communities, we need to ask a different set of questions. “Does Oakland have too many schools” over-simplifies the challenge. Instead, we need to ask what mix of schools (of varying sizes and models) do we need as a city to serve all our students well? What types of school, at what quality levels, will ensure full enrollment at the schools we do have (whatever the size)? What trade-offs will we need to make to operate a mix of excellent schools AND be financially viable as a system? And what will we do together to make this new approach a reality?

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