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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OUSD Budget – Long-Term Obligations; Near-Term Impact

In case it hasn’t already become clear, the challenges of the current 2016-2017 fiscal year are not the end of OUSD’s financial woes. Among the biggest of the looming issues: benefits and ballooning pension costs.

Robust benefits and the opportunity to participate in the State’s defined benefit pension systems can help OUSD attract talent and are an important investment in the people serving our children. Nevertheless, OUSD has limited resources – and expenditures for employee benefits come from the same pool of funds as base salaries and books. Over the next several years, increasing pension costs in particular will require increasingly difficult trade-offs, in part because of factors outside of OUSD’s control.

Current Expenditures on Benefits & Retirement

OUSD offers very generous health and welfare benefits. For example, OUSD pays the complete cost of health, dental, and vision insurance for the entire family of each employee. Compared to other similar districts, OUSD benefit costs are 50% more per full time equivalent employee. (See slide 110 of the ERS report from June 2016.)

Nearly all OUSD employees also participate in one of two state pension systems: California’s State Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS) for teachers, principals, and others with a teaching credential, and California’s Public Employee Retirement System (CalPERS) for everyone else (e.g. buildings and grounds, noon duty staff, office administrative staff).

This school year, OUSD is contributing to 12.58% to CalSTRS and 13.89% to CalPERS for eligible employees. (Employees themselves also contribute a mandatory amount: 9.2% or 10.25% for CalSTRS depending on hire date, and 6% for CalPERS). This all adds up: in 2015-2016 OUSD spent $30.4 million total on contributions to CalSTRS and CalPERS – 6% of the General Fund.

What’s Coming [Cue Ominous Music]

Unfortunately, both CalSTRS and CalPERS don’t have enough funds to cover payments to future retirees. This is a result of years of overly optimistic projections on investment returns that have not materialized and show no signs of doing so soon. So, both have mandated that employers (such as  school districts) steadily increase their contributions each year, to 19.5% for STRS and 28.2% for PERS by 2021. In other words, over a 10-year period, the district’s pension contributions rates will double.

For OUSD, this means that next year, at least $10 million more of the general fund will go to pensions. By 2021, if total salaries are the same as in 2015-2016, it will be a total of $26 million more than today – 11% of the general fund. If total salaries continue to go up, then the benefits contribution also goes up. And remember, the current year budget cuts aimed to reduce expenses by $11 million.

These required pension contributions will likely constrain the district from spending money on anything else, including field trips, classroom supplies, extra services for high-need students, technology, and raises, which is unfortunate because our teachers remain underpaid compared to the average across Alameda County school districts .

A Perfect Storm

CalSTRS and CalPERS contributions are climbing at precisely the same time that state funding is expected to plateau – a recipe for financial disaster for districts across the state. The recent California Schools magazine published by the California School Board Association had a piece on this issue with this sobering infographic:

Even wealthy districts like Piedmont are worried. Former Piedmont Unified School Board President Richard W. Raushenbush recently wrote a clear and compelling – but largely overlooked – opinion piece, published in the East Bay Times:

School districts spend about 60 percent of their budgets on teacher and staff compensation, so a 10 percent increase in retirement contributions means roughly 6 percent of the entire budget has to be reallocated from educating children to paying off underfunded pension plans.

Oakland is in an especially difficult position. David Crane, formerly with the California Governor’s Office, recently wrote a brutal analysis of San Jose, which has a “Positive” rating for its finances. In it, he notes:

Worse off are “Qualified” certification districts, which host more than 1 million students, including in LA, San Diego and Oakland. They expect they may not meet financial obligations for the current or next two fiscal yearsand thats after already shortchanging students and teachers.

In other words: this year’s budget cuts were just the beginning. Despite painful cuts this spring for both schools and central office, OUSD is expecting to dip into its state-required 2% reserve to end the 2016-2017 fiscal year in the black. To balance next year’s books, OUSD will need to cut enough to cover previously-committed salary raises, make the higher required pension contributions, AND restore the reserve.

Clearly, district leadership will need to make some tough decisions ASAP, including: restructuring central office and making better use of District facilities and assets. We also need to push for state-level changes that will help cities and students across California. These are some big rocks, and the only way they are going to move is if we push together.

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Equity & OUSD Budget

So far in our #OUSDBudget Real Talk series, we have asked and answered the following questions:

  • How much money does OUSD spend overall and per pupil?
  • How much does it spend on schools versus centrally?

Now we look at the question of equity.

“Equity” is a frequently used term in Oakland; some might even say it’s over-used and misused. OUSD’s Deputy Chief for Equity, Chris Chatmon, provides a definition that is succinct, free of jargon, and spot-on: Provide everyone access to what they need to be successful.

So, when we ask if OUSD’s spending is equitable, we’re asking: is OUSD allocating more resources to students who need more support to be successful? This is a complex and challenging question, but fortunately, last year’s ERS report was quite illuminating. And unfortunately, the answer is: not really.

The key slide is #36.

This slide shows the per pupil spending for schools at each grade level, after weighting the spending based on the student needs at each school, arranged by grade level and then by percentage of Free/Reduced Lunch (FRL) participation, the most commonly used indicator for the poverty level of students need. In a perfectly equitable system, the weighted per pupil spending would be even across all schools in the system.

It’s worth noting that the variation in per weighted spending in OUSD is less than the variation without weighting, suggesting that the incremental supports for needier schools are creating a somewhat more equitable environment, but there’s still a surprising amount of variability and certainly no obvious trend showing needier schools getting more.

The state of California’s new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) is intended to provide more resources to students who need more support. So OUSD receives more dollars per student for high need students – low-income, English learners, and foster students. OUSD also receives more dollars for the schools that have a high concentration of low-income, English learners, and foster students.

So why would we see so much variability in per pupil spending between sites? Because the money all goes to Oakland Unified as a district, not to each individual school, and district staff use internal allocation formulas to determine the resources that each school receives. At OUSD:

  • schools receive a certain allocation of Full Time Equivalent (FTE) people of different job types (e.g. teacher, assistant principal) based on student-to-staff ratios;
  • Those FTE are added to school budgets based on average salaries, not actual salaries.

The result of this “base allocation” approach is that the district spends less per pupil in schools that have a higher proportion of beginning teachers (i.e. those with lower salaries). And unfortunately, in general, schools with higher poverty levels tend to have more novice teachers. You can see this information yourself- look up teacher experience data by school on OUSD’s public dashboards.

And, while there are exceptions, schools with a higher proportions of English Language learners also tend to have fewer experienced teachers and thus lower per pupil expenditures, as visible on Slide #26:

According to OUSD, the reason they use average not actual salaries in the base allocation is to prevent principals from hiring new teachers instead of experienced teachers for financial reasons– although actual salaries were used several years ago.

After the “base allocation” of staffing is completed, OUSD then distributes remaining funds available to each school via several district-created allocation formulas– based on the grade levels served

($175-$300 per pupil), number of “LCFF eligible” students,[1] current School Performance Framework tier ($70-$215 per pupil), and on “Z score,” which the district uses to measure challenging “environmental factors” such as neighborhood crime ($25K – $100K per school). This part of the budgeting process is commendable, delivering on an intention that students with higher needs should receive some additional resources. But, because running schools requires a lot of people, the “base staffing allocation” uses up more than 85% of unrestricted General Fund resources,[2] leaving less for this equity-driven redistribution. And, school sites end up with less flexibility on how they spend the governmental funding that their students generate for the district.

When talking about school site funding equity, many people wonder about the impact of parent fundraising as well. Parent fundraising tends to exacerbate inequity, since schools with more affluent families are able to raise much more per student. Here’s a slide similar to what we’ve seen before, but ordered by total school funding, including private fundraising. With few exceptions, the biggest raisers seem to extend their “lead” in terms of funding:

There are some nascent efforts to address this inequity in private fundraising, but nothing on the multi-million dollar order needed to truly tackle the problem. We hope to see more efforts, but any will likely face serious challenges as described in this recent NY Times article.

In any case, sharing the wealth of bake sales and walk-a-thon dollars isn’t enough to get schools to an equitable distribution of resources. And, these

patterns of funding inequity are not unique to OUSD. Researchers recently found that LAUSD has diverted money from high need elementary students, and Public Advocates filed a complaint against Long Beach USD for not equitably using resources to serve high-need students. The highly regarded Oakland-based research and advocacy group EdTrust-West recently released a report highlighting the challenge.

However, some California districts have found ways to use their budgeting and internal resource allocation process to increase equity and ensure students get “access to what they need to be successful.” We call on OUSD’s leadership to do the same for Oakland students.

Next in the series: unpacking some other big financial challenges, including Special Education, pension obligations, and the impact of facilities. We’d also love to hear what questions you’re hoping we’d write about. Please let us know by commenting on our Facebook and Twitter– or just e-mail us. We’re also open to elevating the voice of others who would like to offer a perspective on the #OUSDBudget as a guest author. Let us know if you’re interested!

[1] After reviewing OUSD budget presentations, we found formulas for most of the allocations but couldn’t find the formula for how LCFF supplemental funds are allocated, nor Title I and other federal categorical monies. These funds can be significant for some Oakland schools.

[2] Thank you to OUSD for their work to increase fiscal transparency; this calculation come from OUSD’s new Fiscal Transparency website. Click on “Budgeted Expenses Dashboard,” select “General Fund” from the “Fund” drop down menu, select “Unrestricted” from the “Resource Type” drop down menu, and add up the Certificated salaries (43.3%), Classified salaries (17.5%) and Employee Benefits (25.6%).

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Central Office Spending

If you read our last blog post, you know how much money OUSD spends every year. Now you might be wondering: How much gets to schools and classrooms? The short answer is: not enough.
The long answer involves how much is spent centrally, and we’ll get into that in a second. First we want to again ground ourselves in a challenging reality: Behind the vast majority of “central office” spending are real people who work hard every day in service of our children. So when we talk about “cutting” central or even re-allocating resources, people’s jobs and livlihoods are involved. Nevertheless, we must confront this challenge, which brings us back to the question of this blog post…
To answer the question of how much funding gets to schools and classrooms, we need to dig back into the largely overlooked report by Education Resource Strategies, presented to OUSD’s Board in June 2016. This was a comprehensive and detailed look at OUSD’s resource use (from 2014-2015) in comparison to similar districts in California and around the country. ERS is a well-respected not-for-profit group, OUSD paid a lot for the work, and staff spent a lot of time providing the underlying data – so let’s put it to use!
The ERS report confirmed what many have suspected: OUSD spends much more on the central office – about $30 million more – than comparable districts. Here’s the most striking slide to ponder:

Some details to note:

  • The comparison is among California districts, all of which are operating in a similar state funding and policy context (and, as we know, most of education policy and funding in the U.S. is driven by states).
  • These districts have similarly high-need populations, with many low-income students, and English language learners.
  • Many are also urban districts.
  • The comparison group includes comparably-sized cities such as Santa Ana and Sacramento.
  • Oakland has the dubious distinction of rivaling Los Angeles Unified and Stockton Unified with nearly the highest central office spending per pupil.
  • OUSD spent TWICE as much per pupil on central office as a district like Riverside, which has a similar student population and somewhat better outcomes on some measures, according to the new state dashboard.
  • If OUSD reduced its central office spending to the comparison group average, it would produce almost $14 million in savings: enough to completely close the current year budget gap and then some.

The ERS report makes the specific reason for this higher-than-average central spending even clearer in this slide: OUSD has more people and higher cost per person in several central office areas.

Those of you who have seen District financial presentations might be surprised by this information. The District has reported that over the past few years they’ve been directing more money to sites and away from Central. Some of you might not be surprised; other than long-overdue and much-needed double-digit salary raises for teachers and other school staff, school sites probably have not felt this shift.

We believe the disconnect can be explained by looking at a different set of publicly available numbers. Specifically, we think that the “shift” to reduce central office expenditures over the last few years have been achieved mostly through accounting decisions, rather than substantive changes in budgetary control to move dollars closer to students. We’ve reached this conclusion by looking at the Fast Facts provided by OUSD over the past few years:

In 2013-2014, the District had about 37,000 students served by 1,911 teachers, 1,391 “Other School Staff”, and 940 Central Office Staff. Then…

Suddenly, in 2014-2015, Central Office Staff has about 300 fewer people and Other School Staff has that many more! Our conclusion: the District simply changed the budget categorization for some staff from central to “other site”[1]. To be fair, this kind of change can theoretically help district staff feel more connected with and provide tailored service to school sites. We do know, from talking with school leaders, that sites didn’t receive a commensurate increase in budgetary authority. Principals could not say, “Instead of using these central services, we want to use those funds in a different way.”

[1] This is the fiscal year that ERS analyzed, and ERS used transaction-level information to categorize expenses in a way that would be consistent across the districts they studied.

In 2015-2016, there was not much change in the Central and Other School Staff numbers. So, despite the perceived and reported decrease in central office spending, it’s likely that OUSD continued spending significantly more centrally than similar districts.

The current year’s Fast Facts are bit surprising. Central Office Staff headcount increased by 13% or 88 employees, its highest level in three years. There’s not a corresponding decrease in Other School Staff. Did the Central Office really grow that much?


OUSD has been spending too much centrally and not enough at school sites. We hope the District has been making substantive (rather than accounting) changes in this area since the ERS report came out last year, and we would love to hear more from District staff on this.

It’s also probably not surprising that we’re having a budget shortfall if enrollment – which drives revenue – has been essentially flat and yet every year we’ve been adding more staff of all types.

Next week we are going to delve into variances in spending across school sites, exploring the equity question: is more money going to the students and schools who most need extra resources? What’s your prediction?

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How much money does OUSD spend?

Last week, after we launched our #OUSDBudget series, we received a lot of positive feedback from people out there trying to understand what’s going on. Not all were happy, though. This is painful for everyone – ourselves included as Oaklanders and public school parents – and our intention is to shed light on the topic, not to blame. We appreciate the hard job of District leaders and staff managing a large and complex organization faced with huge need.

We also want to recognize the outpouring of anger at the last Board meeting, reflecting the sentiments of many Oaklanders who feel wronged by the public education system. At the heart of all of this are real people working hard in the District and real students and families suffering the consequences when things don’t work well.

In order for us to have a more transparent and more productive public debate about the issue, we need to have the same information, so this installment covers a very basic question: How much money does OUSD spend each year?

Some quick stats:

  • Total: OUSD spent $705 million dollars last year. Of that, spending from the General Fund (which is the fund affected by the budget cuts) was about half a billion dollars.
  • On a per pupil basis: General Fund expenditures in 2016-2017 were $14,534 per pupil.
  • Historical comparison: OUSD’s General Fund revenues have increased 28% from 2013 to 2016.
  • Compared to other districts in the area: Overall, OUSD received 44% more funding than Fremont Unified, which has about the same enrollment (though a different student population). OUSD’s per pupil funding is among the highest of school districts in Alameda County.
  • Compared to other districts in the country: Oakland, along with the rest of California, ranks in the bottom fifth of per pupil spending, despite being richer than all but a handful of countries in the world.

In more detail: (Note: although the budget shortfall relates to this school year, we relied heavily on prior year reported financials to gather this background information, since they have been audited.)

Half a billion dollars: The “General Fund,” which is the main operating fund for the district, accounted for about three-quarters of the district’s expenditures in 2015-2016. The district spent $334 million in unrestricted funding, and $125 million from restricted funds. The Unrestricted fund within the General Fund is the part that has been the focus of the budget cuts. It’s the pool of funds that is the most flexible and it’s the basis of the state-required 2% reserve. It comprises less than half of the district’s spending, but is the pool that most schools’ day-to-day spending comes from. Restricted funds include money designated for specific programs (like Linked Learning), private grants (e.g. for school-based health centers), as well as federal Title I money and the LCFF “supplemental and concentration grants” which are intended to provide extra resources for high need students (e.g. low-income, English learner, foster youth).

$14,534 per pupil: In 2015-2016, the district had 35,348 in average daily attendance (ADA). Divide the total general fund expenditures of $515 million into that ADA and you get $14,534 per ADA. The state of CA is one of the few that funds on an ADA basis rather than enrollment, even though we obviously need to incur the expense for materials and staff for enrolled students, whether or not they happen to be sick on any given day (not to mention the cost of activities to combat chronic absenteeism, which costs the District millions per year in lost revenues).

28% increase over 3 years:  OUSD’s General Fund revenues have increased significantly over the past several years, thanks to the state’s new equity-oriented funding formula and voters approving Proposition 30 in 2012 and Proposition 55 in 2016. Three years ago (at the low point of post-recession General Fund revenues), OUSD received $401 million. The increase to over $500 million was the result of a significant increase in per pupil revenue from the state (from $11,623 to $14,426). Although OUSD’s ADA was 943 students lower, overall the district’s funding was up 28%.

More than other area districts, and many public agencies and organizations: Fremont Unified, which had about same enrollment as OUSD (33,400 ADA), had a third less General Fund expenditures in 2015-2016: only $334 million (out of $488 million total across all Funds). OUSD receives much more funding than Fremont largely because the latter’s student population is less than 30% English Language Learner and/or qualifies for Free and Reduced Price Lunches. On a per pupil basis, OUSD also received about one-fifth more money than the average district in Alameda County. For more context, OUSD’s total 2016 expenditures were a little over half that of the city of Oakland, almost double of AC Transit’s, 27 times bigger than the biggest Oakland charter organization, and almost 40 times bigger than the Oakland Museum.

Less than most districts in the country: EdSource recently broke down California’s per pupil funding. Although California’s “ranking” changes depending on the methodology, it is inevitably below the national average. If Oakland were really Brooklyn and got NY state level funding, OUSD’s budget would be over $828 million, not $500 million.

And not nearly as much as our students deserve:  What does it cost to provide a great education? Basic daycare is at least $12,000/year, tuition for private K-12 schools might be $25,000/year, and “elite” private schools can cost almost twice that. Yet our public schools, with much greater challenges to address, get significantly less per pupil. Oakland has roughly 15,000 children in private schools. If we assume $25,000 in tuition each year, that means Oakland parents are shelling out $375 million to fund private K-12 education – the equivalent of an entire unofficial school district. For a much smaller amount of funding, we could greatly improve our public school system and achieve better community integration.

Putting the budget cuts in context

With that backdrop of information about the total budget, we can begin to appreciate what it means for OUSD to cut $10 million: almost 3% of its $334 million unrestricted budget or 2% of its total General Fund…about the same amount that the district is required to have in its reserve.

Next week, we’ll delve into the question of how much money gets to our classrooms.

Until then, if you really want to go deep, here is all of the source data we pulled from, all publicly available, as well as links we pulled from.

  1. EdSource article on California’s per pupil funding:
  2. Blog on California’s funding inadequacy and how to fix it:
  3. OUSD:
    1. Budget page:
    2. Historical audit reports:
    3. Fast Facts:
  4. Other Alameda County school districts:
  5. City of Oakland budget about link:
  6. Alameda County Office of Education budget:
  7. Oakland Museum of California annual report:
  8. AC Transit budget:
  9. Education for Change annual report:
  10. Politifact analysis of California’s ranking as the 6th largest economy in the world:

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Real Talk on the #OUSDBudget

If you’re like me, you’re worried about the implications of Oakland Unified School District’s (OUSD) current budget shortfall. Across the city, our children already face major hurdles – lack of basic needs, housing instability and exposure to violence, not to mention the fear and anxiety stemming from the rhetoric and policies coming out of DC.

Now they’re being told they’ll no longer get to go to art class because that contract has been abruptly cancelled. Their teachers are being told not to use too much copy paper; and principals are being told it will be their fault for not adhering to the spending freeze if the district goes back into state receivership. This is unacceptable. Instead, we believe:

  • OUSD children deserve a stable and efficiently run school district that puts students first.
  • Teachers deserve to have the resources they need to do their job, which is already incredibly challenging.
  • Principals deserve to be treated as the smart and mission-oriented leaders they are.
  • The people of Oakland deserve accurate and timely information, which we are not necessarily getting.

That’s why we’re going to embark on a multipart series focused on the budget – Real Talk on the #OUSDBudget. Our intention is to help shed light on a complicated situation and suggest possible ways forward.

We fully recognize that as a state, California does not fund public education at the levels that our students deserve – but until that changes, we must do the best we can with what we have. We don’t think it’s helpful to point fingers or bemoan “what could have been.” Restoring fiscal health with the current budget shortfall will inevitably require district leadership to make hard trade-offs and unpopular decisions. We hope that more people will get informed and join the public discussion about what we as a city need to do to provide our students with what they need.

In this series, we’re hoping to provide information on the following questions:

  • How bad is it, really?
  • How can we recover?
  • How can we prevent this from happening again?

What the Experts Say

One of the best sources of information to better understand the situation are two reports by nationally recognized not-for-profit education research group Educational Resources Strategies (ERS). They dissected OUSD’s 2015-2016 spending, in comparison to similar districts around the country and across California. These reports, presented to the OUSD Board last year, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars (of taxpayer money) and their results are compelling, though not entirely surprising:

  • OUSD operates too many schools for its student population – by a lot. Right-sizing to the median would require consolidating 30 schools. There are strategic reasons to want smaller schools, but there is a very real cost – and many OUSD schools are under-enrolled because families have rejected those options. Also, consolidations themselves won’t generate cost savings if poorly implemented.
  • OUSD spends more in its central office and less at school sites than comparable districts…with less-than-optimal results. This disproportionate spending is not just at the top, it’s at all levels, and holds true despite publicized efforts to reduce the size of central office over the past three years.
  • Resources are not getting to high need students equitably. OUSD essentially redistributes state LCFF per pupil funding to sites via central allocation decisions, leaving some high need students with much less than the state intended.
  • Special Education is especially costly in OUSD because of outdated programmatic approaches. To its credit, OUSD has already begun to make important changes to its Special Education delivery model – changes that are aligned with best practices nationally, are better for students, and that are more cost-effective. But these changes will take time to yield financial savings.

How Can you Get Involved: Reading, Other Resources, & Hashtags

For those of you who want to better understand the current budget situation, there are numerous existing resources and perspectives:

If you’d like to join in, please follow and begin using the hashtag #OUSDBudget. We’ll be posting our blogs at

This current fiscal setback is a reminder that we have a long way to go to creating the kind of schools we want for our children. However, we continue to believe that Oakland has the passion, talent and brilliance to create a thriving public education ecosystem for all students, anchored by a strong and stable district that supports and fosters innovative community schools. Getting through this current budget crisis will be an important step forward.

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