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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