At last week’s Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) school board meeting on February 26, several big topics were on the agenda: over $20 million in proposed budget cuts and an update on the indefinite closure of McClymonds High School in West Oakland, among others.
Included in the budget cuts discussion were school site discretionary budgets, Assistant Principals, site-based clerical staff, and the entire OUSD Police Department. A vote on the cuts is scheduled for Wednesday, March 4.
And even by OUSD standards, this last board meeting was surreal, with protests by Oakland Not For Sale (ONFS), a fistfight almost breaking out between members of the audience, and a fire alarm ignored by most. Two pieces of district property, the former Edward Shands Adult School and the former Tilden Child Development Center, were declared surplus and the Board agreed to pursue long term leases for the properties.
The night started with an update on McClymonds High School, which has been closed since February 20 because the cancer-causing compound Trichloroethylene (TCE) has been found in the groundwater underneath the school.
During her Superintendent’s report, Kyla Johnson-Trammell emphasized the words “out of an abundance of caution” while explaining her order to close the school indefinitely. McClymonds’ students have been moved to three different middle school campuses: Ralph Bunche Academy, West Oakland Middle School, and Westlake Middle School.
The TCE issue is on top of, and completely separate from, another issue that arose in 2017, when lead was found in the drinking water at McClymonds.
Cheryl Crowell of the State Department of Toxic Substances Control said that unlike the lead in the drinking water, the TCE in the groundwater is “not an issue,” there is no need for further cleanup, and that there is “no additional risk.”
Board President Jody London worried about “liability” and noted that this is an “unexpected and extremely unfortunate expense.”
Student Board Member Mica Smith-Dahl called the situation “environmental racism,” and fellow student Board Member Denilson Garibo agreed with her.
The public comments on this agenda item were filled with accusations against the Board of not caring about students and their families, not communicating with students and their families, not being transparent, and not being trustworthy.
Ben Tapscott, a long time McClymonds advocate who forced the Board to address the lead in the drinking water, reminded everyone that he has been fighting against attempts by OUSD to close the school for 10 years now.
Mike Hutchinson of the Oakland Public Education Network expressed his disappointment that the West Oakland Board Director, Jumoke Hinton-Hodge, was not present at the meeting and didn’t even phone in. He also reminded everyone that Measure J in 2012 devoted $68 million to upgrade McClymonds, but the money was inappropriately diverted to a project to build a new Administration building, which has not been designed yet. London turned off his microphone, but he kept speaking for almost another minute.
As he continued speaking, the fire alarm went off. With no abundance of caution, no one did anything. No Board members or District staff on the dais went anywhere.
Immediately after public comments, the ONFS protesters began filing into the room with their signs.
As the District’s Auditor gave his report, ONFS children stood behind him with a sign that said “Oakland for the people, not billionaires.”
Several protesters wore masks with pictures of Board Members’ faces on them and held signs with quotes by those Board members. One protester had a Bloomberg mask on, and was pretending to be a puppeteer controlling the “Board Members.” The protesters circled the room quietly with their signs as the Auditor encouraged the Board to “continue what you’re doing, because it’s working.”
Representatives from the labor unions then spoke against cutting school site staff, and OEA President Keith Brown announced that Frick Impact Academy hasn’t had heat all winter.
When the next public comment period started, a fistfight almost broke out between two men in the audience, with one accusing the other of being a Nazi. They were separated by SEIU member Brandon Dawkins and Hutchinson. Within minutes, two armed OPD officers entered the room.
During public comment about the consent agenda, researcher/writer Sharon Rose noted how the need for new portable classrooms on the Sankofa campus to accommodate the students that will be displaced from Kaiser Elementary brings into question the cost effectiveness of school mergers in the first place.
Hutchinson then pointed out that the contract for the new portables would cost over $350,000.
Community member Assata Olugbala then added that the $350,000 didn’t include construction fees or the infrastructure needed to make the portables usable as classrooms. The Board then unanimously approved the entire consent agenda, which contained 17 contracts totaling $1.14 million in new spending by the District, with no further discussion.
During public comment on non-agenda items, long-time Board meeting attendee, Jim Mordecai, lectured the Board about voting to approve spending for projects that they didn’t understand.
Hutchinson followed and noted that, on a night when the Board was about to discuss trimming over $20 million from the budget, they had just approved over a million dollars of new spending, none of which would address the issue at McClymonds.
When Luz Cazares, the interim Chief Financial Officer who is making $32,000 a month, presented her recommendations for budget cuts, the ONFS protestors gathered with their signs behind her and her staff in silence.
However, seated behind the protestors, members of the audience screamed out their disapproval of Cazares’ presentation.
During public comment, several members of Black Organizing Project (BOP) called for cutting the OUSD police department. BOP had held a press conference earlier in the afternoon, and have received the support of City Councilmembers Rebecca Kaplan and Sheng Thao.
Many others in attendance spoke in favor of BOP’s proposal, including two former OUSD student board members, Gema Quetzal Cardenas and Yota Omosowho. The former board members stood together at the podium; Quetzal Cardenas goes to Stanford and Omosowho goes to Cal.
Hutchinson got back on the microphone and noted that state funding has increased in recent years, but OUSD has decreased per pupil funding in that same time period.
Angelica Jongco of Public Advocates pointed out the proposed budget cut document was “not clear.”
During the Board discussion of the proposed cuts, the two current student Board Members asked several questions, mostly about the effect of cutting school site staff, but none of their questions were answered. Student Director Garibo said, “We need to stop experimenting with these budget cuts.”
Cazares pointed out that the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT), the County, and the State are all watching OUSD’s finances, and that if they don’t make cuts now, they will get a negative certification, and then be taken over by Alameda County, who would come in and “make hard decisions for us” in “a couple of weeks.”
Board member Shanthi Gonzalez later noted that, “We have some room to breathe,” referring to the 4.14 percent, or $24.1 million, budget surplus from last year. State law requires School Districts to maintain a 2 percent surplus, and OUSD Board policy adds another 1 percent on top of that, which would leave 1.1 percent available.
“What’s the point of having a reserve if we’re not willing to use it to avoid really draconian cuts to schools?,” Gonzalez said.
After over five hours of public discussion about cancer-causing chemicals and budget cuts, Board President London announced the discussion about leasing the Shands and Tilden properties, calling it “the dessert” part of the evening.
The Board has called a “Special” meeting this Wednesday, March 4, to vote on over $20 million in budget cuts exactly a year, to date, after the exact same Board voted to approve over $20 million in budget cuts during a “Special” Board meeting last year.
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An earlier version of the article misstated Sharon Rose’s last name.