OUSD Board of Education: Who are you Fighting for?

5 Feb

Written by an anonymous educator who teaches at East Bay elementary and high schools 

In the middle of the 60 seconds that they gave him to speak, an Oakland community member looked up to see seven blank faces.  One of the board members, Gary Yee, seemed to be almost nodding off and so the man speaking asked him “Are you bored?” To which Yee responded by nodding his head, yes, expressing clearly what many people in the room could perceive as the sentiment of all of the seven people seated in front.  The Oakland Unified School District Board of Education members sat facing a full room of people and seemed to have no reason or desire to listen to the comments, concerns, tears, and frustrations of the community ranging from the murder of an OUSD student by a police officer to the closure of multiple elementary schools.

In order to understand how we arrived at this moment I attempt to answer some questions: What is the role and what are the actual powers of the school board? What is the history of the OUSD school board? Is the school board accountable to the community, teachers, and students of Oakland?  If they aren’t accountable to the community, whose interests and direction are they following?  And what can we do so that the concerns of the community are front and center in their decisions instead of 60 second sound bites they appear to endure and ignore before continuing to push another agenda?

Here is an attempt to place this moment within a larger context of history and policy; to understand who the board of education really is.  The school board is elected by the voters of Oakland.  They serve terms of four years and can be re-elected.  They are part time employees, paid a stipend of roughly $750 each month.  As stated in the OUSD Board Bylaws, the board “is elected by the community to provide leadership and citizen oversight of the district’s schools.” The bylaws also say that the board has four major roles: setting a direction, establishing policies, ensuring accountability, and providing community leadership. [i] In actuality the powers of leadership and direction are a balancing act between the superintendent and the elected board of education.  The board has the power to hire and fire the superintendent.  Both the superintendent and the board have the power to propose policy and direction for the district.  All major policy (either proposed by the superintendent or the board) must be approved by the board.  Although they have the power to approve/reject policy, the implementation of that policy is the responsibility of the superintendent.  This means that the board has little power over the daily functioning of schools but still holds ultimate power over the superintendent, who does control the daily details.  The bylaws state that when considering policy, the Board shall “involve the community, parents/guardians, students, and staff in developing a common vision for the district.” Although their power is somewhat limited, they are our elected officials and fundamentally should be assuring community input and control over the inner workings of the school district.

A brief history of the board decisions and stances during pivotal moments in the last 15 years of OUSD history can begin to answer the question of who the board is accountable to in actuality.

In 1996, Oakland teachers participated in a 26-day strike, the longest teachers strike in California history.  The impetus for this strike was the failure of the district to negotiate in the best interests of Oakland classrooms and consider seriously the demands of the teachers (who were demanding smaller class sizes).  In one account of their negotiations, Oakland’s Montclarion  states “…All but one of the board members took part in an impromptu walkout,” going on to explain that this was their “response to criticism from the audience”[ii]. In the third week of the strike, when the board was still refusing to listen to the public, a group of parents were even pushed to begin organizing to recall three school board members in response to the board’s continued refusal to propose significant cuts to administration in order to fulfill teachers and communities demands.  [iii]

It is clear that in 1996, the board did not have the same priorities as the strike’s slogan “Classrooms first” and “Chop from the Top”.  In reflecting on the situation, we cannot put all of the blame on the school board either. There are clearly many forces at play including: the superintendent, other administrators who might lose their job if “Chop from the Top” was taken seriously, and insufficient funding for education from the state. Yet, the board has the responsibility to truly advocate for the Oakland community, students, and schools. They ought to do this even, and especially, against the interests of those who have power on the inside (administrators) or those who have power on the state level.  By furthering the rhetoric that there is simply not enough money for smaller class sizes, they are complicit in attacks on students and public education.  Fifteen years ago, OUSD board of education was not prioritizing community, teacher, and student demands, and a 26 day strike was necessary to even begin to get these priorities on the table.  Although the community did not win the reduction in class sizes during that strike, this struggle pushed the issue of small class sizes into the spotlight and led to the state of California mandating a 20:1 student:teacher ratio in K-3 classrooms statewide in fall 1996.[iv]

The board of education also played a major role in the overspending and flawed accounting that led OUSD into a massive deficit and the state takeover that followed in 2003.  Before the state even took over, the school board laid off 300 teachers and counselors and 260 support staff.[v]  During the state takeover there continued to be devastating cuts across OUSD, including cuts to libraries, counselors and adult education.  Despite these cuts, the debt owed to the state increased from $37 to $100 million during those 6 years.  This debt has left OUSD paying the state $6 million each year from funds that are greatly needed in Oakland schools.  The payment of this debt is another opportunity for the board to take a stand against outside power in order to make possible the education that all Oakland students deserve.  So far, the school board has done nothing to challenge the state and keep that money in order to serve their constituents: the students, teachers, and community of Oakland.  Although OUSD was officially returned to local control in 2009, the state takeover continues to influence the policies and choices of the school board.  In fact, full local control has not been restored: because OUSD still is repaying the $100 million loan to the state, a state trustee has veto power over all OUSD financial transactions (including contract settlements with school worker unions).

During the takeover, OUSD school board and district operated completely under the exclusive control of consecutive state-appointed administrators.  All three of these administrators: Randolph Ward (2003-2006), Kimberley Statham (2006-2007); and finally Vincent Matthews (2007-2009) were graduates of the Broad Urban Superintendents Academy.[vi]  Many lower level administrators during that time (some of whom continue to be employed by OUSD to this day, like Troy Christmas, executive director of labor relations) also participated as interns or residents in Eli Broad’s programs.

The Broad Superintendents Academy trains “top executives in business, the military, nonprofits, government or education” [vii] to be superintendents in urban school districts.  This academy seeks to transform school districts into “effective public enterprises”[viii] through this specialized training for powerful executives and then a promise to support the graduates through job placements in school districts.  When Eli Broad was asked whether he still saw a role for local government control of education, he stated that he did not and believed that the power should lie with governors and the U.S. Department of Education.[ix]  This is clearly antithetical to the board’s stated purpose of ensuring “citizen oversight of the district’s schools”, which is why the Broad influence on OUSD is so disconcerting. This institute pushes a model of managing education as if it was a private business and moves the direction of our public education system away from community, teachers, parents, and students towards the powerful and private interests of this country.  This institute continues to have deep and powerful influence in OUSD.

Broad has also been an outspoken advocate and bankroller of charter schools.  It’s not surprising, then, that the Broad-dominated state takeover of OUSD resulted in quadrupling the number of charter school students – from 2,000 in 2002 to 8,000 in 2009. Today Oakland has 35 charter schools and has the highest percentage of students in charter schools (18%) of any California urban school district. Today, the board is continuing to consider new charter school petitions, while simultaneously closing public elementary schools.  Tony Smith claims that there are too many schools for the number of students in OUSD, but it seems that they are just substituting charter schools for public schools.  Tony Smith and many school board members have stated that closing schools is an unfortunate necessity given how many schools we have for the number of students in the district.  The school board is largely responsible for the approval of Oakland’s 35 charter schools.

Looking through this brief history helps us understand the priorities often motivating the board and also some of the newer directions they are moving in.  The board of education has limited power and is managing a difficult position constrained between continued state (Broad) control and ever-decreasing funding.  This position does not release them of the responsibility to tirelessly advocate for the communities, students, and parents that elected them.  We must demand of them to be nothing less than our fiercest allies, calling for what is needed of the state and fighting, in this climate of increased privatization and corporate control, for the public education our communities need.  We as community members, parents, educators, and students, must demand that the OUSD board of education is truly accountable us.


[i] Board Policies. BB 9000.  http://publicportal.ousd.k12.ca.us/199410924185124407/site/default.asp

[ii] Justice, Jason. 1996: Classrooms First! – A History of the 1996 Oakland Teacher’s Strike. http://libcom.org/library/oakland-teachers-strike-1996-iww

[iii] Olszewski, Lori. Move to Recall 3 Oakland School Board Members / Frustrations increase as strike persists. SFGATE. 4/4/96. http://articles.sfgate.com/1996-03-04/news/17769849_1_board-members-school-board-administrative-cuts

[iv] California Department of Education, http://www.cde.ca.gov/ls/cs/k3/

[v] Murphy, Katy. Oakland school district: Is it better off after the state takeover? Oakland Tribune. 3/26/10

[vi] The Broad Report, Randolph Ward, Broad Superintendents Academy Class of 2003. 7/12/10. http://thebroadreport.blogspot.com/2010/07/randolph-ward-broad-superintendents.html

[vii]  Katz, Alex. Executives trained by Turnaround Nonprofit. The Oakland Tribune, 8/11/03

[ix]  Ryssdal, Kain.  Running Education More like a Business interview with Eli Broad. 12/8/11. http://www.broadacademy.org/news/615.html

2 Responses to “OUSD Board of Education: Who are you Fighting for?”

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