School Budget Horse In Lead

If we were calling a horse race between the Oakland’s School Board and City Council, then the school horse would be in the lead right now.  Both horses are making their way around the race track and keeping pace, yet the school steed is already thinking ahead to next year.  We do know they are both woefully underfed and would enjoy stopping for some apples or sugar cubes.

Comparing These Horses

From a budget process perspective, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) is ahead; their board and administrators are already working on how to save a whopping $39 million next year.  Meanwhile, the Oakland City Council still needs to wrap up the current year’s $9 million gap, and then will address their $25 million shortfall next year.

Oakland Schools have asked citizens to take this survey about budget priorities, and reported 500 responses a full week ago.  The City Council didn’t conduct a survey, but Make Oakland Better Now! volunteers took that mantle and 140 responses were received last week.

When it comes to meetings, the school and city council horses are neck and neck.  There are many school outreach meetings, with a few about next year’s budget.  The council members communicated about shortfalls during earlier rounds, but didn’t hold meetings about closing this fiscal year.

Caring About Oakland Schools

Anyway, we would like to focus on the schools here and now.  As you may know, there are serious financially-related questions and no good answers:  What are the ideal class sizes?  How do we balance the empty and full schools?  What personnel cuts could be made?  And what’s happening with teacher pay?

Montclarions manage around the problems at their well-performing elementary and middle schools.  Parents are quite involved locally, starting with tight teacher-principal communications.  They try to make noise about the poorly-maintained schools and grounds.  To improve or offer programs, parents are active fundraisers.  All in all, the kids learn, grow and prosper.

Then many parents speak loudly through their actions:  moving their children into private middle and high schools.  If these students stayed in the public system, then they would likely go to Oakland Tech or Skyline High.  (Skyline keeps churning principals annually, apply now.)  If we’re not there, then interest naturally wanes.

Getting On The Soapbox

Yet we all should be considering the greater good of public education.  Regardless of dysfunction, our school budget horse needs enough sustenance to keep trotting along – and that means “weighing in” on what we value in free schooling.

Oakland’s schools are infamous (!) for their budget travails before the recession.  We had the special situation of state-controlled schools due to our problems.  It’s good to be in control locally once again, and installing our new superintendent was a critical step forward.  However Tony Smith has to rely on a functioning school board and energized citizens.

On the board, Montclarions are represented by Director Gary Yee.  He was also elected vice president of the board, back in May.  As a quick introduction, Yee’s a long-time educator and administrator who most recently served as vice chancellor of Peralta Community Colleges.  (Read Yee’s biographies on LinkedIn and OUSD site.)

City-wide school administration just isn’t top-of-mind for most Montclarions.  It’s easier to tune into the schools which are located nearby.  But some locals must be concerned about Oakland’s school budget, and maybe we’re trotting (sorry) with the wrong herd.  What are your priorities related to the schools?

More info:  Please read The Education Report by Tribune reporter Katy Murphy, which covers the beat regularly.  Comments following Murphy’s posts are often insightful.  Link to Great Oakland Public Schools, to keep up with the school board and more.  Also check out the Oakland Unified School District, including their recent survey.  For the latest school news, visit the OUSD’s twitter account.

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Across The Board Cuts, Except Cops

After Make Oakland Better Now! asked locals what steps should be taken to close the City of Oakland’s budget gap, we wondered what would happen next.  Finding another $9 million-plus this fiscal year isn’t an easy task for novices or experts, but our opinions do matter.

Well, the people have spoken:  at least 140 survey-takers shared their opinions.  According to Bruce Nye, who heads MOBN!, the results boiled down to making cuts as equally as possible.  However police and public safety were functions that needed protection, in the short term.

MOBN! intended to share Oaklanders’ priorities with the City Council before they met on budget decisions.  Thus a recommendations letter was emailed to Council members yesterday, which first acknowledged constraints in the short-term and then provided specific direction signals.

Don’t touch public safety:

  • The topic of reducing sworn law enforcement personnel should be off the table.
  • The minimal savings that could be achieved through reducing civilian personnel in the Oakland Police Department constitute a false economy.
  • The city’s immediate fiscal problems cannot, for the most part, be solved by eliminating programs.

Do share the pain elsewhere:

  • Oakland must balance its budget with significant, across-the-board reductions in personnel costs in every non-public safety function in the city.
  • Combined salary and benefit costs are far out of line with the market, and far exceed what the city can afford.
  • Accomplish [cuts] through a very wrenching combination of lay-offs, salary reductions, more early retirements, and a major restructuring of benefits.
  • While even severe cuts to the council’s and mayor’s offices (and to employee parking) would provide only minimal benefit…it is a representative message to deliver.

Next up?  We suggest you mark your calendars for February 16th, when the City Council will meet and wrestle with gap-closure choices.  If you tune into KTOP (Comcast Channel 10) at 5pm, then you’ll see this cliffhanger play out all night.

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Closing The Budget Gaps, Maturely

Lately, the members of Make Oakland Better Now! have been putting their water glasses against the walls of Oakland homes and public places.  They are eager to learn what everyone thinks about closing this year’s budget gaps, currently pegged at $9 million.

MOBN doesn’t have any political axes to grind, but does want to communicate collective thoughts to the Oakland City Council before they make final budget cuts on February 16th.  MOBN leader Bruce Nye let us know that all Oaklanders may cast their ballots, through Friday at 5pm:  vote here.

What’s in this budget priorities ballot?  You’ll be able to support or oppose specific public safety, personnel and other cuts as well as revenue-generating (tax) measures.   Then you’ll be able to offer your own suggestions, too.

We encourage you to cast your ballot, and rest assured your opinions will be presented clearly to all the City Council members.  Although Oakland’s dealing with Hobson’s Choices, it’s better to consider the possibilities than remain part of the silent majority.

How The Budget Pit Feels

On Monday eve, we were able to hear about Oakland’s budget from one City Hall insider.  Oakland’s budget director, Cheryl Taylor, patiently reviewed the major points of the general purposed fund by department – and what’s left for the waning 2009-2010 fiscal year.

To us, it felt like a mining pit.  We’re already digging below ground level, with different parts of the budget carved from the earth and given away.  And at some point, we stop seeing any ground beneath our collective feet.  Nice metaphor, we think.

Although seemingly untenable, there must be another $10.5 million saved before this year’s over.  At least Director Taylor was clear about the challenges.   If we understood correctly, then only 12 percent of the general funds are even available.  Plus only a portion of that $52 million is game since we’re well into the fiscal year.

Taylor put things in perspective when recalling Oakland’s boom and bust cycle.  A while ago, we used to have “three people to do one job,” she explained.  “Now there’s one person to do three jobs.”  It’s not easy to figure out how to save and simultaneously maintain government services.

The Monday meeting enabled civilians like us to suggest or react to possibilities.  No one was crying “save my piece of the pie” here.  Instead, people were soberly considering how public safety or other services might be severed during the recession.

Beyond this fiscal year, there were very interesting rays of hope.  One idea was that work currently done by sworn officers might be civilianized.  Another suggestion was to dive into all the suppliers and contracts again, given these economic times.  And privatizing several city services or resources was raised as well.

However, the task at hand was solvency today.  Make Oakland Better Now!, a citizen initiative, organized this week’s meeting to identify and assess what could be done right now.  After all, the  City Council will be forced to find the remaining millions soon – and we might as well offer our two cents.

Oakland, Consider Four-Day Week

Here’s a bright idea!  To deliver additional budget savings, the City of Oakland might consider Monday-Thursday office hours.  Stay with us, because the idea’s not that original or far-fetched.

We just read about Utah state government workers, who clock ten-hour days and get paid for their 40-hour weeks.  The difference is their offices are shuttered and they don’t work on Fridays.  In return, the state saves money.

Employee Punch Card

How has this experiment worked for Utah?  Swimmingly, but not for the reasons that were originally envisioned about energy savings.  Instead, the major benefit has been overtime pay!  Apparently when workers complete their ten hours shifts, they feel like going home.

All told, Utah has saved $500k in energy bills, $200k in janitorial services and a whopping $4.1 million in overtime payments.  We don’t know the overall percentage of the state budget saved, but this still sounds like a decent option to us.  Other states are trying this out as well, such as Washington and Hawaii.

The City of Oakland has already mandated one day/month closures, and that’s one way to save bucks.  It wouldn’t be hard to imagine having Friday closures beyond the current schedule.  Also the extended hours on other weekdays would likely be viewed as a convenience and welcomed by Oaklanders.

We know that some city jobs already follow longer-shift patterns, and that police, fire and other emergency services must be available after-hours.  But this four-day week would be different and more widespread.  The hours for many city services are truly fungible.

So let’s continue to get creative with our budgeting efforts.  We’re not sure if this scheduling option was ever tossed around during earlier discussions, but think it’s worthy of City Council time and consideration.

Some Civic Things Are Budgeted

Right now, the City of Oakland is making all kinds of news with our budget shortfalls.  Like every major metro area, we are dealing with huge gaps and have to get to some final and solvent budget.

Mayor Ron Dellums’ first shot has been poured over and worked through by the City Council.  Beyond the big nut with police funding, four Council representatives have recommended many, many changes – including some civic-minded things that are now budgeted.

Oakland City Officials

We’re betting that you didn’t look at what our council rep, Jean Quan, and her colleagues adjusted in their budget.  It seems like Montclarions are so fed up that even paying attention to the shortfalls and responses can be headache-inducing, but some of our hot-button issues have been addressed:

  • Branch libraries stay open five days a week – While we won’t have six days a week, these hours are certainly better than two or three days which had been proposed by the mayor.  (It will be nice for Montclair to re-open on July 5th, finally.)
  • Two park ranger positions stay in place – There’s been lots of noise from Montclarions, and rightfully so.   This current staffing isn’t ideal, but we will take something rather than nothing!  We hope the rangers will attend to Joaquin Miller, Shepherd, Dimond and other key spots over the summer.
  • Twelve public workers keep their jobs – As Mother Nature takes its toll, it’s good to see four workers handling trees.  Of course, visitors also take their toll on our city parks and eight maintenance workers will be saved too.  This isn’t full-force, so volunteers are still needed to keep parks clean.
  • The CORE program will live on – Some sanity prevails, and the safety coordinator will still be training citizens in handling all the typical Oakland disasters.  We’re overdue for both fires and earthquakes, so it’s important that neighbors know what to do.  Apparently, the fire department agrees now.

What’s next?  The “first reading of the ordinances” takes place this Tuesday, June 16th at 6pm, in the City Council chambers.  This means the Council’s budget motion is reviewed at that session.  There’s a second reading scheduled for June 30th, which would include revisions and changes.

Meanwhile, the wheels spin slowly but sometime the budget does have to get done – even without clear understanding of the impacts from federal, state and county levels.

Budget Matter: Keep Park Rangers Alive

Another budget head-shaker?  It sure looks like the Oakland Park Rangers will die, following their slow fade over the past few years.

The Friends of Oakland Rangers have been keeping up with the budgeting travails of the proud lone rangers.  There are three positions and two are currently filled.  According to Mayor Ron Dellums’ budget plan, all the positions will vanish and the Oakland Police pick up the slack.

Friends of Oakland Park Rangers

From now through July 1st, the two rangers are supposed to cover West and East Oakland.  Oddly enough, they are not supposed to focus on the central part of the city – where the largest parks are located like Dimond, Lakeside and Joaquin Miller.  The ranger station at Joaquin Miller is officially closed as well.

The Friends of Oakland Rangers are strongly advocating the City Council to keep the ranger station, fund the three ranger positions, and shift the group to Parks and Recreation.  (The rangers used to be part of the Parks department until 1992, when the Police department took ’em over.)

We’re gonna have a serious mess on our hands and will settle for something.  Even scaled back, the current rangers have been responsive and aware of what’s happening in the parks.  Now the full range of park problems will go unnoticed.  Care for an out-of-control bonfire, on a windy day?