Budget Cuts Kill Choir, Shrink Staff

Over $700,000 in salaries slashed in mid-year crisis

By Fatimah Abdulla

One of Victoria Smith’s dreams was to sing at her own graduation as part of the Skyline Choir.

“Choir is part of my heart,” said the senior. “I’ve been doing it all my life.”

Unfortunately for Smith, mid-year budget cuts at Skyline killed her wish when the school decided not to hire a new choir/piano teacher and disperse students in those classes to other elective classes.

“Choir has been a rich tradition for Skyline; when I had a bad day I went to the choir class and listened to something beautiful. It always made me feel better,” said Mr. Johnson, a social studies teacher.  

Choir is not the only program harmed by the current cuts, and a budget crisis in Oakland schools means that more may be cut next year.

Some three-quarters of a million dollars was cut from Skyline’s budget after the school year had already started, in two separate cuts. First, about $300,000 in savings had to be trimmed as a result of under-enrollment in the previous year. Then, at the holidays, the Oakland School Board approved big emergency budget cuts officials said were needed to prevent OUSD from running out of money in future years; Skyline’s share of these cuts was the biggest in the district, at nearly $450,000.

Although no teachers were laid off as a result of these cuts, Skyline’s Business Manager Yesenia Alamillo said that several positions — including the choir/piano teacher, a counselor, an assistant principal, and a school security officer — were left unfilled in order to balance the accounting books.

Additionally, $204,426 in federal Title 1 funding that is intended to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds was reallocated by the School Site Council (SSC) at the request of the school administration, to help pay a fifth of the salary of 17 teachers in the school’s Atlas freshmen houses who do some academic intervention for struggling students.

According to the SSC’s Jan. 25 meeting notes, administrators told the SSC that if their proposal was rejected, three teachers, as well as the textbook manager and a member of the clerical staff, would be laid off mid-year. However, it passed unanimously.

Despite these cuts, however, Assistant Principal Garrett-Walker claimed that a “common misconception is that Skyline is poor, or Skyline does not have a lot of money, which is definitely not true.”

Skyline embraces the pathway model to partially organize how money is spent, she said. The pathways, through which students have the opportunity for personalized learning and can focus on their career goals, have separate budgets based on income from the state, local Oakland taxes, business donations, and fundraising. However, while we do have pathways specific to students’ passions, many students have been upset year after year that these pathways do not get an equal amount of funding and resources.

For example, while three of the school’s pathways are California Partnership Academies (CPA) eligible for additional funding, the Visual and Performing Arts Academy (VPA) is not, and has to scramble to fund performances, travel to competitions like the Reno Jazz Festival, and art supplies.

The Visual and Performing Arts Academy are struggling with affording supplies.   

“Because we are the newest academy, and we don’t have a lot of the materials already, …. also our art’s materials need to be replaced every year,” said Mr. Treacy Visual Arts Department Chair and Art Teacher.

“Performing arts is as important as any other academy,” said Victoria Smith. Since VPA is not a CPA, it does not have access to as much extra funding. Computer academy students also complain about not having enough field trips.

The district-wide cuts could have been even worse: Officials originally proposed to slash $15 million, but, under pressure from outraged community members, ultimately brought the amount down.

Some teachers and parents are accusing former OUSD superintendent Antwan Wilson, who left the district suddenly last year when he was offered a new job in Washington D.C., of being the reason why so many problems are arising following the budget cuts. Critics say he hired many of his own friends and spent money on consultants and on unnecessary programs.

The district is no stranger to financial problems. In May 2003, the State of California authorized an emergency loan of $100 million to OUSD while also appointing a State Administrator to take over the powers and responsibilities of the school board. Eventually, control of the district was returned to the people of Oakland, but we are still in the progress of paying back the loan.

In addition to OUSD’s long history of financial mismanagement, declining enrollment, rising pensions, excessive spending, and systemic challenges such as large numbers of charter schools are just a few of the reasons  offered to explain the current budget crisis.

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