From a lively, uh, discussion tonight between Oakland school board member Alice Spearman and Chief Academic Officer Brad Stam about Sports4Kids (now Playworks) emerged the beginnings of a philosophical debate about what is “necessary” for Oakland schools in the context of severe and ongoing budget cuts.
Earlier in the evening, the board had discussed the superintendent’s proposed priorities — a set of goals that will theoretically help the board and staff know where to cut $27 million-plus from next year’s budget.
Spearman had also singled out, from a long list of vendors, a few Sports4Kids contracts with individual schools. What she didn’t realize was that in June, before the school district emerged (mostly) from state control, State Administrator Vince Matthews approved a $727,500 master contract with the organization, which runs games and activities at 25 elementary schools in the mornings, after school and at recess.
According to Cindy Wilson, Playworks’ communications director, the organization charges each school a flat fee of $23,500. Since the number of participating Oakland schools went from 40 to 25 this year, Playworks will receive $587,500, less than the total amount allowed under the master contract.
(Side note: An old Sports4Kids Web page lists Oakland Superintendent Tony Smith as a member of its East Bay Advisory Council, but Wilson said Smith is no longer on the council.)
Back to the Sports4Kids Showdown…
“It is necessary,” Stam says, his voice rising as he cites the national childhood obesity epidemic and the importance of physical activity and structured play.
Spearman cuts him off. “I know a waste of money when I see a waste of money,” she says. (Spearman later described herself as “a big girl” and told Stam that she took offense at “that obesity comment.”)
David Kakishiba jumps in with a different answer to Spearman’s question: “Is it necessary? No.”
Jody London calls the program “invaluable,” and says “you can’t really put a price tag on it” (although it does, in fact, come with a price tag).
Finally, Gary Yee takes the question of necessity to the philosophical level, where it remained until we members of the public left for the night. “I think this is a very important and profound question,” he says, adding that the board should be able to track each expenditure back to the district’s priority sheet and measure its effectiveness.
As Yee noted, Oakland’s school-based budgeting system makes such decisions doubly complicated. As of now, each principal gets to choose the services — such as Sports4Kids/Playworks — that he or she thinks is best for the kids at that school, or whether to hire a staff person to do the job.
So, let’s say, hypothetically, the board wants to cut the budget by increasing class size or ending the Sports4Kids contract. How can it effect such changes with a decentralized budgeting system? Should the board just stay out of these decisions and let the leadership of each school decide?