Outsourcing and the future of Oakland Unified’s “service economy”

school board

The Oakland school board spent more than two hours last night discussing its priorities and ideas for improving the local schools, especially those serving low-income children, while cutting $27 million or more from next year’s budget.

They covered a lot of ground, from teacher quality (Hodge) and support and the need for more academic rigor in some of the district’s high schools (Spearman) to the possibility of using existing parcel tax money to boost the salaries of teachers who are in their first five or 10 years at OUSD (Kakishiba), to the pros and cons of outsourcing school services, rather than providing them in-house (Yee, Spearman).

A group of principals spoke in favor of the current school-based budgeting system — and against the idea of the central office adjusting the amount of money given to schools based on a target class size. They came up with their own proposal, which I’ll write about later.

One issue the board grappled with last night was whether the central office — which now receives about 30 percent of the general purpose dollars — should absorb 70 percent of the $27 million cut, as CFO Vernon Hal and Superintendent Tony Smith proposed earlier this fall.

A cut that large would dramatically reshape the central office, which has already been redesigned in various “waves” under the Expect Success initiative.

In light of this downtown downsizing, Smith said he has questioned whether to shore up in-house services (which individual schools can purchase) or to stop providing some of them altogether. As it is, many school principals opt to work with outside organizations and companies, for example, rather than district personnel. You can find more details about consultant contracts here.

“Is the quality of service such that our own schools will purchase that service from the district?” Smith asked. “And that’s a standing question. … There are outside providers that are doing a better job.”

Bob Mandel, a longtime union leader who opposes the widespread use of consultants, told Smith he hoped he’d misunderstood his statement. He said the only way forward was for the district to build its internal capacity.

Katherine Carter, a principal at Manzanita SEED, said it shouldn’t matter whether the services are internal or external — that principals should be able to choose whatever’s best for their students.

“The majority of our funding goes to salaries,” Carter said. “However, we are not an employment agency. We are here to serve our students, and we really have to remember that.”

What do you think?

You can watch video of the meeting here. Or, if that link doesn’t work, just click here and hit the “video” button next to the Nov. 30 meeting agenda.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Union Supporter-But

    Bravo to the Board for asking some serious questions. Thank you Ms. Spearman for discussing the high school academic rigor. I know you have been looking at these issues very seriously. There is a lot of work to be done – thank you for taking the steps to put it out there for discussion and review.

    Ms. Hodge, thank you for brining your challenge to the table. It will be interesting in light of many, many teacher complaints about having to teach to the standards whether your office can really require teachers to do what their contract states which is that they must teach all students to the state standards and they will differentiate instruction. Would you be willing to work with principals to dismiss teachers who cannot do those two things, even if it means reducing the number of teachers of color if those are some of the underperforming teachers?

    And finally, Ms. Spearman and Mr. Yee thank you for recognizing that perhaps the schools can purchase the services they need outside the district offices cheaper, more efficiently and under terms that work best for their schools than the blanket contracts the district purchases. It may not always work that way, but the discussions are on the table. I know for example that the district has negotiated for prices of things that principals can buy cheaper without using the district negotiated price.

    These are very difficult times and it is clear that the board is looking at ways to cut costs in places other than school sites.

    Thank you –

  • harlemmoon

    Can we outsource the board?

  • Caroline


    I believe that is the best ideas I have ever read on this blog! Could you imagine! No cronyism, nepotsim, or local dummies!

    Great Idea!

  • harlemmoon

    Alas, Caroline, I’m afraid that they’d all take the position held by that great paragon of Board excellence, David Kakishiba: That they’re irreplaceable.