Classes without heat. Sports cut. Sacramento: Is Oakland’s school chaos your future?

Will Sacramento’s public schools have a state takeover like Oakland’s did?

When Oakland Unified School District submitted to state takeover in 2003, it suffered school closures, deep cuts to sports and extracurricular programs, and leadership chaos. Will Sacramento city schools avoid the same fate?
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When Oakland Unified School District submitted to state takeover in 2003, it suffered school closures, deep cuts to sports and extracurricular programs, and leadership chaos. Will Sacramento city schools avoid the same fate?

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What’s in Sac City Unified’s future? Oakland may provide a clue

A possible state takeover is looming for Sacramento City Unified School District. Nearby Oakland Unified went into receivership in 2003. Here’s what happened, and how the story is still unfolding.

School closures. Deep cuts to sports and extracurricular programs. Chaos and constant leadership turnover.

Those were just some of the consequences when Oakland Unified School District went bust and submitted to state takeover in 2003 – a fate that Sacramento city schools are scrambling to avoid.

Is this our future?

Sacramento City Unified needs to cut $35 million by the end of June or go into receivership, triggered by an emergency state loan to balance its budget. It would become the 10th California district since 1990 to earn that dubious distinction, including nearby Oakland.

Sacramento City Unified and its teachers union are openly at war, with a second strike planned for May 22.

Even though the two sides can find little common ground, they agree on one thing: A state takeover would bring years – perhaps decades – of hardship.

The effect on a generation of Oakland schoolchildren was severe. Some classrooms had no heat in the winter. Some classes didn’t have enough desks, so students were forced to stand. High school counselors disappeared.

“Do whatever you can to prevent this from happening,” said Oakland public education advocate Mike Hutchinson. “Oakland should be a cautionary tale for everyone.”

What Oakland’s students lost

California school districts enter receivership when they declare insolvency and request an emergency loan from the state to balance their budgets. The board and superintendent surrender all control to a state-appointed administrator, whose priority is to restore financial stability and pay off the loan.

The consequences can be drastic, and Oakland observers agree that amid the takeover pain, no one suffered more than the students. With a mandate to balance the budget, they say, state decision-makers wielded a big knife and cut huge swaths of programs that had benefited those who needed them most.

Like many urban school districts, Oakland Unified serves a diverse student body.

About 75 percent are eligible for free or reduced lunch, many of them concentrated in the poorer flatlands of the city along San Francisco Bay. Schools in the more affluent neighborhoods of the Oakland hills have better funding, supported by donations through parent-teacher associations.

Hutchinson, who ran an after-school program in Oakland Unified, called the disparities between the communities a “two-tiered system” that became even more exaggerated during the takeover. Programs and resources were eliminated, and students of color and lower socioeconomic backgrounds bore the brunt of the reductions, he said.

The district’s sports program, the Oakland Athletic League, saw hefty cuts. As a result, middle school sports were so underfunded that schools had few or no sports teams left.

“Sports programs often are the only connection that a lot of people, especially young boys from low-income communities, have to school,” said Troy Flint, former district spokesman. “Sometimes that’s the only reason they’re coming to school and that keeps them involved and can be a launching pad to something better in life.”

Today, some middle schools have reintroduced sports in a patchwork fashion.

Middle school teacher Kate Krumei coaches girls basketball in east Oakland, far from the hills, with very few resources. She raised money for uniforms through GoFundMe, she said.

This year, the boys basketball team couldn’t raise funds for proper attire, so they sprayed-painted numbers on T-shirts to make jerseys.

“There’s no transportation, there’s no funding, and there’s no accountability,” Krumei said.


Why we reported this story

Sacramento City Unified School District is in crisis, swimming in red ink and racing to balance its budget under threat of a state takeover.

Officials from the Sacramento County Office of Education and the Fiscal Crisis Management Assistance Team, the state-created financial adviser for schools, have repeatedly warned Sacramento City Unified of the harsh consequences when a district cedes local control to an administrator. We wanted to get a better picture of what a state takeover would mean, from the perspective of a nearby district where the process is ongoing: Oakland Unified.

Read more by clicking the arrow in the upper right.

How we did it

Oakland Unified School District entered receivership in 2003 and has not yet regained full autonomy. We researched and constructed a timeline of events. We talked to students, families, teachers, administrators and other officials from Oakland Unified who experienced the state takeover. We also gathered data about the cities and school districts to show how they compare.

Read complete coverage of the Sacramento City Unified crisis and teachers’ strikes here.

Because sports programs are provided on an optional basis at each campus, disproportionately more programs are for boys than girls, Krumei said, a potential violation of Title IX, which protects students from gender discrimination in educational settings.

Counselors were cut entirely from some high schools such as East Oakland School of the Arts, in one of the city’s most marginalized neighborhoods – where social studies teacher Fatima Ghatala said she has lost more than 10 students to homicide since she began teaching in Oakland 13 years ago.

Ghatala said federal, state and local budget cuts hurt the poorest and disadvantaged students the most quickly and severely.

When the only counselor was cut from their school, Ghatala and another teacher stepped in.

“They didn’t have anyone reviewing their high school transcript, sharing opportunities and programs, or supporting their post-secondary decision making,” Ghatala said. “I was spending class time teaching financial aid, types of colleges and degrees and the high school graduation requirements.”

Vivid memories: ‘Still dealing with the repercussions’

Oakland Unified’s takeover started 16 years ago. Current students who started there in kindergarten have never attended school in an autonomous Oakland district.

Especially for those who endured the early takeover years, the memories are vivid and grim.

“They couldn’t afford to turn the heat on in the winter in all of the wings of the school,” said Gina Lujan, whose two children attended Skyline High School in 2008. “Kids were bundled up like they were going to a winter retreat, and would visit the classrooms that had heat.”

Lujan had moved her family from Elk Grove for her career. Her son had a learning disability, and when he switched to a school in Oakland, Lujan said, he didn’t get the help he needed, because resources were not readily available.

“He basically shut down, and he ended up not graduating,” she said. “I am still dealing with the repercussions of that today.”

“Some students couldn’t print assignments, because there wasn’t any extra paper,” Lujan said. “These were kids coming from poor neighborhoods to begin with.”

Some former students recall overcrowded classrooms. Sonny Gomez, 26, who attended Skyline High in 2008, didn’t have a seat in her trigonometry class for nearly a month.

“There were too many students in the class, and a shortage in desks,” Gomez said. “It’s hard to learn when you aren’t sitting down.”

Gomez found herself skipping class often. Her time in Oakland Unified came to an end 2011 and even her senior year festivities were cut.

Others remember rapid turnover in the campus office.

Luke Brekke-Miesner was 16 when the state took over in 2003.“I remember having four principals in four years,” he said. “They came in with a machete when they needed a scalpel.”

Brekke-Miesner is now executive director Oakland Kids First, which trains student organizers to address district equity and cultural climate.

“Schools aren’t just for education,” he said. “They are social service hubs, and social clinics. It felt audacious for a state that doesn’t fund an education properly to say you’re not doing a good job.”

Oakland and Sacramento: How do they compare?

The events that triggered Oakland’s sudden crash sound eerily familiar in Sacramento City Unified.

David Kakishiba was sworn in on the Oakland school board just months before the district declared insolvency in 2003 and then-Gov. Gray Davis approved a $100 million emergency line of credit – the biggest school bailout in California history.

The newly designed board had recently approved a 24 percent salary increase for its teachers.

“But we had to pay for it,” Kakishiba said. “The board failed to oversee this and make necessary reductions, or find revenue to pay for it.”

To avert an imminent teachers strike in 2017, Sacramento City Unified also approved a salary increase that it now realizes it can’t afford – even though Sacramento County schools Superintendent David Gordon warned district officials just days after their decision.

Now staring at insolvency and takeover, many in Sacramento City Unified are asking: How could this happen here, in a relatively prosperous city with schools clustered around California’s Capitol?

As Mayor Darrell Steinberg often puts it, Sacramento is experiencing a “renaissance” of economic development. Sacramento grew faster than the 10 largest cities in California last year, according to the state Department of Finance.

But Oakland and Sacramento share similarities. According to U.S. Census Bureau:

  • Oakland’s median household income is $63,251, compared with Sacramento’s $54,615.

  • The poverty rate is 18.7 percent in Oakland and 19.8 percent in Sacramento.

  • Oakland’s 3.7 percent economic growth rate is slightly higher than Sacramento’s 3.1 percent.

The two school districts also have commonalities, according to California Department of Education data:

  • They are similar in size – Oakland Unified has shrunk during receivership over the past decade and a half to about 37,000 today. Sacramento City Unified serves about 42,000 students.

  • Both districts are diverse, with students of color constituting 88.6 percent of the population in Oakland Unified and 82 percent in Sacramento, according to the state Department of Education.

  • The percentage of students who receive reduced price or free lunch is 75.3 percent in Oakland and 71.3 percent in Sacramento.

Sacramento City Unified’s students compared somewhat higher in performance measurements in 2018.

  • Oakland’s graduation rate is 76.9 percent, compared to Sacramento’s 85.9 percent.

  • In Oakland, 34.7 percent of students are considered college/career ready, compared to Sacramento’s 40 percent.

  • In Oakland, 13.9 percent of students are chronically absent, compared to Sacramento’s 14.6 percent.

  • On state language arts assessment tests, 45.1 percent of Oakland students did not meet standards, compared to 36.8 percent in Sacramento. On the math assessment, 50 percent of Oakland students did not meet standards, compared to 42.3 percent in Sacramento.

Sacramento City Unified is facing one key difference: If it goes into receivership, it would be the first district with a county-appointed administrator, rather than one appointed by the state, which would bring control closer to home.

But observers from Oakland say that’s little comfort.

“I would still caution the people in Sacramento,” said Hutchinson. “We lost a generation of schools which were our community meeting spots, and our social fabric.”

Lessons for Sacramento

Each school district is unique, with its own history, structure, stakeholders and countless other variables. Flint said that if Sacramento goes through a takeover, its experience will not precisely mirror Oakland’s.

However, some of the district’s hard-won knowledge can be applied broadly, he said.

“Hopefully people across the state have learned some lessons from the way things happened in Oakland,” Flint said. “In Oakland there were a lot of ambitious plans to reform or transform the school district beyond simply fixing the books and paying down the debt.”

Because of recent state legislation, if Sacramento goes into receivership, Sacramento County Superintendent of Education David Gordon would select the administrator.

But Hutchinson said even if oversight is locally imposed, receivership still translates to bigger cuts and less control.

“You never want to lose the democratic connection you have as representatives of the people,” said Flint. “It’s better to make these decisions at the local level where there is a stronger connection to the community than when you have sort of a disembodied group.”

Oakland Unified is still grappling with the takeover fallout, Hutchinson said, and an entrenched lack of trust between the community and the district.

Flint said it will probably take years for the relationship to heal.

In February, Oakland’s teachers went on a seven-day strike and were given an 11 percent raise. The cost of the new contract will put Oakland Unified over budget, but the district maintains it can afford it after cutting more than $21 million in March.

Proposed cuts continue, including possible cuts to the district’s programs for restorative justice, foster care, libraries and English learners.

Sixteen years later, Hutchinson sees the state takeover as one of the many factors that cause instability in the district today a legacy with particular meaning for schools that may face receivership, like Sacramento’s.

“The decisions that are made will not be made in the best interest of your community,” he said.

Follow more of our reporting on Sacramento City Unified in Crisis

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Sawsan Morrar covers school accountability and culture for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in Sacramento and is an alumna of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She previously freelanced for various publications including The Washington Post, Vice, KQED and Capital Public Radio.