Calif. Audit Cites Litany of Troubles In Oakland Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — February 09, 2000 4 min read

California auditors released a scathing assessment of the Oakland public schools last week, blasting one of the state’s most beleaguered districts for mismanagement and poor student achievement and warning that it is hovering on the brink of serious financial difficulty.

“This is a district that is functioning in all areas at a very low level,” Thomas E. Henry, who oversaw the study, said in an interview.

In its long-awaited, 600-page report, the Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team—the state’s troubleshooters for failing districts—found the 53,000-student system “in need of immediate and dramatic management assistance.”

“The process of the audit reveals a history of unsafe and declining facilities, an inability to attract and retain high-quality professional staff, ineffective leadership, and a virtually nonexistent evaluation system,” the report says.

The auditors cite the district’s frequent and disruptive changes in administration, as well as what they say is its disorganization, poor public relations, and financial woes, concluding that, “it is not difficult to understand the pervasive community perception that the district is mismanaged and that the students are victims of a system that does not have learning and achievement as its primary objective.”

Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, who is seeking greater control over the district, called the report “devastating” and warned the school board in a letter that the findings could form “the basis for a state takeover” of the schools.

State Sen. Don Perata, a Democrat who represents Oakland, pledged to secure additional funding in the legislature to enable the auditors to work with the district to make improvements.

Administrative Problems

The report can only add to the tumult in Oakland, where the school board hangs on the brink of change.

Not only is the district searching for a superintendent and negotiating a new teacher contract, but its governance structure also could change. Voters will decide next month whether to give Mr. Brown, a former California governor and Democratic presidential candidate, the power to increase his control by appointing three additional members to the seven-member elected board.

The district, whose financial woes date back at least a decade, when the state stepped in for a time to oversee its finances, was roiled again recently by a state audit that found that the district might have improperly claimed more than $2.7 million for labor-negotiation costs.

The report last week from the crisis team hardly surprised school board members, who knew when they requested the $750,000 study last April that it would focus on the district’s failings.

Board member Jean Quan said the findings were “pretty much what you would expect” from a district long reeling from multiple problems. She said she welcomed the findings as a “useful tool” from which to work toward improvement.

The auditors, who took a bus tour of most of the city’s 90 schools, examined the district in five subject areas, rating each on a scale of 1 to 10. Its overall average score was 4.23.

The lowest-ranking category was student achievement, which rated a 2.58. Auditors found no framework for overall curriculum design, so that curriculum delivery varied from one classroom to another.

Safety, Facilities Concerns

In a district where more than half the students are black, the review found African-American students being held back a grade at higher rates than other groups. The dropout rate is higher than the state average.

The schools with the highest numbers of poor students were found to have the highest concentrations of teachers with emergency credentials, and teacher salaries—the lowest in Alameda County, with $29,000 as the starting pay—were found to be insufficient to attract and keep teachers.

The district came in for especially harsh remarks in the area of financial management, where it earned an average score of 3.99. In addition to the concerns raised in the earlier state audit, the new report says, special education spending is excessive, and the district ended 1998-99 with an uncomfortably low reserve balance.

Complicating the financial concerns is the absence of a formal, internal audit structure, the auditors found, concluding that “the district’s future financial solvency is in serious question.”

In the other areas of study, Oakland schools received a 4.09 in personnel management, with an ominous note that the district is “open to legal exposure” for “poor management practices.”

It received a 4.88 in community relations, and a 4.99 in facilities management. The report cites safety issues that “must be addressed immediately,” such as more frequent building inspections, school security upgrades, elimination of fire hazards, and new guidelines for custodial handling of toxic substances.

Attempts to reduce class size have pushed students into “inadequate facilities” such as portable classrooms, stages, music rooms, and lunchrooms, the report says, and special education programs are “typically relegated to the least desirable spaces.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2000 edition of Education Week as Calif. Audit Cites Litany of Troubles In Oakland Schools