Oakland school board members and superintendent listen to presentation of possible grand jury responses by general counsel Joshua Daniels. (Photo by Theresa Harrington/EdSource)

In its first public meeting on a scathing grand jury report charging the district with “a broken administrative culture that thrives on dysfunction and self-interest,” the Oakland Unified School Board could not agree on how to respond.

Some board members disagreed with each other about how to respond to criticisms raised in the report and about whether to limit public comment at board meetings.

They couldn’t get consensus on drafts, prepared by the district’s general counsel, to respond to the grand jury’s withering criticisms.

“I personally thought we were here for students, instead of trying to divert attention from the report,” said board member Roseann Torres, adding that she was concerned about allegations related to “spending on autopilot with massive nepotism and no bidding” on many contracts. “It’s problematic.”

Board member James Harris said the board should stress the actions the district is taking to rectify problems raised in the report.

“We should not be making excuses,” he said. “We should say, ‘We agree,’ ‘we strongly agree,’ or ‘we disagree,’ and then say what we are doing.”

The board held a special meeting Aug. 20 to consider how it should respond to a civil Alameda County grand jury report released in June that said the district’s fiscal problems are largely the result of mismanagement and lack of accountability among staff. It was based on eight complaints received from people currently or formerly affiliated with the district, along with interviews of more than 20 people. The report is titled: “The Oakland Unified School District’s Broken Administrative Culture — Millions Wasted Every Year.”

The district is legally required to respond to the report within 90 days, which expires Sept. 19. The board set Sept. 11 to review its response, but board members’ comments during the Aug. 20th meeting showed how far apart they are on a joint message addressing district spending, facilities, board policies, board meetings and leadership, and staff culture and capacity.

Board member Shanthi Gonzales said she agreed with most of the findings and didn’t want the response to include vague language promising that the district was “actively engaged in addressing concerns.”

“I don’t think we have agreement,” she said, “so I’m not sure how we’re going to respond.”

Although lack of transparency and accountability was one of the issues raised in the report, the district did not record or live-stream the 3-hour meeting according to its usual practice. The board also discussed ways to limit public comments during board meetings, based on a grand jury finding that “excessively long meetings fail to focus the board on its priorities and details, which results in a lack of actionable decisions on key issues.”

Harris and board members Gary Yee and Jumoke Hinton-Hodge said they would like to restrict public comments to the beginning or the end of meetings to shorten meeting lengths. But Torres said the district wouldn’t have so many enraged people coming in droves to comment if they didn’t “have a beef.”

Officials said the meeting was not recorded because of miscommunications with technical staff. At least one person tweeted that she was frustrated because she could not attend and had planned to watch a video of the meeting.

Hinton-Hodge said the board should consider that the public wants answers. “A level of truth-telling is just so critical and important,” she said. Ultimately, she said the board is trying to find a solution to the question: “Why do some kids not learn in this district over a consistent period of time?”

Several board members said it is important to explain why, as the grand jury report detailed, the district spends more than other districts in areas such as administration. The board’s commitment to allowing schools to make their own decisions about how to spend money and to establish “community schools” that offer health-related services could contribute to higher expenses than those in neighboring districts, Harris said.

Although the civil grand jury does not have the authority to compel the district to act on its report, it does review responses and intends to monitor whether the district implements its recommendations.

Daniels said the board was required to respond to every finding and recommendation. This includes a finding that the “district’s culture is ‘broken.’” He added that it was not necessary to rebut every allegation, but said the responses should be accurate.

Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments this year in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts as a way to illustrate some of the most urgent challenges facing many urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.

Story originally published by EdSource.