Members of the Black Organizing Project urge the Oakland Unified school board to eliminate its district police force on March 4. (Photo by Theresa Harrington/EdSource)

The Oakland Unified School District is prepared to cut its workforce by up to 100 workers starting July 1 and may consider eliminating its police force in the future.

Both issues came before the school board on March 4, ensuring that the district is likely to face months of turmoil as it cuts $18.8 million to balance its budget for the 2020-21 school year. At the same time, state and county officials have notified the district that its deficits could be higher than originally anticipated in December — $25 million this year and $33.5 million next year. The board expects to review updated budget projections later this month.

The board cut fewer jobs than originally recommended by Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell and her staff, who recommended $20.2 million in cuts including about 76 central office administrators or other workers who support school services. Other cuts in school-based jobs are also expected, but which positions will be affected is unclear.

More than 70 people appealed to district leaders last Wednesday to reconsider the cuts, including about 50 who urged the board to eliminate the district’s police force to save about $1.5 million. They said the savings could be used to restore positions that have previously been cut, such as counselors and coordinators trained in conflict resolution. Other speakers asked the board to restore foster youth case managers, a special education administrator and administrative assistant, a library manager and an employee who works in the district’s TV station, which televises board and committee meetings.

But the budget cuts approved on March 4 may not be enough, according to the Alameda County Office of Education and the Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team, or FCMAT, an outside agency that is monitoring the district’s budget. The county said in a letter last month that the district appears to have overestimated its revenues and underestimated its costs.

And a March 2 letter to the state from FCMAT says that unsettled salary agreements could add $8 million to the district’s deficit this year and $12.7 million next year, which could result in the need to make even deeper cuts.

“Without the budget reductions or revenue enhancements, the risk to the district solvency is great,” the letter said, noting that the additional contract settlements could increase the projected deficit from about $25 million this year to $33.5 million.

In response to the push to eliminate the district’s police force, board member Roseann Torres suggested cutting three officers next year. But the board rejected this idea in a 3-4 vote.

Student board representatives and members of a community group called the Black Organizing Project and their supporters expressed dismay after the board rejected Torres’ motion to cut district police officers — whom they say target black and brown students and increase their likelihood of ending up in the criminal justice system. The student board members voted in favor of eliminating the officers, saying they feel unsafe around district police, but their votes were advisory.

A woman who identified herself as a teacher reminded the board that the district’s police had used batons to push back a crowd of protesters during a protest last fall against school closures, including some who said they were injured by officers. Those who said they were hurt have filed a lawsuit against the district alleging police used excessive force. The lawsuit is ongoing, the district’s general counsel Joshua Daniels told EdSource on March 5.

Johnson-Trammell told the board she has asked the district’s police Chief Jeff Godown to develop the plan for how the district could safely function without a police force, which she will present in September.

The 10-member police force responds to about 1,000 calls a semester from principals, students, family members and neighborhood residents related to emergencies or other service requests and works with about 57 campus security workers who are not police officers to keep staff and students safe, Godown told EdSource last Thursday.

Although those advocating for the elimination of district police said Oakland’s city police could handle emergencies if they come up, Godown said the city Police Department is understaffed and is so busy answering their own calls that they may not be able to respond quickly to schools.

“The constant rhetoric that the district’s police department contributes to the pipeline to prison is just not true,” he said, adding that he and his officers have good relationships with schools and arrest about two or three students per semester for high grade felonies. “The numbers of kids arrested are very low for the amount of calls that we handle.”

The cuts the board approved will help provide money for raises to employees in five unions that have not yet ratified new contracts, Johnson-Trammell said. Teachers received raises after their seven-day strike ended last year and members of the Service Employees International Union subsequently ratified a new contract with the district.

The district is covering some of its deficit this year with reserves, but is committed to ending its practice of deficit-spending long-term. It expects to vote on contract settlements with two unions March 11 and hopes to come to agreements with the other three unions in the next few months.

In an effort to save more money, the board may also explore speeding up school closures and consolidations. By the end of March, the board expects to discuss a new list of schools that could be closed, merged or expanded, Johnson-Trammell told EdSource.

The district plans to make about $10 million more in cuts for 2021-22, but is holding off on identifying those until after the November election, in the hopes that voters may pass an initiative that would provide more money to school districts throughout the state.

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

Story originally published by EdSource.