Published in Oakland North, April 29, 2012

If the Oakland Unified School District is going to keep schools from leaving to become charters, it needs to change its policy on local school governance, board member David Kakishiba (District 2) told fellow board members at a special meeting on Wednesday night.

“The bottom line is if we don’t move affirmatively in some concrete ways, we’ll have more ASCENDs and Learning Without Limits,” Kakishiba said.

ASCEND and Learning Without Limits are two current district small elementary schools that successfully petitioned to become “partnership” charters in the fall. This model –in which the schools retain a close relationship with the district and continue to pay for services and participate in trainings—is new to the district and came about as a compromise after both schools’ charter applications were initially denied by the board in January.

The reason the schools, two of the highest performing in the district, petitioned to become charters is to have autonomy over staffing, budget, curriculum and scheduling, according to ASCEND principal Larissa Adam. The schools initially had control over these areas when they were formed in 2000, as a part of the district’s first autonomous school policy. But Adam said schools lost control of those areas as leadership has changed over the years, including a state takeover in 2003 and a lack of a permanent superintendent before Tony Smith took over in 2009.

In late January, a committee was formed to look at just what the school board means by “school site decision making,” Kakishiba told the board on Wednesday. The 19-person committee included teachers, principals and parents and was tasked with coming up with a board policy statement of action that is consistent with the board’s theory of action, which states: “In service of high and equitable outcomes for students, maximize school site decision making, regarding staffing, finance, calendars and program.”

The committee crafted a resolution that was heard by the board for the first time on Wednesday night. The resolution would create “governance teams” at schools that would be in charge of managing resources and establishing each school’s strategy to improve attendance, academic achievement and wellness.

But just how a governance team should be established is not spelled out. Board member Alice Spearman (District 7) said existing “School Site Councils” should be incorporated into the governance teams. All schools that receive federal funding are required to have a School Site Council, a group that includes a school’s principal, teachers and parents that already help a school make decisions around budgeting of categorical funds and student achievement. “I think you would get more buy-in from the community and more buy-in from staff,” Spearman said of including SSCs in the governance teams.

Reaction to the plan from the public speakers was mixed. Jim Hopkins, speaking on behalf of Oakland Community Organizations, spoke in support, saying schools should be empowered to make more decisions. “A community organized and engaged brings many things to the table,” he said.

But some questioned how powerful the district would remain if schools had more freedom to make decisions. Ron Mohammed, a McClymonds grad and supporter, said there is a “balancing that needs to happen.”

“Somebody has to be held responsible,” Mohammed told the board. “The school site council can’t be held responsible because most parents are involved as long as their children are there, and they’re making decisions about the future that was about the immediate future. It can be very nearsighted.”

The board is scheduled to vote on school governance at its regularly scheduled meeting next week.