The Real Challenges of District Reform

Changing district behavior is really hard. I learned this first hand working with OUSD to reduce restrictions on schools and implement so called “site based decision-making” as part of its broader New Small Autonomous Schools Policy.   And it was often not bad actors or bad intentions, but just an inertia that kept the district hurtling forward in the same direction as we tried to steer it, which honestly is harder to grapple with.

It was over a decade ago that OUSD went through its most comprehensive set of reforms, the new small autonomous schools—which created academies in larger schools or fostered the creation of new schools, and its related policy of increasing site based decision making, and giving more authority over budgeting and operations to all sites, starting with some pilots.

I was on the School Site Council for Bret Harte at the time, and we were a pilot school, along with Edward Shands, Melrose and a couple of others.  We were charged with making suggestions around how to effectively move authority from the District offices to schools, and piloting those policies.

We needed some tangible benefits for schools to get them interested and one obvious pain point was the purchasing process, which required, a request from the site, signed by two people there, and then it had to go to the central district offices, get a signature there, and then sent to the vendor, who would deliver it to the OUSD warehouse on High Street and then from there it would be delivered to the school.  So something like ordering reams of paper would take weeks or months as forms sat on peoples’ desks, with a circuitous and inefficient process of shifting papers at the site, at the central offices, then delivery to a central warehouse and then delivery to the school.  There had to be a better way.

An easy win that would be very attractive to schools seemed to be to just get a credit card for the schools and they could go to office depot or whomever and just get what they needed.  Makes sense.  Made sense to everyone around the table, but because it made sense doesn’t mean it worked.

So we asked the district about credit cards—they said schools could not get them, a bank would not issue them to the schools.  Okay, I also worked with charters and we got them.  So we asked a bank and they said it could be done.  So we come back to OUSD and they say, okay it can be done but it can’t be a credit card, you need a debit card.  Okay so we get the schools to pre load a debit type card as part of their budgeting process, to go through district approved vendors, and the card would be used for smaller purchases and they would go straight to the schools.  Makes sense right?

Well the delivery guys “know” that schools don’t get direct deliveries, so when they got pickup orders from the vendors for delivery to school sites, they just dropped them at the OUSD central warehouse, believing the delivery addresses to be mistaken.  So now things are lost at the central warehouse.

We went through a whole series of troubleshooting discussions, and started to work out the bugs.  Mind you, we are probably 18 months into a seemingly simple foray, and were just starting to get it right.

Then, Oakland Unified finally starts to understand its budget, and realizes it’s broke and deep in structural debt.  The old superintendent is gone, the district is put into receivership, and a new appointed administrator takes over.  Pretty sure they just cancelled the whole debit card thing at that point.

This experience did not turn me away from wanting to make things better within districts, but it did open my eyes to the challenges.  Nothing is simple, many parts are interrelated, and the convoluted/bureaucratic infrastructure sometimes lives and breathes on its own, and has settled into its own inertial course, regardless of what leaders or workers within it want.

And this is not to say that policy or reforms don’t matter.  For even as the tidal flow of inertia, slowly washed away the reforms we worked on, decentralization and small responsive schools policies, there remained a series of new castles in the sand in the schools that were created.  LIFE Academy, Ascend, Met West, and really most of the District’s best small schools came out of the reforms.  So while the reforms may be dead, their children live on, and better serve Oakland’s students, and that is something.

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