OAKLAND — California's superintendent of public instruction, Jack O'Connell, has ordered the state-run Oakland school district to divert $480,000 of its funds to the city's independently run, public charter schools — about $60 for every charter school student.
"As we have discussed, I am concerned about the ongoing financial well-being of all the district's schools, and in particular, the district's charter schools," O'Connell wrote in a letter to his Oakland appointee, Vincent Matthews. O'Connell assured Matthews that it would be a "one-time" fee.
The unusual move — which appears to be in response to a failed November parcel tax measure that would have raised money for charters — has caught some local school officials off-guard.
"This is out of the blue," said Alice Spearman, the Oakland school board president. "It would be different if he was telling every school district in California to apportion $60 per student out of our budgets for charter schools, but he's just doing it to us."
For years, the Oakland school district has struggled to balance its budget amid sharp enrollment declines, a trend commonly blamed on the dozens of charter schools that have opened in the city. Oakland's charter schools educate about 8,000 kids, about 18 percent of the city's public schoolchildren.
This year, the enrollment has somewhat stabilized. But as a result of the state's budget problems, Oakland school officials have been preparing to cut $28 million from the district's general purpose fund by the end of 2010, a reduction of more than 10 percent.
Further reductions "would just decimate our budget," Spearman said. "We just don't have the money."
Spearman said she wasn't certain whether O'Connell had the legal authority to enforce such a mandate.
Oakland is still under state control, six years after a fiscal crisis and multimillion-dollar emergency bailout loan led to a takeover in 2003. In December, state auditors cleared the way for the school district to regain full local governing powers, but O'Connell hasn't handed over the reins. O'Connell's press secretary, Hilary McLean, said she didn't know when the power transfer would take place.
McLean said O'Connell's charter school mandate wasn't meant to be divisive. Oakland's charter schools don't benefit from any of the existing property taxes for public education, she said, which puts them at a disadvantage.
"It's an equity issue that isn't intended to pit one part of our system against another," she said.