By Katy Murphy

STAFF WRITER

OAKLAND — The school district passed a $602 million budget Wednesday night for the 2009-10 year, leaning heavily on one-time federal money and unspent funds from previous years to stay in the black. The budget includes $417 million in general fund expenses and an $8.4 million set-aside required by the state.

While each school will take a 4.5 percent funding cut next year and the central administration office has slashed expenses, the situation would be far more severe without the influx of federal stimulus funds.

"We are delaying the pain until next year," said school board member David Kakishiba. Despite the ever-deepening state budget crisis, he added, "I think this district did a good job keeping cuts away from schools."

In recent meetings, Chief Financial Officer Vernon Hal has reported that the district is spending $18 million more in ongoing expenses next year than it is taking in. That means Oakland schools will need to cut $18 million from the 2010-11 budget — even if the state makes no further cuts. Top district staffers have suggested such measures as increasing class sizes, furloughs, merging or closing schools and shrinking the teaching force. Teachers, who are bargaining a new contract, have been asked to take a 3 percent cut.

"It's tight. It's tough," Hal said. "When the one-time (money) goes away, we're in a big hole."

Oakland operates more than 100 schools to educate less than 40,000 students (not including those attending the city's 32 public, independently run charter schools). While some are intentionally small, created as part of the Bill Gates-funded small schools movement, others — often, those that are struggling, academically — have seen their enrollment drop dramatically.

In addition to finding a way to balance its budget, the state-run Oakland school district has its large debt to worry about. The district still owes $81 million to the state from its 2003 emergency loan — the fiscal crisis that prompted the state takeover — plus another long-term loan taken out in the late 1990s for the Chabot Space & Science Center.

Two years ago, $35 million of Oakland's $100 million state loan remained unspent. But some of that money has since been used to upgrade district computer systems. Another $15 million might be used in the coming year to take care of a 6-year-old cash balance discrepancy and other problems, leaving just $5 million untouched.

That $15 million was not included in the 2009-10 budget.

One piece of good news is that the district's enrollment, which was in a free-fall for years, seems to have stabilized. Since district funding — and, in Oakland, individual school funding — is allocated by attendance, enrollment stability is an economic issue. Interim Superintendent Roberta Mayor, who will be replaced July 1 by Tony Smith, has repeatedly spoken of the need to close "tiny schools," meaning those that can't support themselves without special subsidies from the central office.

"I think we have to get real serious over the summer to figure out what our priorities are," board member Noel Gallo said.

Reach Katy Murphy at 510-208-6424, or at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com. Read her Oakland schools blog at www.ibabuzz.com/education.