When Antwan Wilson was selected to lead D.C. Public Schools, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and D.C. Council members touted his success leading the Oakland Unified School District in California, including his ability to create “newfound financial stability.”
But less than a month before Wilson starts his job in the District, the Oakland school system says Wilson has left it facing a significant projected budget shortfall for next year and that leaders are struggling to find a way to quickly reduce costs by at least $25 million.
The projected shortfall is a result of declining enrollment coupled with an increase in costs for special education, nutrition and other programs, according to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle. The school system is operating at a $500,000 deficit this year, with a total budget of $405.3 million.
During his confirmation process in the District, Wilson cited as successes his negotiation of contracts with labor unions that provided “double-digit salary increases” and his boosting of early-
childhood programs. Those and other commitments, as well as the decrease in enrollment, contributed to the school system’s expected shortfall, according to Oakland school district financial reports to its Board of Education.
Wilson said in an interview with The Washington Post that the Oakland school system is not in the same kind of financial trouble that led it into a state bailout more than a decade ago, and he said the projected shortfall is part of the annual budget process; many of the nation’s school systems, in seeking full funding, report projected shortfalls to their local governments. He said the shortfall in Oakland will materialize only if the school system keeps all programs fully funded and makes no cuts.
“That’s not what’s going to happen. That’s not what has happened any year I have been here,” Wilson said. “Every year that I have been at Oakland, Oakland has balanced its budget.”
Wilson called the union raises “extremely responsible,” because they are tied to an increase in state revenue. “No new revenue, no raise,” he said.
Reports about the deficit have some officials in Oakland worried that Wilson is leaving behind costly programs without the proper funding mechanisms. In the District, some worry that the Oakland shortfall signals the potential for budgeting woes in Wilson’s administration in Washington.
“It is concerning to me because fiscal management is a big part of the job,” said Cathy Reilly, executive director of the Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals and Educators. “That this happened on his watch is something for us to watch carefully.”
D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who heads the education committee, said he was worried when he heard about the projected shortfall in Oakland, but he said he has since spoken to Wilson and was assured that it was part of the normal budgeting process.
“He anticipated the issues and did right by sticking around for another month” in Oakland, Grosso said.
School budget officials in Oakland did not respond to requests for comment, but they told the San Francisco Chronicle that they will propose reductions to the central administration and some school consolidations to avoid cutting programs and rolling back policies.
Wilson is scheduled to present the school system’s financial situation to the Oakland community this month, but it will be up to other officials to decide what it will take to avoid a deficit next year.
“He is leaving us with quite a mess to deal with in his absence,” said Trish Gorham, the teachers union president in Oakland. “It caught the public completely by surprise, because everything that we have been told is that we have gotten great ratings and we have clean audits.”
Dan Lindheim, chairman of the Oakland district’s audit committee, said he has not yet been briefed on the budget situation, but he is eager to see the breakdown of costs. Lindheim said he hopes this is not the beginning of deep financial trouble for Oakland, which has been under state control in the past because it was unable to balance its budget.
Although Lindheim said he gives some credit to Wilson, “to say he was responsible for the newfound fiscal stability is a reach,” noting that many of the things put in place to help Oakland stabilize its finances were in motion before he became superintendent.
Bowser’s staff said the mayor’s office verified that Oakland has balanced its budgets in the past. Bowser (D) chose Wilson for his track record of improving graduation rates and decreasing out-of-school suspensions, said Kevin Harris, the mayor’s communications director.
“He has performed well in a district with limited resources” and he will soon lead a school district where resources are not scarce, Harris said in a statement.
By the time Oakland’s budget is approved in June, Wilson will be in the District, running one of the best-funded school systems in the country. This year, D.C. Public Schools has a $910 million budget, serving 48,800 students. Oakland enrolled 36,700 students, with a budget less than half the size.
Wilson, who is in the middle of his third school year in Oakland, said reducing spending from an original budget request is common. Wilson said that the school district has had to make cuts of this size before, and that “every year, we identify priorities and we fund them.”