Antwan Wilson came to Washington nine months ago to become chancellor of the city’s school system, a surprise choice by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, who said she picked the Oakland, Calif., public schools chief because he was a “proven manager” who brought fiscal stability to that district.
But just a few months after Wilson left Oakland, the perennially troubled district is in such severe financial straits that the Board of Education on Nov. 8 ordered $15.1 million in immediate budget cuts — on top of millions of dollars in reductions made earlier in the year.
Mental health services, computer labs, librarians and supplies are now being pared or eliminated at some campuses, and the fiscal pain is expected to continue into the 2018-2019 school year, with additional cuts ordered by the school board. A recent analysis of the district’s finances by state auditors concluded that “the district has lost control of its spending.”
Wilson, who became superintendent of the 37,000-student Oakland district in 2014 after working as a teacher and principal in other states, through a spokeswoman declined requests for comment over the past week. Bowser’s office did not reply to requests for comment.
Carmelita Reyes, the principal of Oakland International High School, described Wilson as “culpable” in the budget debacle.
“Certainly, there has been financial dysfunction in Oakland that predates him, and I don’t want to let everybody else off the hook,” said Reyes, who is co-chair of the Principals Advisory Committee in Oakland and a member of the District Budget Advisory Committee.
“We do not have adequate checks and balances in our system. We don’t have technology tracking our spending. We don’t have adequate human resources tracking our spending,” she said. “And we have a school board that ultimately had oversight of him, approving salaries and contracts. But he bears a lot of responsibility.”
John Sasaki, communications director for the Oakland school district, said in an email:
The district “is learning from past mistakes and working to reestablish fiscal stability and vitality. . . . [T]he district has had difficulty effectively forecasting, monitoring and managing budgets to ensure revenues match or exceed expenditures. In fact, there have been internal warnings about fiscal issues for several years that were not fully addressed. As a result, we have spent beyond our means and depleted savings to the point where immediate action is necessary.”
Because Wilson’s tenure in D.C. is still measured in months, no firm opinions have formed about his leadership of the 48,000-student district.
It was no secret that when Wilson departed the Oakland Unified School District 2½ years after arriving, he left a budget deficit of about $30 million behind. But he played it down in public, saying it was part of the annual budget process.
He told The Washington Post in January 2017 that some cuts would be necessary but noted that Oakland’s financial trouble was not as bad as years earlier, when the state had to bail out the district. In 2003, the state government loaned the Oakland district millions of dollars to cover its deficit at the time, which was $37 million.
In recent months, however, the extent, causes and effects on schools of the current deficit have come into sharper focus as auditors and others dug into the spending, and as the Oakland Post and San Francisco Chronicle wrote about the issues.
This is the portrait of Wilson’s leadership in Oakland that emerges from a number of sources, including the Board of Education, auditors, newspapers, parent activists, principals and state data:
— Wilson brought in dozens of executive staff members from outside the Oakland district, creating new positions and departments that were not budgeted, and paying more than was customary in the district, according to reports finance officials gave to the school board. In 2013, before Wilson arrived in Oakland, only four administrators earned more than $200,000; two years later, at least 26 did, according to data from transparentcalifornia.com, a pay and pension website. (He brought at least two administrators from Oakland to D.C. with him, one now earning $221,000 annually and the other $134,000, according to D.C. data. Both salaries appear to be comparable to others in similar positions in the D.C. school district.)
— While Wilson was superintendent in Oakland, the district overspent its budget in some areas, but spent substantially below budgeted amounts in other categories, according to data from the Board of Education. During the 2016-2017 school year, $10.4 million was budgeted for “classified supervisors and administrators” while $22.2 million was spent, according to the Board of Education. In the same year, $21.4 million was budgeted for professional and consulting services, but $28.2 million was spent.
But the board data show less was spent on books and supplies for classrooms than was actually budgeted — and the gap grew the longer Wilson remained superintendent. In 2015-2016, $18.6 million was budgeted, but only $12.3 million was spent, according to board data. In 2016-2017, $20.1 million was budgeted for books and other school supplies, but only $6.8 million was spent.
— An Aug. 15, 2017, fiscal health risk analysis of the Oakland district conducted by the state-run Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, which helps local school districts with data management, said:
“Based on the information in this report, the district has lost control of its spending, allowing school sites and departments to ignore and override board policies by spending beyond their budgets. In many cases, board policies are knowingly ignored and/or circumvented without consequences. During the former superintendent’s tenure, this behavior has permeated to the site administration, causing a lack of consistency in appropriate site size, staffing, class offerings and budgets. The principals’ accountability to distract administration has eroded to the point that they criticize district administrations in open board sessions.”
— At the same time a consulting firm was doing work for the Oakland district, Wilson hired the head of that firm to act as the facilities manager of the district at a cost of $30,000 a month in salary, according to Kim Davis, founder of a parent organization called Parents United for Oakland Schools and a member of a blue ribbon advisory commission assessing district facilities and programs. The hiring was first reported in 2015 by the San Francisco Chronicle. His pay was more than the superintendent’s base pay.
Wilson had a total annual compensation package in Oakland of more than $400,000, making him one of the highest paid K-12 public employees in California. His base pay in 2015 was $294,000, more than what he accepted in the District. His D.C. contract includes a base salary of $280,000, a $14,000 signing bonus and the potential for a performance bonus of 10 percent — or $28,000 — in his second year as chancellor.
— Wilson’s administration overestimated by hundreds of students the number who would enroll in fall 2016 and staffed accordingly. But a decision was made to lay off very few of the several dozen teachers that should have been let go, according to GO Public Schools, a nonprofit organization of parents, educators and community allies who work to provide quality education in California’s historically underserved communities. That cost the district $3.2 million, it said.
Wilson accepted the job in the District in November 2016, but stayed in Oakland until early February 2017. Shortly after he agreed to become the D.C. chancellor, according to Reyes, Oakland principals were told their budgets were frozen.
“There was a very tight correlation between Antwan leaving and our budgets being frozen,” she said. “He was getting out of Dodge.”
Bowser’s selection of Wilson was a surprise to many in the D.C. education world. Mary Levy, a lawyer who has provided analysis of the District’s education budgets for more than 25 years, said the mayor had provided “no public information” about the candidates she was considering to replace Kaya Henderson, the superintendent who left in fall 2016 after more than five years. Many in the city believed Bowser would tap an insider.
Wilson is a reformer in the same vein as Henderson and her predecessor, Michelle Rhee, meaning they believe in standardized testing, charter schools and employing principles common in for-profit companies to manage public schools. He is a graduate of the Broad Academy for urban school district leaders, which stressed management techniques used by businesses. That approach has been criticized by public school advocates who say it is intended to weaken teachers unions, support charter schools and pursue controversial reforms.
Wilson is also a member of Chiefs for Change, a group of former and current school district leaders founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), a pioneer of corporate- and standardized test-based school reform.
Bowser announced the appointment of Wilson in a Nov. 22, 2016, news release that said Wilson had brought “a newfound fiscal stability” to Oakland. In an interview that day with The Washington Post, she said she wanted a superintendent “who was bold and strategic and open and transparent, and always out into the community and focused on closing the achievement gap” and that “[w]e think Antwan really embodies all of those things.”
Trish Gorham, president of the Oakland Education Association, a teachers union, said a number of factors went into creating the mess that now confronts Oakland.
“You had a school board that doesn’t assert its authority and a superintendent who over-asserted his,” she said.
Here are some charts and the Nov. 8 budget resolution by the Oakland school board with important spending information:
Top administrators in Oakland in 2013, before Wilson, and in 2015
Pay of top administrators in 2013, before Wilson, and in 2015
Here’s the Oakland Board of Education’s Nov. 8 resolution on budget cuts: