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How is it used?

East Montreal, fall of 1979

“A quoi ça sert Rejean?”

That’s French.
Rejean was my machine shop instructor, my main teacher, in a metal work program
where I got what little high school I have.
“A quoi ça sert?” means: “What is this used for?”
The subject was trigonometry, and as soon as my fellow student asked this question I
woke up a bit and paid closer attention.
“What is this used for?” was a question that many a student asked and never got an
answer to that felt like part of the real world. In fact, school teachers around the United States
often refer to the world outside of school as “the real world” as if they were not part of it.
Maybe if there had been more answers to the question, “What is this used for?” I might
not have been a nineteen-year-old high school dropout going to a vocational training program
two years after my age group had graduated normal high school.
So I listened closely.
Rejean laid out for us the application of trigonometry to making machine parts on the
bench or using machine tools, usually a lathe or milling machine. He also told us that while at
times we could simply use the formulas and tables in the handbook, at other times we would
have to look at formulas and need to know how to plug the numbers into those formulas to get
the correct answers. He also showed us how the use of a combination of formulas, charts, and
knowing your trigonometry was how one inspected machine parts or knew the standards that
made them fit.
He went on for about half an hour on the value of trigonometry to the machinist in the
I had died and gone to heaven.
Heaven quickly turned into hell as we were made to make a series shop tools and
measuring devices that were ancient in origin but still commonly used—hell because we had to
make those metal parts by hand using a saw and files. We painted the blank steel blue to sketch
out the outline of our work. We held the finished parts up to the light next to squares and
protractors to see if we had our angles right. We used our first small bits of trigonometry to
double-check those angles. We used handheld scales to measure the length and width of our
projects. We had stopped calling scales “rulers” because we now had to speak in precise metal
shop lingo.
It was French shop lingo. I had to jump from immigrant school French and everyday use
street French to applied French for the use of those saws and files, the study of that trigonometry
and other calculations, and to listen to our teachers’ lectures.
The classes became more advanced. We made fancy looking cylindrical and taper parts in
heavily-duty lathes. We made blocky parts in vertical milling machines. We cut slots with
horizontal milling machines. We drilled holes using drill presses, and then tapped them out so a
screw would fit into them. We made large screws and bolts leaning how to cut a thread in the
Some of the pieces were heated and then quenched in oil, converting them into hardened
tempered steel. Then we used grinders to polish those hardened steel parts down to size at a high
precision of two ten-thousandths of an inch. Most of the parts fit together into multipart project
some of which I still own and use today, forty years later.
In the classroom we studied metallurgy, precision measurement, drafting, blueprint
reading, and the never-ending courses in the related geometry, trigonometry, and algebra. Every
last one of those classes was applied, with every last element was connected to one of our
projects. We would ultimately use what we learned to shape solid steel, brass, bronze, cast iron,
and aluminum.
The applied math and science coupled with a project that requires those exact math skills
is the heart and soul of vocational education.
This is the practice of project-based learning.
If you were going to study electronics, you would start by building an FM radio, and if
you wanted to be a carpenter, you would find yourself framing a house. Just like my metal shop
projects, both have their related math and science.
Of course, machinist class was not all serious study. We could get our hair cut by the folk
next door in the barber program. We played many a game of cribbage instead of studying
trigonometry. We smoked weed out in a fellow student’s camper in the parking lot. We learned
the (allowed) electronic shortcuts, doing math using a Texas Instruments scientific calculator.
In the winter of 1979–1980, we students went out on strike, together with our teachers in
a major public sector common front shutdown, with picketing taking place in the snow, which
was not being plowed because the snowplow drivers were also on the picket lines with the rest of
us. That was followed, in spring of 1980, by a referendum on the independence of Quebec. I
voted “yes,” as did most of my teachers and all of my classmates except the “English” ones. My
fellow students had already explained to me that I was not a “real” English person. My parents
from Virginia might not have agreed, but they were not around.
After graduation we machine shop grads ended up on the bottom of the pecking order.
My first job was drilling holes in rack frames to then paint them Hydro-Quebec grey. I have no
idea how many holes I drilled and tapped with those 4mm taps. All I know is that eventually Port
Metal trusted me with other machines, including a press, so I was spared hole drilling in the
winter of 1980–1981, because I did not mind the heat and they needed someone to work with a
press and a steel oven, feeding red-hot steel blanks into the overhead punch press.
Eventually one becomes a “journeyman,” where one does less work and gets paid more
for it. In the meantime I went back to some night school for welding fundamentals. By the time I
became a journeyman in a specialty equipment manufacturer named Dycore, making cement
handling machines, what little education I had had before trade school was a dim memory.
For me, real education began the day that Professor Rejean Grenier agreed to answer the
question: “What is this used for?”
January Surprise (Ooops, time to cut five million from our schools)
January 2017, mid–budget year 2016–2017

Less than a month after the four OUSD incumbents took their renewed oaths of office, and
before we had even finished the 2016–2017 school year, the other main promise of those
incumbents (that they would expertly run our district budget) swirled and dissolved like
backroom cigarette smoke in the wake of a rapidly exiting superintendent.
The healthy financial management that the incumbents publicly congratulated themselves
on in August, September, and October to win the election in November was shown to be a farce
by end of January. Five million dollars had to come out of school budgets, and more had to come
out of the district budget. Everyone acted as if they were surprised. The blame was placed on low
enrollment and unforeseen expenses. Instead of going up by five hundred students, enrollment
had declined by four hundred. Who had honestly expected enrollment to go up when we had
been steadily losing students to the charters for many years? Shrinking enrollment had become
the norm.
Returning students should have been registered back in May, at the end of the school
year. If I remember right, new students sign up at around the same time. There was no reason for
the lower enrollment budget crisis to be “unforeseen” by the June candidate filing date. In any
case, the full size of actual enrollment becomes clear when the district starts reporting daily
attendance in late August. Yet there was no reporting on or discussion of the cutbacks needed to
balance the budget until well after the incumbents were safely reelected in November.
In California, we use an “equalization” method to allocate school funds. Some funds are
allocated by the State based on a needs formula. Most funds are allocated by daily attendance
reporting. I think that they knew that the money was not there and held that back until the
election was over. Politics as usual, of course, and anyone who follows local politics would
recognize this trick.
Much of what I had seen of district computer use is focused on reporting daily
attendance. The same method is used in the public schools and the charters. Using public money
is about the only strong claim that a California charter school has to being a public school. My
younger son was still in a charter funded by these very same formulas at the time, and there was
no surprise when it came to the funding level available, but somehow the shortfall in OUSD
schools took the school board by surprise.
As far as I know there is nobody from any local news organization on the school beat
other than a person or two from one or another externally funded advocate group and the odd
“expert” reporter producing an occasional report. Darwin Bond Graham of the East Bay Express
runs all over the East Bay, from Oakland to Richmond, covering just about everything local,
from police to schools. The few reports he has done are good, and he exposed the outside money
in the school board race, but he is one guy spread way too thin. Our smallest newspaper, the
Oakland Post and the Berkeley Journalism School’s website, Oakland North, are often among
our best sources when we want to know what’s going on. The former because of a key, well-
informed writer, and the latter because sometimes journalism students do a better job than
professional reporters, because they do not need to be politically “careful.”
The East Bay Times, our largest local paper, does the rare report, usually at some major
juncture, but despite having some good human resources, they are playing so much catch-up that
the articles tend to be shallow examples of “he said” / “she said” reporting. The reporter from the
San Francisco Chronicle, the Bay Area’s leading paper, doesn’t know the difference between a
charter school and a public school, and her reporting suffers for it.
The reports in the local media are always “specials” spaced far apart. Lots of each report
gets lost on covering the basics poorly, such as the role of attendance in funding, because it had
been so long since the last time the “issue” was covered by their paper. Things happen in our
schools every day, with meetings of the board every week, and we are lucky if it gets covered
once every other month. Since the press does not really cover the schools consistently or in
depth, there are few ways of finding out what is going on in general, and you’re really SOL if
you’re trying to find out the important details.
To get reliable information you have to look beyond the press. I have friends who go to
almost every school board meeting and watch the process like a hawk. I make it to a few of
them, but don’t feel like any real discussion happens at these meetings, which are more of a
ceremony where our board members pretend to discuss what has already been decided
elsewhere, while acting like they’re listening to my friends, some of whom speak out on every
issue when the floor is opened to the public.
I trust the regulars who dog the meetings, because most everything they have told me for
the last few years checks out, and most everything I hear from the school board members tends
to be a half-truth. Jim Mordechai is one of the close watchers. He is a teachers’ union activist and
keeps himself very informed. I asked him if it was really any surprise that enrollment (and thus
funding) was declining. My opinion is that the voters were treated to that biggest of all lies, the
lie of omission. He kind of agreed, but was more focused on preventing budget cuts from hitting
his members, who are already overworked due to short staffing, or school sites, which lack
funding for some very basic things, such as supplies.
Jim started a recent post reporting on the first OUSD board meeting after the budget
episode with these words:
The school board is starting the year in the same way they conducted business last year,
by changing the meetings at the last minute, not allowing public comment, and making
decisions in closed session. These are clear violations of the Brown Act and are thus
illegal. It also makes it clear that the school board does not want to engage the
My observer friends, Jim included, tell anyone who will listen that the superintendent and
a lot of the staff in senior positions are very expensive people, each pulling down six figures.
They also say that the district rarely keeps to the administration / school site spending ratios
required by law. The requirement is not as tilted in favor of the classroom as you would think,
and the formulas for calculating it are certainly more complicated than one would assume. It took
years to get management’s costs down to the required level and not everyone trusts the numbers
I was seeing reports that the enrollment was down because of the enormous loss of
students to the so-called charter schools. All the reported numbers tend to confirm this. Kim
Davis is one of the leaders of a group called Oakland Parents United for Public Schools, which
around here we just call Parents United. Kim gets to most of those school board meetings, along
with Jim and the other regulars. She is a good source of information on the charter schools and
their supporters and her grasp of OUSD funding it damn sharp. Had I been elected, I would have
asked her to be one of my advisors. She, for one, knew that school board would not meet the
budget and said so. I would have said the same thing on the campaign trail, but I lacked reliable
numbers because the district had not reported them yet.
Kim also posted a chart showing how a version of the budget that they sort of released to
the public would disproportionally cut the schools with the highest needs, while leaving funding
in less troubled, “high demand” (mostly privileged) schools in more affluent neighborhoods. I’ll
take that from Kim on faith, as it matches what I saw over the years as a parent volunteer.
Mike Hutchinson ran for school board twice. First against Rosie Torres, the GO backed
candidate in 2012, and the second time in 2016, when she was the incumbent. Rosie lost the GO
endorsement in 2016, clearing the way for a third candidate, a Latino charter school teacher
named Huber Trenado directly funded by GO. Their district is largely Latino, as are Rosie and
tHuber, while Mike is black. In the end, the incumbent Rosie won with Mike’s second choice
I’m not sure if you can even hold a school board meeting without Jim, Kim, or Mike. In
any case, I have never been to a board meeting where one of them wasn’t present and speaking
publicly about every item on the agenda. If you’re looking for someone who is always there with
a copy of the agenda, having read the reports and reviewed the proposals, with plans to speak
out, Mike’s your man. Mike attends everything from school board to city hall by way of the
police commission and has season tickets for Oakland Raiders. Mike is everywhere, and the
OUSD will never get rid of him, because Mike will never give up.
They won’t ever be rid of me either, but I don’t see the point of talking to deaf board
members in a mostly empty room. I do, however, see the point of talking with Mike and then
reading the reference materials he comes up with. He knows that labyrinth. Mike confirmed what
Kim and Jim had to say about the new, revised 2016–2017 budget (January version) and pointed
out some other aspects of it to be unhappy with as well. Mike also agreed with Jim that the
constant change in meeting times and moving budget items on short notice served to make public
criticism difficult—compounded by the fact that many special meetings are called.
A lot of money was / is being spent on buildings and projects, while there are not
sufficient funds for operations. This shell game includes lobbyists who make sure that budgets
include “earmarked” funding for their “development” companies that is not transferable to other
areas no matter how bad the situation in the classroom gets. So, for example, while my son’s
primary school did not have funding for classroom computers or to hook up the bathrooms in the
portables, we did have funding for a high-end wireless in one building and a new phone system
for the whole campus, both of which nobody uses. Check out your local city and school budget
and you will find that there is “discretionary” spending and “non-discretionary” spending. And,
of course, most cities, counties, and school districts have funds coming into the pot that must be
spent on specific items.
Back when we had good local reporters, they would trace this earmarked funding back to
the politicians who wrote the proviso into the law and look for the relationships with the people
whose service or product is on the “must buy” list. In Oakland our last muckraker reporter,
Sanjiv Handa, has passed away, so now we don’t get the details, but we do know that a lot of
funds come from the State with strings attached.
In Oakland our local politicians talk down to us when we ask why we are spending on
stuff we could easily do without rather than on our students’ educations. One of the terms that
our insiders throw around to show how much they are “in the know” about how things “really
work” (and by inference to call us out as ignorant if we even suggest that funds be moved from
new buildings to operations) is “buckets of money.” We get lectured about how the approval
process is sooooo different for each bucket. These are the same board members who never
seriously go to that State of California legislature and ask for a change or reallocation despite
having the job of representing our schools. All they do is have a hired lobbyist who reports on
what kind of new funding might be in a bucket for them. It seems that we are never able to talk
to the people putting money in separate buckets before they give it to us.
As I am starting to understand it, a professional politician depends on endorsements,
exposure, and campaign donations. They have friends, working relationships, and are involved in
private networking and are not in position to be publicly calling out or making trouble for
professional politicians further up the food chain. So, there is little complaint from local Oakland
Democrats about how big Sacramento Democrats treat our schools. There is a line, and one
should not step out of it. I am sure in other states there are similar lines and food chains
involving both of our official political parties. I know for a fact that earmarked funding exists at
all levels of government and is considered normal.
Mike agreed with Jim on the overspending on administration as he filled me in on some
details about the different real estate deals and building boondoggles, at the same time telling me
that the budget approval process had turned into a game of hide and seek. His story checked out,
as it usually does. There were late and only partial releases of revenue and expense information.
There were versions of the budget discussed out of the public eye, only ever released with a very
brief public discussion process. I was all ready to go to one meeting, only to find out at the last
minute that the budget had been pulled off the agenda.
Nobody will ever convince me that the news of the loss of funds and the departure of our
superintendent was not purposely withheld from the public until after the election.
And it was only January.

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