Theresa Harrington / EdSource
Oakland Unified school board members (l-r) Shanthi Gonzales, Jody London and Aimee Eng listen to public comments along with Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell and student board members Mica Smith-Dahl and Denilson Garibo on Sept. 11, 2109.

The Oakland school board on Wednesday voted to close two schools and merge them with two others amid opposition voiced by parents and teachers during nearly five hours of pleading, tears and chanting in a packed meeting.

The board also voted to expand one K-8 dual immersion school and invest more money in an elementary school in its second round of school closures, mergers and consolidations. 

The board recently approved a Citywide Plan, which found the district could close or consolidate up to 24 of its more than 80 schools and still serve its roughly 37,000 students. The plan is to redirect funds to remaining schools to improve their quality. 

The board voted on pieces of the plan individually, approving two unanimously but splitting 5-2 on a proposal to accept the schools plan as outlined last month by Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell to close Kaiser Elementary and move its students to Sankofa Elementary about 3 miles away.

Some opponents accused the district of pitting higher income families who send their children to Kaiser Elementary in the north Oakland hills against low-income families in the so-called flatlands neighborhood served by Sankofa Academy.

Opponents from Kaiser Elementary said the school’s diversity matches the district’s demographics and its academic program is successful. They instead urged the board to consider expanding their campus.

Johnson-Trammel said each of the merged and expanded schools in this round of closings would get priority funding in the district’s 2020-21 budget to ensure they have the support they need to succeed.

“We will talk about what our priorities are,” she said. “We will need to think about the investments we need to make for the next school year.”

Johnson-Trammell warned that the district is expecting to lose students who may not want to stay after their schools are closed, but said by creating stronger merged schools the district may be able to attract new students who are moving into Oakland neighborhoods. 

The schools will plan their “redesigns” this year and will merge in 2020-21 with a goal of first getting the school communities to work together to support the new school and then moving toward improving academic achievement, she said.

“We’re realistically talking about what we can point to for the first year or two years,” she said. “In Oakland, we’re in a very competitive environment, and there’s going to have to be that same level of support just around improvement.”

The board voted unanimously to invest more money in Fruitvale Elementary in East Oakland, which is under-enrolled in the hopes that more families in that neighborhood in will choose to send their children there.  The school “posted significant double-digit growth” in its Smarter Balanced statewide test scores in English and math for students in grades 3 through 5 in 2018-19, according to the staff report to the board.

It also voted unanimously to close the School of Language dual immersion middle school and merge it with Frick Academy middle school, as well as to expand the popular Melrose Leadership Academy dual immersion K-8 school onto two campuses, after Johnson-Trammell clarified that SOL and Frick could spend more than a year planning their redesigns if necessary, after they merge onto one campus. Several community members had asked for more time to plan this consolidation. All of these campuses are in East Oakland.

The most contentious decision was the closure of Kaiser Elementary, which draws students from throughout the city. The board first considered a plan proposed by board member Jody London, who represents North Oakland where all three schools are located,  to close both the Kaiser and Sankofa elementary schools and merge them onto the closed Santa Fe Elementary campus.  That failed in a 2-5 vote, after most board members and dozens of members of the public pleaded to allow Sankofa — which has been under-resourced for years — to remain on its campus.

In a 5-2 vote, the board agreed to close Kaiser and move its students to the Sankofa campus. It also agreed to consider reopening the closed Santa Fe Elementary campus as part of the next round of school closures, consolidations and expansions. 

Board members Roseann Torres and Shanthi Gonzales voting against the Kaiser-Sankofa merger, saying they didn’t think the district should be forcing Kaiser parents and teachers to move after they have clearly said they don’t want to and may not go along with the merger.

“I think there’s a way to do this so we could be successful, but we don’t have buy-in to do this,” Gonzales said. “Without buy-in from teachers and very little buy-in from parents, I don’t think it’s going to work and I think it’s a little irresponsible.”

Sankofa parents and teachers have said they would be happy to merge with anyone, as long as they could stay on their campuses and receive adequate resources to improve their school. But a group of Kaiser teachers said they would refuse to participate in the redesign process and one vowed to continue the fight after the vote. Some parents threatened to file lawsuits or to start recall campaigns against board members.

In other issues, the board also agreed on its response to a scathing Alameda County Civil grand jury report that alleged the district has a “broken administrative culture” that has led to “millions wasted every year.” The board’s response partially disagreed with the broken culture allegation, saying “the district is working to improve its culture” by focusing on “organizational wellness” training to “build a culture that values divergent perspectives, creative problem-solving and mutual accountability.”

The board is also working to create a whistleblower policy by the end of the school year “to improve the district’s culture and address concerns regarding nepotism and financial distress.”

The board also approved budget revisions that showed the district has more money in reserves than it projected in June. Gonzales and some members of the public questioned why some of this money has not been returned to schools to restore cuts that were made when the district thought it was in more serious fiscal distress.

Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments this year in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts as a way to illustrate some of the most urgent challenges facing many urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.

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  1. Donna 2 months ago2 months ago

    The annual dance of OUSD. We don't know how to do an accurate budget and we are spending money on rental space for administration on Broadway. They need to unload some property. Close Kaiser and sell the property. That debate has been going on for 30 years due to underenrollment. Sell the 2nd Ave contaminated property. Sell the Edward Shand boarded up adult school. Sell the former Chabot Science Center property that is used … Read More

    The annual dance of OUSD. We don’t know how to do an accurate budget and we are spending money on rental space for administration on Broadway. They need to unload some property. Close Kaiser and sell the property. That debate has been going on for 30 years due to underenrollment. Sell the 2nd Ave contaminated property. Sell the Edward Shand boarded up adult school. Sell the former Chabot Science Center property that is used for storage and police nap time. Sell the Ralph Bunche property and move that independent study/continuation program to McClymonds. Right there is almont $14m in revenue.

  2. Ann Tarantino 2 months ago2 months ago

    Why is there a surplus that is not being used to strengthen the Oakland public schools? With higher real estate values so much higher in past 5 years , tax revenues must be much higher too, so where’s the money?

  3. TR 3 months ago3 months ago

    First, news recently came out that OUSD has a $20m surplus, after they claimed they would have a $18m deficit which was the reasoning for their cuts... but this windfall hasn't changed the debate nor even been acknowledged. OUSD can't point to a single merger that has been successful in its history. The way in which they approached this plan was unprofessional and lacked insight into how to garner buy-in from communities. It was top-down, poorly … Read More

    First, news recently came out that OUSD has a $20m surplus, after they claimed they would have a $18m deficit which was the reasoning for their cuts… but this windfall hasn’t changed the debate nor even been acknowledged.

    OUSD can’t point to a single merger that has been successful in its history. The way in which they approached this plan was unprofessional and lacked insight into how to garner buy-in from communities. It was top-down, poorly researched, and tone deaf. This is evidence that the Kaiser / Sankofa design process will be no better.

    What was clear on Wed is they were dead set on closing Kaiser, even amidst their debate which was riddled with valid reasons to delay the vote. Two board members, on different occasions, have talked about their development plans for the large, multibridge bay view piece of property that Kaiser sits on. Everything from housing to long term leases. It’s always been about the land amidst a real estate boom, not about a positive strategy for the students of North Oakland.

    Follow the $$.

  4. gnanadev 3 months ago3 months ago

    Closure or merger, the amalgamation of schools should not be hindered to the education of the children who belong to the weaker section of the society. But if the schools are getting merged for the betterment of the education system, then it is a welcome move.

  5. Monica Yu 3 months ago3 months ago

    This kind of political nonsense decision is exactly why we pulled our children out of OUSD. Jody London knows full well this plan to close Kaiser, an integrated school whose students reflect citywide demographics, will amplify segregation in the district. Unfortunately, she seems to be in support of schools segregated by income and race. #erasetheboard

  6. Todd Maddison 3 months ago3 months ago

    As painful and unpopular as this is, it's exactly what they should be doing - not just in Oakland but in many other districts. As enrollment drops it's crazy to keep facilities open with lower and lower utilization. The fixed costs of the property will eat up more and more of a declining revenue stream, not to mention what might be realized by renting the facilities out for other uses. And, as has been noted int … Read More

    As painful and unpopular as this is, it’s exactly what they should be doing – not just in Oakland but in many other districts.

    As enrollment drops it’s crazy to keep facilities open with lower and lower utilization. The fixed costs of the property will eat up more and more of a declining revenue stream, not to mention what might be realized by renting the facilities out for other uses.

    And, as has been noted int he article, better to use that revenue improving the schools that are being kept, which would be good for all.

    If anything, Oakland should learn from issues happening here in “the other OUSD” (Oceanside) and Sweetwater recently, and make sure they provide good bus service to the kids being transferred.

    Running buses is far, far less expensive than keeping half-empty schools open.

    Good to see Oakland making the right moves.

    Replies

    • Monica Yu 3 months ago3 months ago

      Fact check: the school they are closing, Kaiser Elementary has been at full capacity for many years, often with a waitlist. Why would OUSD close a successful, fully enrolled school?

    • Kristin Bitler 3 months ago3 months ago

      Does the loss of revenue have anything to do with the mergers?

    • Jennifer Bestor 3 months ago3 months ago

      A public school death spiral has begun in the highest cost counties. OUSD (Oakland) has to compete for teachers and services in an area that is 7% more expensive than OUSD (Oceanside) -- on the same, flat, statewide LCFF funding schedule. That $25 million per year of built-in deficit -- $700 per ADA -- means it loses enrollment to charters on one end and private schools on the other -- while still having … Read More

      A public school death spiral has begun in the highest cost counties. OUSD (Oakland) has to compete for teachers and services in an area that is 7% more expensive than OUSD (Oceanside) — on the same, flat, statewide LCFF funding schedule. That $25 million per year of built-in deficit — $700 per ADA — means it loses enrollment to charters on one end and private schools on the other — while still having to educate all the high-needs special ed students in its area. Consolidation becomes an economic imperative for the district — yet further impoverishes every neighborhood that loses its school. Those kids now are on hair-trigger schedules. Miss the bus? It’s a major family disaster when there’s only one car, when the parents have already left for work, etc. (Oceanside’s chronic absenteeism rate is a hair over the state average, 12% vs 11%, for a district whose disadvantage/unduplicated rate is right at the average of about 63%. Oakland’s absenteeism is over 15% with 77% unduplicated.) So, while I agree unreservedly that the Oakland board is doing “the right thing” in dealing with the fixed-cost nature of keeping campuses open, it’s important to understand why they can’t (flat LCFF) and what the consequences will be (higher absenteeism, lower test scores, less ‘affordable’ housing in the Bay Area for families with children).