Theresa Harrington/EdSource Today
Students from Roots International Academy protest a plan to close their school before the Jan. 23, 2018 Oakland school board meeting and demand a Restorative Justice circle with the board.

As Oakland Unified struggles to balance its budget, it is planning for the second time in less than a decade to close some of its schools, an action that is among the most difficult and emotionally wrenching a district can take.

The district is talking about closing or consolidating up to two dozen of its current 86 school sites because there are not enough students to fill them, as the number of students attending district schools is expected to continue to drop.

The projected closures are part of a long-term district plan to stay fiscally solvent, after a fiscal crisis forced it to seek a bailout from the state Legislature to help cover its projected deficits over the next three years. A condition for receiving the state money — which could total as much as $34 million through 2023 — is that Oakland must create a plan for reducing the number of schools it operates so it can spend less on overhead costs and more on classroom instruction.

Through school closures, including consolidating smaller schools, the district expects to save nearly $5 million over the next four years, but only expects to save $81,000 next year.

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To address the need for school closures, Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell is developing a “Community of Schools Citywide Plan” and a map showing the locations of all district and charter schools, along with which district schools could be closed, consolidated, moved, redesigned or expanded. The plan will look at expanding popular school programs in order to keep families attending district schools.

Although the district initially expected to provide a planning year before schools close or consolidate, Johnson-Trammell and her staff caught the community at Roots International Academy middle school off-guard in December, when they announced the district wants to close the East Oakland school in June, while expanding the Coliseum Community Prep Academy, which is located on the same campus and serves students in grades 6-12.

Johnson-Trammell posted an online video message to the community on Tuesday explaining the need for budget cuts, school closures and providing teachers with a fair contract, while maintaining the district’s fiscal solvency.

The school closure announcement, which the board will vote on Monday, has sparked strong backlash from Roots students, parents, staff and supporters throughout the district, including one group that rallied Thursday outside the state building to demand that state elected officials step in to “stop pushing Oakland to close schools” and increase state funding for education. The group also plans to ask the school board to postpone its vote on school closures for 90 to 120 days, while it studies this and other issues.

Johnson-Trammell said during a presentation to the school board Wednesday her goal is to “transform our school system” to better serve all students.

“I realize we are going through some challenging times, but I remain hopeful that we can all pull together so our students ultimately win,” she said. “We all want highly resourced, quality schools in every neighborhood. We also want to meet the growing demand for innovative schools throughout our city.”

The district last closed schools about seven years ago under former Superintendent Tony Smith. But the district’s experience then has made some dubious about the impact of the current plan. Although the district expected to save about $2 million through the previous closures, current board member Shanthi Gonzales has said the school closures led some families to leave the district, which resulted in a loss of state funding that offset any savings.

Others say that district schools did not improve as a result of the closures, despite assurances at the time that they would.

“They made the same promise to us in 2012 regarding improved quality,” said Mike Hutchinson, a local activist who is organizing opposition to school closures. “We need to resource all our schools so you can get that opportunity in every neighborhood without having to leave your neighborhood.”

Although the total number of students attending district schools has remained relatively flat over the past four years at about 37,000, the number of students in district charter schools has increased from 10,981 in 2014-15 to 13,135 in 2017-18, as more charter schools have opened or expanded. Oakland now has 44 charter schools, compared to 86 district schools. 

Many of the remaining district schools are under-enrolled, but enrollment patterns are uneven. Schools where students have higher test scores tend to be more popular and have waiting lists, while those with lower test scores attract fewer students in the district’s open enrollment process.

The citywide map of schools that Johnson-Trammell is working on will include the locations of charter schools and will attempt to integrate them into new attendance boundaries and feeder patterns from elementary to middle and high schools.

The district is also attempting to identify the best locations for district and charter schools, based on where students are projected to live.

Theresa Harrington/EdSource Today

School closure critic Mike Hutchinson speaks to the Oakland school board on Jan. 23, 2018, while supporters of Roots International Academy hold a sign across the board room demanding no school closures or school budget cuts.

Johnson-Trammell is hoping to attract new students to the district by expanding popular programs or schools. Last year, only 58 percent of school-age children in Oakland attended district-run schools, according to a Nov. 14 board presentation. An additional 22 percent attended charter schools. And nearly 20 percent chose other options, including private schools, home-schooling or schools in other districts. Although the district is projecting that this trend will continue over the next five years, it is also anticipating that it could see increased revenues if it is able to attract new students or retain those who usually leave when they get to middle school or high school.

Some Oakland Unified teachers and school board members, along with teachers and school board members across California, have said charter schools are a financial drain because they draw away students and the state money that goes with them. 

The board is so concerned about the impact of charter schools on the district that it has come up with a detailed list of proposed reforms to California’s charter law. One of the proposals is for districts that are in “fiscal distress” to be able to suspend the approval of new charter schools or the renewal of existing ones that want to expand student enrollments.

Oakland Unified has not yet released the full list of schools it intends to close, but it has released a list of under-enrolled schools and officials have begun meeting with principals and parents at schools being considered, including Roots International Academy. Several of the school’s students and other supporters voiced opposition to closing the school at the Wednesday school board meeting. They persuaded the school board and Johnson-Trammell to listen to students’ concerns for more than two hours, delaying the regular board meeting. The students included them in a Restorative Justice Circle, which is a process that focuses on discussion to resolve disputes. 

Theresa Harrington/EdSource Today

Roots International Academy (l-r) parent Sylvia Ornelas and teachers Nomar Ventura and Rose Chardak participate in Oakland teachers’ wildcat strike Jan. 18 to voice concerns about plans to close their school.

The district’s teachers’ union, which opposes school closures, plans to hold a strike authorization vote Jan. 29 through Feb. 1. It has been working without a contract since July 2017 and could strike next month after a fact-finding hearing Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 concludes and a report is issued, based on facts presented by both sides.

Throughout the district, parents and teachers are worried that their schools may be targeted for closure.

The Oakland REACH parent group made up largely of African-American and Latino parents whose children attend both district and charter schools in the Oakland “flatlands” — which are generally lower-income areas of the city. Executive Director Lakisha Young has asked the board to create an “Opportunity Ticket” that would allow students displaced by closures to receive priority enrollment in a high-quality district or charter school.

Theresa Harrington/EdSource Today

More than 100 members of the parent group Oakland REACH plead with the Oakland school board on Dec. 12, 2018 for an “Opportunity Ticket” that would allow students from closed schools priority access to high quality district or charter schools.

Mirella Rangel, director of community organizing for the nonprofit education advocacy group GO Public Schools, worked in the district when schools were closed in 2012. She recently participated in a community meeting hosted by her organization, where school closures were discussed.

Theresa Harrington/EdSource Today

Mirella Rangel, director of community organizing at GO Public Schools Oakland (center), discusses her concerns about school closures in Oakland Unified during a Dec. 11, 2018 meeting hosted by her organization.

“We have too many schools,” she said. “Closures are likely necessary, but they’re going to be hard. And I worry that we won’t get it right – that we won’t get to quality.”

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. Shelly weintraub 6 months ago6 months ago

    This article claims that a condition of receiving state money ( from 1840) is the closing or consolidating of schools. This is not accurate. If you read the legislation you will see it says that is one way the district can balance its budget. The legislation never requires it. The district is required to come up with a plan for ho to become fiscally solvent. This may mean closures, but … Read More

    This article claims that a condition of receiving state money ( from 1840) is the closing or consolidating of schools. This is not accurate. If you read the legislation you will see it says that is one way the district can balance its budget. The legislation never requires it. The district is required to come up with a plan for ho to become fiscally solvent. This may mean closures, but it may not. This is a very important distinction.

    Replies

    • Alan Pursell 6 months ago6 months ago

      Not only did FCMAT and Alameda County BOE rep not say that AB 1840 required schools to be closed, but Michael Fine explicitly said that closing schools was not a financial savings and should be done with great care to make sure that it does provide a benefit. The closing of Roots is a direct contradiction of what the popes of FCMAT have said. In the video minutes for the 10/30/18 board meeting where this … Read More

      Not only did FCMAT and Alameda County BOE rep not say that AB 1840 required schools to be closed, but Michael Fine explicitly said that closing schools was not a financial savings and should be done with great care to make sure that it does provide a benefit. The closing of Roots is a direct contradiction of what the popes of FCMAT have said.

      In the video minutes for the 10/30/18 board meeting where this was addressed, it’s at the two hour mark in response to Shanthi Gonzales’ question about closing schools to save a buck.

  2. Rob Appeldorn 6 months ago6 months ago

    Why aren't all of these teachers and students complaining to Barbara Lee and Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein and all of the progressive/Democrat politicians in the Bay Area? These "activists" were probably on the front lines of Hate Trump protests but now that their problems are hitting home they just protest the issues and not the local politicians that created the problems in the first place. I'll guarantee you that all of these protestors have … Read More

    Why aren’t all of these teachers and students complaining to Barbara Lee and Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein and all of the progressive/Democrat politicians in the Bay Area? These “activists” were probably on the front lines of Hate Trump protests but now that their problems are hitting home they just protest the issues and not the local politicians that created the problems in the first place. I’ll guarantee you that all of these protestors have been conditioned to hate Republicans and Conservatives and Trump but never to blame Lee, Feinstein, Harris, Schiff and the 30 years of Democrat rule in the Bay Area.

    Replies

    • Terry 6 months ago6 months ago

      Rob, I don’t understand what you are talking about. State a solution that would be productive. California has not supported education for a long time; that is why we are last in Silicon Valley of all places. Budget cuts always sacrifice education first. Stop producing all these charter schools and improve neighborhood schools with quality teachers without tenure. Bring in innovation and creativity. I have been in some of these classrooms, and the curriculum is … Read More

      Rob, I don’t understand what you are talking about. State a solution that would be productive. California has not supported education for a long time; that is why we are last in Silicon Valley of all places. Budget cuts always sacrifice education first. Stop producing all these charter schools and improve neighborhood schools with quality teachers without tenure. Bring in innovation and creativity. I have been in some of these classrooms, and the curriculum is boring and stale.

      Stop using unqualified and uncredentialed workers to teach in classrooms in poor neighborhoods; increase teachers wages to make them want to go to work and remain in the profession, and bring in people who truly have the passion to teach and not look at children as robots or adults.

      Bring back PE and the arts so kids have a release or outlet to burn off their energy. Stating politics and peoples political affiliations does not solve problems. Trump does not represent all Americans, only his base and 1%ers.

      I am an independent because I am tired of both sides. As an American, we should all stick together regardless of race, religion, sex, class, or sexual orientation. When we start solving these problems together you will be surprised at what we can accomplish. We need to start hearing each other out because no one is completely right. We all have different perspectives and experiences this will help in this process. Let’s help push our community and country forward. Stop finger-pointing and be the solution not the problem.

    • Terry 6 months ago6 months ago

      Rob, California has not supported education for a long time; that is why we are last in Silicon Valley of all places. Budget cuts always sacrifice education first. Stop producing all these charter schools and improve neighborhood schools with quality teachers without tenure, bring in innovation and creativity.