Despite an outcry from the community – including an ongoing hunger strike by two educators – Oakland Unified will close, merge or reduce classes for 11 schools over the next two years.
The cutbacks, which school board members approved in a 4-2 vote early Wednesday, are the latest blow to Oakland schools in a decades-long battle with declining enrollment, financial turmoil and state fiscal control.
The district and most school board members said they felt as though their hands were tied, and closing the schools was inevitable. But hundreds of students, educators and families are pushing back, saying the little-if-any savings Oakland Unified will see doesn’t outweigh the impact the closures will have on the community.
“Each and every one of us sitting on the board tonight is going to have some real deep soul-searching to do,” said board member VanCedric Williams, who voted against the closures.”…it’s really something to see how really twisted it is to close the schools to fund other things. It is deplorable.”
The district’s teachers union, Oakland Education Association, announced Wednesday that it will file a legal complaint against the closures with the state’s Public Employment Relations Board. Oakland Education Association president Keith Brown said he is prepared to call for a strike in order to stop the closures.
Under the plan, Community Day School and Parker Elementary will close at the end of the current school year. Carl B. Munck, Brookfield, Grass Valley, Fred T. Korematsu Discovery Academy and Horace Mann elementary schools will close at the end of the 2022-23 school year. RISE Community School and New Highland Academy will merge for the start of the 2022-23 school year. Also, La Escuelita TK-8 will no longer offer grades 6-8 at the start of next school year, and Hillcrest K-8 will no longer offer grades 6-8 by the start of the 2023-24 school year.
The final plan walked back several proposed closures and mergers after community members charged that they disproportionately impacted Black and Latino children.
Students at the school board meeting spoke of the fond memories they had of their schools, seeing their friends and teachers every day and cherishing each school’s unique environment.
“We have fun at Carl B Munck (Elementary), we learn a lot and we like that we can walk to school,” said Kelsey Oliver, a second grader who will be put in a different school at the end of next year when Carl B. Munck Elementary closes.
Others also spoke of the impact the school closures will have on their lives. Manny Burgess, whose son is in Grass Valley Elementary School’s special education program and is mainly non-verbal, said her son’s verbal skills have improved while at the school, and he receives the support he needs without the family having to pay for a private education. Grass Valley was the only school the district recommended that could meet her son’s needs, and she feels “stuck” with it no longer being an option.
“My son easily grew to love teachers and staff, and they love him. Everyone identifies him by his name even though he doesn’t speak,” Burgess said. “We have behavioral therapists coming in and out of our house daily, but they can never provide us with the type of support that this public education will be able to provide us with.”
School board member Shanthi Gonzales, at the meeting, said while many think the closure process was rushed, she felt it was “20 years overdue.” Rapid charter-school growth since the year 2000 and the addition of schools during the small-schools movement around 2010 left Oakland with “twice as many schools that a district of our size would normally have.”
The Fremont and Fontana Unified school districts, which like Oakland Unified enroll around 35,000 students in district-run schools, had 43 and 45 schools while Oakland Unified had 81 in the 2020-21 school year.
Over the years the district has cut administrative and other central-office positions, changed bus and bell schedules to save money on transportation, and reduced the consulting and contracting budget in an effort to reduce its deficit, she said.
“The one thing that we haven’t done is actually reconcile the number of schools we have with the number of students we have today,” Gonzales said. “This is not even going to get us to the fiscally healthy place that we need to be; it’s simply taking one step to make progress to adequately staff our schools and adequately pay them.”
Some have questioned whether or not closing schools does in fact save a significant amount of money. A May 2021 analysis of the district’s other school closures over the past few years found that in some cases the schools meant to be expanded don’t see the increased enrollment that was anticipated, Oaklandside reported.
Between the 2000-01 and 2020-21 school years, enrollment at Oakland Unified district-run schools dropped 34% from 53,852 to 35,489, according to the district’s data. Most of the drop occurred in the first 10 years, and enrollment has declined steadily to around 3,000 students between then and now. Meanwhile, charter school enrollment grew around 16 times from 1,011 students in 2000-01 to 16,678 in 2020-21. In 2020-21, about 32% of Oakland students attended charters, while only about 12% of students across the state attended charters.
In 2003, the district went into state receivership after receiving a $100 million bailout in order to balance its budget amid a massive shortfall. Receivership essentially meant the district lost fiscal control until it was deemed to be in a more stable situation. Though the district still has not fully paid off the loan, control was given back to the district about five years later. The state appointed a trustee with veto authority over the district’s financial decisions, who was replaced years later by a trustee appointed by the county.
For years, Oakland city and state representatives have called on the state to forgive the remainder of the loan, to no avail.
In 2018, the state offered to pay down a portion of Oakland Unified’s structural deficit through under Assembly Bill 1840. At the time, the Department of Finance estimated the amount of state aid to be distributed to Oakland Unified over the course of three years to be $34.7 million. The district was only guaranteed that money, however, if it followed through with fiscal solvency plans that OUSD developed, which included closing schools and cutting staff positions.
In recent months, the district has been under pressure by Alameda County Superintendent LK Monroe to follow through with the district’s previous plans to close schools. The Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, or FCMAT, does not have authority over the district’s finances, although the organization has long served as a financial advisor to the district on behalf of the state.
Oakland Unified Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell, at a news conference Wednesday, said the district is confident that the current list of school consolidations will suffice to receive the next round of funds, though it can’t say for sure until Monroe makes the determination.
Among the demands by Westlake Middle educators Andre San-Chez and Moses Omolade – who are both on a hunger strike to protest the closures – is for the state to sever ties between FCMAT and Oakland Unified. They are also calling for a meeting with Gov. Gavin Newsom, and for him to forgive Oakland Unified’s state loan as part of his budget proposal. They also want the state to reimburse the district what it has already paid on the loan as “reparations to the harm done over the 20 years of state control” to be overseen by parents of students at predominantly Black and Brown schools.
The hunger strikers’ doctors, at a news conference Tuesday, said their health was deteriorating to the point of irreversible damage. One of the hunger strikers, Moses Omolade, was taken to an emergency room Tuesday, the eighth day of the strike.
San-Chez, at the press conference, said they had no intention of ending the hunger strike until all demands are met, and Oakland Unified puts a stop to all school closures.
Board member Mike Hutchinson, at Tuesday’s meeting, said board members should expect opposition, and pledged to join the planned protests this week.
“We’re going to resist, we will never let you close our schools, Hutchinson said. “Bring it on, because I was born for this fight.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify FCMAT’s relationship with Oakland Unified, and its advice regarding school closures. In an earlier version protestors demanded that fees paid by the district to FCMAT should be reimbursed. In fact, the district does not pay fees to FCMAT.
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