While Students Were Learning at Home, OUSD Board Gives Favorable Deal to Charter School on Public Land

A diverse image with faces. They are in a Zoom or virtual web meeting to talk about the school district.
Oakland Unified School District's Board Members meet virtually during the shelter-in-place order while schools are physically closed.

View agendas, meeting details, and videos of past and present OUSD Board meetings here. The District is required to publicly notice meetings at least 24 hours in advance.

In the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic, it is an understatement to say that a lot has happened in the past month. 

Oakland educators have been busy inventing a brand new paradigm in public education, Oakland families have been helping their children learn without a physical school to attend, the District’s Nutrition Services Department has been feeding Oakland families (even during Spring Break), and the Oakland Unified School Board has been busy as well.

In the month following the Board’s decision to cut $18.8 million from the budget, the Board has approved over $12.7 million in service contracts through the end of next school year, extended the School Police contract through next year, gave a charter school a favorable deal on a 40-year lease of a former public school campus, expanded another charter school’s lease of another former public school campus, and offered classroom space to two other charter schools under Prop 39.

Prop 39 is a state law that requires that public school districts lease underutilized space to charter schools. Each year in the Spring, districts must offer classroom space to charter schools that have requested space, and the charter schools have a month to decide whether or not to accept the offer. If they accept the offer, they will lease the space at a standard rate that is below market rate, but only for a short term.

This year’s deadline was April 1, and it involved a little drama.

But before all of that though, let’s go back to the first week of what was only originally intended to be a three-week shutdown. 

What to do with district land

On March 19, just three days into the district-wide shutdown of all school sites, the Board held their first virtual meeting via webconference, and it was a special meeting that had been scheduled specifically to discuss one agenda item: “District’s Physical Assets – More Efficient Management of Said Assets.” 

The Board led off with an hour-long discussion about the COVID-19 pandemic before spending two hours talking about asset management. 

District staff Jody Talkington gave a presentation on how to best use “soon to be vacated” district properties for revenue generation. She talked about three properties in particular: the former Santa Fe Elementary School, the soon-to-be-former Oakland SOL Middle School, and the soon-to-be-former Kaiser Elementary School.

All of the Board Members are supportive of generating revenue from district property, but Board Director Jumoke Hinton-Hodge seemed particularly enthusiastic about it. 

Immediately after Talkington had laid out a process for making decisions about these soon to be vacated properties, Hinton-Hodge said, “I might be really wanting to look at the revenue generation component.” Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell reminded her that in the decision-making process that Talkington had just laid out, revenue generation was the last option for public school property, after both educational and community uses. 

Director Aimee Eng questioned if the District has been in contact with County Health officials regarding possible needs for space in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Board President Jody London reminded everyone that they were on a tight schedule and they were running behind.

District staff Sonali Murarka then gave a presentation about the peculiar predicament involving Urban Montessori Charter School.

Urban Montessori will be displaced from the portion of the former Sherman Elementary campus that they have been leasing, and OUSD has offered them the former John Swett Elementary campus instead. The former Swett campus has been leased out to another charter school, but that charter school has been performing so badly that OUSD did not renew their charter. Therefore, the site was assumed to be vacant next year. 

However, this not-yet-former charter school is appealing OUSD’s decision to the state, so the District has to identify an alternate site for Urban Montessori in case that appeal is successful. If the state appeal fails, Urban Montessori can lease the Swett site as originally offered to them, and a public school will have to take in the students from the failed charter school.

District staff Sailaja Suresh then gave a presentation about housing development as a revenue generation idea. OUSD is in dire need of additional funding immediately, but the shortest case studies presented by Suresh involved at least a three-year timeline. 

Suresh focused on ideas for workforce housing, and Director Hinton-Hodge expressed a disinterest in affordable housing and asked to hear information about condos. Director Gary Yee then asked for and received clarification that the District should maintain ownership of the land in any potential development deal, and then Hinton-Hodge questioned the ability of district staff to be able to come up with a plan that maximizes the dollar value of district assets.

Talkington then gave another presentation about other creative steps to take for revenue generation, suggesting that an asset management Firm be hired. She added that there are currently five vacated sites, and five other sites that have only part time or temporary non-academic use.

Director Shanthi Gonzalez said she was against hiring an outside consultant. In response, Hinton-Hodge reiterated her lack of faith in district staff. 

OUSD Board President London raised the prospect of soliciting community input in the decision-making process, but then the first speaker during public comment was a soon-to-be-former Kaiser Elementary parent who reminded London that the community has repeatedly told the board members that they want a public school on public school property.

Blueprint for Quality Schools

On March 25, the Board held another web meeting, where they approved nine service contracts for a total of over $11.8 million in spending through the end of next school year.

During an update on the Blueprint for Quality Schools process, District Staff Yvette Renteria admitted that OUSD did not provide adequate support to Elmhurst United for incoming Roots International Academy students after the Board voted to close Roots last year.

District Staff Jen Corn said that community resistance is an issue at two schools slated for merger, but did not identify the schools. 

The Board is scheduled to vote on the Blueprint for Quality Schools (BQS) Facilities Master Plan on April 22.

The Board later approved of making a Prop 39 offer to lease the soon-to-be-former Oakland SOL Middle School campus to Oakland Unity Middle School, a privately-run charter school. Oakland SOL had already been scheduled to be displaced from their campus as part of the BQS process, and will be merged into Frick Impact Academy next year. 

The Board also discussed making a Prop 39 lease offer to Francophone Charter School of Oakland. Francophone has been at the former Toler Heights campus, and last year they expanded by co-locating some of their students on the Howard Elementary campus as well. 

Howard has a large special needs population, and serves some of the most vulnerable students in Oakland. Francophone does not.

Nonetheless, at least one class of Howard students was displaced into a former storage room in order to accommodate the Francophone co-location, which was only supposed to be for one year. 

For next school year, Francophone has requested seven classrooms for their students that have been at Howard this year.

A motion to offer Francophone a Prop 39 co-location lease at Brookfield Elementary in East Oakland was voted down after Director James Harris raised concerns about traffic in the area. However, because it was a Prop 39 offer, OUSD had to make it by April 1. When the Board was unable to agree on an alternate site to offer Francophone by the end of the meeting, they were forced to schedule a special meeting on March 31 in order to meet the Prop 39 deadline. 

Francophone Charter May Move to Brookfield Elementary, displacing the head start program currently there

The March 31 meeting primarily focused on identifying classrooms on a public school campus to offer to Francophone Charter School of Oakland. Brookfield, Howard, and Markham Elementary were all discussed as options. Markham was not seriously considered though.

Howard, which sits atop a hill overlooking East Oakland (Francophone’s main campus at Toler Heights also sits atop a hill overlooking East Oakland), was the first option explored. 

During public comment, Mark Kushner, the Interim Executive Director of Francophone, said that Howard would be the best situation for them since the co-location is working. Two Francophone parents, one of whom self-identified as a banker, agreed with him. 

Two parents from Howard and several speakers from the larger Oakland community disagreed. 

A motion to keep Francophone at Howard for another year failed. Immediately after that vote, Harris made a motion to offer space at Brookfield, even though he was the one that killed the exact same motion a week earlier, which led to the need to call this special meeting in the first place. Harris’ motion passed in time for the District to meet the April 1 deadline mandated under Prop 39. 

If Francophone accepts the lease offer, a Head Start site at Brookfield will be displaced to accommodate the charter school co-location. 

Unlike Howard and Toler Heights, Brookfield is deep in the flatlands of East Oakland, right next to the 880 freeway, so it remains to be seen if Francophone will accept the offer. They have until  May 1.

Sweetheart Deal

At the April 7 meeting, held again via web conference, the Board approved nine service contracts for over $920,000 through the end of this school year.

They also approved a one year lease of the former Lakeview Elementary campus to American Indian Public High School, which has been there for several years now. However, this new lease offer gives AIPHS additional space that will be created by displacing a special education program that serves students confined to home or a hospital.

The Board was unable to approve of a name for the new school formed by the merger of Kaiser Elementary and Sankofa Academy, but is scheduled to vote on a new name on April 22. The Board’s decision to merge the two schools in September led to over 5 months of disruptive protests at public meetings.

The Board was able to approve a 40-year lease of the former Golden Gate Elementary campus to Aspire Berkley Maynard Academy, one of 40 charter schools run by the Aspire chain in California and Tennessee.

The terms of the lease are incredibly complicated because it includes rent credits, and the lease rate is based on the Local Control Funding Formula. 

Aspire has leased the campus ever since Golden Gate Elementary was closed in 2005, and their current lease doesn’t expire until 2022. However, the building is in need of major upgrades, and Aspire recently received access to up to $20 million from the State under Prop 51 to make those upgrades. 

OUSD is giving Aspire reduced rent to help them pay back the loan to the state, so this new long-term lease will end up being much cheaper than if Aspire paid the already low Prop 39 rate. 

The rationale for this deal given by District Staff and Aspire representatives is that Aspire is making loan payments on capital improvements to OUSD property. However, the rent reduction was based on the $20 million amount throughout the entirety of the lease, even though District Staff Murarka admitted that Aspire only intends to actually use $5-7 million of that. Since it won’t take 40 years to pay off a $5-7 million loan, at some point in the future, Aspire will theoretically be getting rent credits for free.

Director Gonzalez asked, “If they’re not experiencing the same level of cost burden, then why are we providing the same level of subsidy?”

Gonzalez also expressed disappointment that the District was not trying to leverage this favorable lease to force Aspire Berkley Maynard to serve their fair share of high needs students.

Director Eng also questioned the amount of rent relief the District was providing to Aspire.

Director Yee questioned the rationale of giving rent credits for capital improvements that will likely be outdated by the end of the lease.

The motion passed despite Gonzalez, Eng, and Director Rosie Torres opposing it.

A month after cutting almost $20 million from the budget on the one year anniversary of the day that they cut over $20 million from the budget, and three weeks after devoting a special meeting to strategizing how to generate revenue from their properties, the Board gave a sweetheart deal on a long term lease of one of their campuses to a charter school funded by billionaires.

Later in the evening, the Board also approved of the School Police contract for another year, even though it is not clear when schools will actually open back up. This was one suggested budget cut that the Board did not approve of during the March 4 Board meeting, despite the large crowd of community members that showed up to demand it.

The New Normal

A week after the April 7 Board meeting, Governor Gavin Newsom said that when schools do eventually re-open, there will need to be major differences from the way school has previously been structured. Among the changes he suggested included restrictions on congregating during PE and meal breaks, “reconfigured” classrooms to allow for more physical distancing, and some type of continuance of “distance learning.” 

The OUSD Board’s ongoing agenda to close/merge public schools may not be inconsistent with a new form of schooling that relies more on “distance learning,” but it does seem to be antithetical to the need for more physical distancing.

Author Profile

Tony Daquipa is a dad, essential bureaucrat, photographer, urban cyclist, union thug, wannabe stonemason, karaoke diva, grumpy old man, storyteller, and preserver of history.

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