In the middle of a raging global pandemic, when both students and staff had been engaging in direct actions to demand increased school safety, the Oakland Unified School District Board is focusing on permanently closing schools.
In response to Board Resolution No. 2122-0026, which passed by a 5-2 vote on January 12, district staff have created a draft list of schools that will be targeted for closure.
According to Boardmember Mike Hutchinson, the following schools are being targeted for closure this year: Prescott, Brookfield Village Elementary, Carl B. Munck Elementary, Parker K-8, Grass Valley Elementary, La Escuelita Elementary, Westlake Middle, Ralph J. Bunche Academy, Rudsdale, Community Day, Hillcrest Elementary, and Street Academy High School.
According to Hutchinson, the following schools are also possibly on the chopping block for closure in future years: Horace Mann Elementary, Fruitvale Elementary, Manzanita Community, and Fred T. Korematsu Discovery Academy.
The following schools may be merged: New Highland Academy and Rise Community, International Community School and Think College Now, and Acorn Woodland Elementary and Encompass Academy.
At the core of the issue is a school board that has been closing public schools that mostly serve Black and Brown students and is now under added financial pressure to make additional budget cuts while not being adequately supported by the local county board of education. While OUSD has been experiencing a decline in overall enrollment in recent years due to gentrification and the proliferation of charter schools, attendance has also been further impacted by the global pandemic.
A special school board meeting has been scheduled for January 31 for a first reading, and then on February 8, another special board meeting has been scheduled where the Board will vote on a final list of schools that will be closed in the next two years. According to an email sent to parents, the district said that staff and families at schools on the final recommended list for closure or merger will be notified on or before this Friday.
OUSD Board Reprimanded by County Superintendent For Voting to End Closures
Back on October 27, 2021, the Board voted unanimously to end Cohort 3 of the Blueprint for Quality Schools initiative, effectively ending the campaign of school closures that district leadership has been implementing for the past five years.
In response to that legislation, on November 8, Alameda County Superintendent of Schools L. Karen Monroe sent a “Lack of Going Concern“ letter to OUSD, threatening to withhold state funding and to take even more control away from the district if it didn’t make $90 million in budget cuts by January 31, 2022.
Monroe pointed to declining enrollment, increased staffing, and the district’s structural deficit as reasons to be concerned about OUSD’s financial stability.
Referring specifically to the Board’s recent vote to end school closures, Monroe wrote, “Based on the Board’s lack of progress in Advancing the District’s Citywide Plan work, the District appears ineligible for the next AB1840 disbursement.”
Assembly Bill 1840 was designed to provide short term fiscal relief to cash-strapped school districts like OUSD in exchange for those districts committing to making operational changes that would allegedly lead to long term fiscal sustainability.
Monroe is threatening to withhold those funds from the state, which amount to about $10 million this year, if OUSD does not meet her demands.
It should be noted that while AB1840 funding has been coming to OUSD since 2019, the district’s finances have also been under state or county control for the past 18 years.
In 2003, the State of California stripped local control of OUSD away from the democratically-elected school board and forced the district to receive a $100 million loan. Local control was somewhat restored in 2009, but a state appointed trustee was given oversight responsibilities over the district’s finances. While that state trustee has “stay and rescind” authority over actions by the OUSD Board, the trustee has only once publicly exercised that authority.
Teachers’ Union President Keith Brown told the Oakland Post in December, “The county has a responsibility to support our district. For the county to say we need more cuts under their watch shows they are not providing proper support for the needs of Oakland Unified.”
In her November 8 letter, County Superintendent Monroe also threatened additional remedial actions, including forcing the district to conduct a study of its financial and budgetary conditions, to withhold compensation of the Board Directors and the Superintendent, and to allow the County Office Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) to review district staffing.
Appointed by the state of California, FCMAT has already held authority over OUSD’s finances since the state takeover in 2003.
On November 13, the OUSD Board voted unanimously to appeal County Superintendent Monroe’s letter to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond. Thurmond denied that appeal, which means that OUSD has to make the $90 million in budget cuts demanded by Monroe by January 31.
Another Course Correction for OUSD Board
Despite legislating the end of school closures in October, the OUSD Board is revisiting that austerity strategy in the wake of Monroe’s November 8 letter.
Citing concerns about the teacher-student ratio and “too many schools for too few students,” OUSD Directors Gary Yee and Shanthi Gonzalez introduced legislation on December 15 seeking to restart school closures.
The next day, Oakland education advocates, parents, and elected officials held a press conference to speak out against Monroe’s letter.
State Assemblymember Mia Bonta, who previously served as President of the Alameda Unified School District Board from 2018-2021, spoke at the press conference. In an op-ed to the Oakland Post published the day after Christmas, Bonta promised to work at the state level to get Oakland more resources and to help get OUSD relief from the loan it received as part of the state takeover in 2003.
“I also want to be sure that you all know that I am standing here in my role as a legislator, now, in this moment, and in the spirit of restorative justice, to recognize that the state has had a role in dismantling our system,” Bonta wrote. “We have a responsibility right now. It’s been decades of the creation of schools that we haven’t supported at the level that we should have.”
She added that, “Focusing on closing schools, disrupting the spaces that keep our children safe and whole, while the whole world around them is telling them it is not a safe time — that’s not going to get us to where we need for our children.”
The California Legislative Analyst’s Office says that the state currently has a $31 billion budget surplus.
After the passage of Yee and Gonzalez’ legislation restarting school closures, a special board meeting was scheduled for January 19. Only one item was agendized for that special board meeting: “District Mission and Vision–Strategic Challenges and Opportunities.” In actuality though, the meeting primarily consisted of a pitch for reducing schools and staff. During public comment, several math teachers pointed out blatant flaws in the scattergrams presented by OUSD Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives Troy Christmas.
Targeting Black and Brown Schools
Even though some OUSD Board members are using fiscal threats from the County Superintendent as a reason to resume doing something they’ve been doing for the past five years, national studies show that school closures don’t save much money.
However, there is also a racial justice and equity aspect to school closures. Since the state takeover, OUSD has closed 23 schools. Among those, 17 of the schools were historically Black student-majority schools. Five had majority Latinx students. Only one had a majority white student population.
According to the district’s own data, from 2002-2020, 5,305 OUSD students were displaced by a school closure. Of those, 3,002 students (57%) were Black, compared to 179 (3.4%) who were white.
A list of schools to be closed will be discussed during a special board meeting scheduled for January 31, and then the list will be finalized during another special board meeting on February 8.
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Correction: an earlier version of this article listed the schools slated for closure this year as schools to be considered in the future, and vice versa.
Disclosure: Tony Daquipa volunteered for School Board Director Mike Hutchinson in 2020.