At Monday night’s School Closures Town Hall at Parker K-8 School in East Oakland, the theme was resistance. Despite the Oakland Unified School Board’s vote last month to permanently close Parker and two other schools at the end of the year, families at the impacted schools are digging in to resist that plan, and they believe that they will win.
One of those parents, Parker’s Rochelle Jenkins, has quickly become the face of that resistance movement. Three of Jenkins’ six children have attended Parker. Two still do, and she insists that she is not making any alternate plans for those two students next year.
“I’m a working mother,” she said. “I don’t have a way to get my kids to school except walking, and I don’t want to send my kids across town.”
Jenkins says that after the board voted to close the schools in early February, one of her daughters who attends Parker suggested that she organize a protest in front of the school to raise awareness about the issue in the community and to rally whatever support she could.
“It was her idea, I just executed it,” Jenkins said about the small but successful protests along MacArthur Boulevard over the President’s Day weekend. Just by showing up with her children and a handful of other Parker families and teachers on a Saturday afternoon, the group attracted the attention of a larger group of education activists who were holding a town hall at nearby Markham Elementary. Markham is not slated for closure, but a staff member at the school organized the town hall.
The activists joined the Parker protest, and brought with them a network television camera crew. Led by Jenkins, the protests grew over the next two days during the long holiday weekend, and multiple media outlets showed up for the Monday protest. Suddenly, Jenkins was a community activist.
“Somebody has to say something,” Jenkins said about why she continues the fight.
Jenkins told the audience at Parker on Monday that in the wake of the marathon school board meetings in February, far too many people in Oakland have given up hope that their voice matters, and she feels that it is her responsibility to speak up for them now that she has found her own voice.
Another theme at the Parker town hall was distrust of OUSD leadership. Jenkins does not fully believe the official narrative that the district has financial problems that can only be addressed by closing schools. “It’s not fair for people at the top to do this to people on the bottom,” she said.
Up the hill from Parker, Community Day School is also slated to be permanently closed at the end of the year. RISE Academy is slated to be closed and merged with the other school that shares its East Oakland flatlands campus, and La Escuelita is slated to lose its 6-8 grades.
The School Board was initially seeking to permanently close seven schools this year, and five schools next year, with additional truncations of grades 6-8 at one school each year. However, community opposition, including a high profile hunger strike, helped whittle that list down.
After the board voted on the school closures in February, the teachers’ union filed an unfair practice charge with the Public Employment Relations Board against the district for the lack of community engagement prior to the decision to shutter schools, and the PERB responded by issuing a complaint against the district. An informal settlement conference between the union and the district will happen next. If that doesn’t lead to an agreement, a formal hearing would be held in front of an administrative law judge who would have the authority to prevent or postpone the closures.
In its resolution to close/consolidate/merge/truncate schools, district leadership cited these reasons as justifications: under enrolled schools; a large number of sites; a need for ongoing revenue to cover anticipated increasing costs, and; an alleged need for $10 million in AB 1840 funding.
However, according to both district staff and the district’s external auditors, there was no deficit last year, and there isn’t one this year. According to OUSD’s independent outside auditor, the district had a $119 million dollar fund balance last spring, and its reserves had doubled since the previous year, growing to more than $50 million. According to the district’s latest financial report, OUSD is projected to have budget surpluses of $3.9 and $8.9 million over the next two years, respectively.
And as for that $10 million in AB 1840 funding that was allegedly needed, OUSD staff revealed during the February 23rd board meeting that the district has had $10 million in unbudgeted Supplemental & Concentration Carryover funds since the end of last school year.
OUSD’s Fiscal Challenges Worsened by State Takeover
At Community Day, the district’s only continuation high school which is also slated for closure at the end of the school year, Board President Gary Yee and his private citizen friend who is also a real estate developer paid a visit to the campus during school hours.
While it may sound far-fetched to some that elected officials would try to capitalize on an alleged fiscal crisis to help out their real estate developer friends, in Oakland, unfortunately, that scenario is not without precedent. In fact, that scenario is one of the main reasons that OUSD has been in a prolonged fiscal crisis for much of the past 18 years.
According to SB39, the bill authored and introduced by then-State Senator Don Perata in January 2003 to legislate the state takeover of OUSD, then-Superintendent Dennis Chaconas had improved test scores, increased the number of fully credentialed teachers, and increased parental and community involvement in his first two years in charge of the district. There was no evidence or even allegations of fiscal misconduct by district officials. However, a new accounting system installed during Chaconas’ second year discovered a $35 million deficit.
The district made $31 million in cuts after the discovery, but that was not enough for the superintendent or the school board to keep their jobs.
After losing his job, Chaconas told the NY Times that he had “spent much of his time as superintendent fending off intrusion by city and state elected officials,” who had attempted to interfere in OUSD business ranging from “giving district contracts to favorite bidders to suggesting what parcels of land should be used for building projects.”
In addition to firing the superintendent and relegating the democratically elected school board to a volunteer advisory committee, Perata’s takeover legislation gave then-State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell complete control over OUSD, appropriated $100 million for a state loan to the district, and mandated that the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team create and oversee the implementation of a financial improvement plan for the district.
Interestingly, SB39 was the second time in four years that Perata had raised the issue of the state taking over Oakland Unified.
Robert Gammon of the Oakland Tribune wrote about how Perata and then-Mayor Jerry Brown had worked behind the scenes to facilitate the state takeover. Gammon covered the state takeover for both the Tribune and the East Bay Express.
In May 2003, when asked about the land overlooking the Lake Merritt channel where the school district’s headquarters building was located, Perata told the Tribune, “For housing, it would really be spectacular.”
The late Jesse Douglas Allen-Taylor, who covered the state takeover for the Berkeley Daily Planet from 2003-2009, chronicled how “Don Perata’s interest in the Oakland school takeover may have been more about valuable Oakland school property than about helping the schools or the children.”
Gary Yee, who was elected to his first term as a Board member back in 2002, told the Daily Planet that he was one of the Board members who initially proposed the sale of the land overlooking the Lake Merritt channel in an effort to avoid the takeover.
A proposed deal to redevelop that district-owned property was abandoned by O’Connell in 2007 due to opposition from the Oakland community, and soon after that, O’Connell began the process of returning local control of Oakland schools back to the school board.
The property has been the subject of various redevelopment plans over the years, but in January 2013, the district headquarters building located on the site suffered serious water damage from a faucet being left on, and it has been shuttered ever since.
After three years of covering the state takeover for the Daily Planet, Allen-Taylor called it “one of the greatest public scandals in Oakland’s history.” Unfortunately, Allen-Taylor passed away two weeks ago.
Former OUSD Boardmember Greg Hodge, who served as Board President during the first two years of the state takeover, confirmed the facts laid out in Allen-Taylor’s work. Hodge specifically pointed out the role played by then-Alameda County Superintendent of Schools Sheila Jordan, who essentially forced the takeover when she didn’t allow OUSD to use its own bond money to pay down its deficit.
The plan to use the bond money had been approved by the district’s bond attorneys, who were also the bond attorneys for the State of California. Nonetheless, Jordan’s decision that the plan wasn’t legal was later upheld by then-State Attorney General Bill Lockyer.
Hodge also noted that Jerry Brown had made several attempts to control the OUSD school board in his short time as Mayor prior to the takeover.
“It was very political,” Hodge said about his experience serving the district under the takeover regime. “It wasn’t about the finances.”
While it has been reported that the district’s deficit in 2002 was anywhere from $35-57 million, Hodge says that it was the lower number. Nonetheless, the district was forced to take out a $100 million loan from the state, and that loan and its interest payments have been a detriment to OUSD’s finances throughout the past 18 years. “It contributed to where we are now,” Hodge told Oakland Voices.
Another contributing factor was the revolving door of state overseers appointed by O’Connell. By the end of the 2009 school year when local control was restored to Oakland, all $100 million of the SB39 loan had been spent by four different state overseer regimes, the district had amassed an additional $89 million deficit, and that deficit was forecast to grow by another $18 million the following year. After six years of the state wielding control over OUSD, the district was in worse shape financially, but now was also $100 million in debt.
During that state takeover, 10 Oakland public schools had been permanently closed, and several more had been broken up or merged or consolidated.
In February 2022, the Oakland City Council passed a resolution calling on Governor Gavin Newsom to eliminate OUSD’s debt to the state in an effort to prevent school closures.
“Nothing that happened during the takeover made things better for students,” Hodge said. In his opinion, the state takeover was more about allowing a “narrower set of interests” to control Oakland schools–and perhaps more importantly, OUSD-owned real estate.
When asked why he continued to serve on the OUSD school board after his salary and his authority were taken away by SB39, Hodge, who served on the board from 2001-2009, responded, “It was bigger than a paycheck.”
“I care about the kids and families the school district seeks to serve. We were democratically elected to represent our community. The voters’ voice matters.”
The Fight Continues
Since Jenkins has started logging in to school board meetings via Zoom, she said that she feels insulted by the board majority, whom she feels aren’t actually listening to the community. “It just makes me angry,” she said about the dynamic.
“They’re just using us,” she told Oakland Voices, adding that she feels that the board majority is advancing some alternate agenda to enrich themselves “off the backs of our children.”
After organizing the protests on MacArthur boulevard in February, she and her children joined the larger “Shut Down The Town” march along East 14th street at the beginning of this month. She started the march off holding a banner in the street, but eventually ended up on the lead truck leading chants over the PA system.
“I never did anything like this,” said Jenkins of becoming a community activist, but she says that she couldn’t pass up the opportunity when it came her way. “It was an opportunity to really be heard for once.”
Jenkins said standing up for her children’s school has also improved her social life. Jenkins, who moved to Oakland from Fresno four years ago, says that becoming a community leader was hard at first, but organizing has allowed her to get to know more people from throughout the city.
She also said that the past month has inspired her to go back to school to study sociology because she enjoys working with and helping others.
“The fight will continue,” she vowed. “If we don’t fight for each other, then no one else will.”