Last year, Oakland Unified school board members voted to merge Sankofa Academy with Kaiser Elementary School, which would then be closed. Parents fought against the decision and want to see an end to school closures with the next school board. Credit: Pete Rosos

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Four of the Oakland Unified School District’s seven school board seats are up for election this year, and all four incumbents—Jody London, Jumoke Hinton Hodge, Roseann Torres and James Harris—have decided not to run for reelection. That means a majority of the school board will be filled by newcomers. Many Oakland residents, and even the outgoing board members, agree that it’s time for some fresh perspectives. 

When they take their seats in January, the new school board will be tasked with guiding Oakland’s 83 schools and 36,000 students through problems that they may not have foreseen even at the start of this year. Schools will still be dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the district police department will be gone by the end of December, requiring a new school safety plan. Beyond that, long-standing issues like school closures, financial mismanagement, and the growth of charter schools will continue to cause controversy in the school community. 

Seventeen candidates have qualified to run for the four open school board seats, which are in Districts 1, 3, 5 and 7. Their terms will last until 2024. 

With voters viewing the board election as an opportunity to shift the direction and priorities of the district, many Oakland families and teachers are hoping for representation that is more attuned to their communities’ needs. 

More resources, better management

“I don’t feel like we have a single friend on the school board who is trying to figure out how we can make sure our public schools are top quality and fully-resourced,” said Megan Bumpus, a mom who also teaches fifth grade at REACH Academy in East Oakland. Bumpus said she’s been to almost every school board meeting in the last three years advocating for change. “That is [priority] number one, being connected with your district and being connected with your school site.”

At 98th Avenue and Bancroft Avenue, REACH Academy enrolled about 400 elementary school students last year. Eighty-five percent of students at REACH Academy receive free or reduced price lunch, which is higher than the district’s average of 72%. Eighty percent of the students at REACH Academy are Black or Latino, and nearly half of the students there are learning English.  

Bumpus wants to see an end to the disruptive cycle of budget cuts dealt out to schools every spring in recent years, which, as a teacher, means she has had to say goodbye to colleagues who are laid off. 

“[When] we have to cut another staff position, [that’s] a caring person who’s Black or brown and works with students in deep East Oakland—who we can no longer have to support students,” she said.

Talmera Richardson, whose son attends REACH Academy, thinks more money could be spent on students, like repairing the playground equipment at her son’s school, instead of at the central office and on administration. The district has been leasing an office in downtown Oakland since 2013.

“I don’t even want to think about what the rent is there,” Richardson said.

OUSD spends millions of dollars per year in rent, and officials do plan to move to offices on the district’s own property if a bond measure is passed in November

The district has faced issues of fiscal insolvency for decades. In 2003, the state took over the district, appointed an administrator to replace the superintendent, and loaned OUSD $100 million, but this emergency funding has since become a debt the district is still trying to pay back. More recently, the board has had to make annual budget cuts in the tens of millions, including voting to slash nearly $20 million earlier this year. Those budget cuts have resulted in layoffs, loss of programming, and fewer resources for students, teachers, and families.

The district’s budget problems have also caught the attention of other governing bodies, including an Alameda County grand jury, which, in consecutive reports, criticized OUSD for financial mismanagement, overspending and wasteful contracts.

When schools cut costs, it is often left up to the school community to fundraise the difference, an option only available to schools with active and deep-pocketed Parent-Teacher Associations. Reginald Mosley, a father of seven living in North Oakland, saw the difference first-hand when he transferred his youngest three children from Sankofa Elementary to Montclair Elementary this fall. 

“At Montclair, they raise $500-600 a year just for teacher appreciation,” he said.  Only 20% of Montclair students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch—a measure that school districts use to measure poverty—while at Sankofa, located on Shattuck Avenue, 90% of students do. 

“At Sankofa, parents cannot afford to give teachers extra money,” Mosley said.

The exterior of the Sankofa United Elementary Academy in Bushrod. Credit: Pete Rosos

Mosley, who filed to run as a school board candidate in District 1 but didn’t qualify for the ballot, said he’d like to see schools with more successful PTA groups, like Montclair and Peralta Elementary, help schools like Sankofa set up and run a parent-teacher association to start fundraising.

Competing perspectives on school closures

District officials have said for years that there’s a need to “right-size the district,” which means reducing the number of schools through closures or mergers. With 36,000 students spread across 83 schools, district leaders argue that there are far too many schools for their students, causing OUSD to spend more on facilities and staff than if they condensed students into fewer schools. 

For example, each campus requires certain types of staff regardless of the campus’s size, like a principal or librarian. By merging smaller campuses together, district officials argue, they can create savings by having these staff serve more students.

“It’s a lot easier to have 60 librarians than it is to have 83 librarians,” said current OUSD board president Jody London, who is giving up her seat in November.

But parents and students don’t see it that way. 

Adelaida Ríos, whose son attended Roots International Academy, fought against the school’s closure and felt devastated when the board decided to shutter the campus at the end of the 2018-2019 school year. With the closure came the loss of a community of parents, students, and staff that had embraced her son after his brother died, Ríos said.

Adelaida Rios, a parent of a former Roots Academy student. Rios said that the closure of Roots Academy came very suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving her and her son flailing for consistency in his education. Credit: Pete Rosos

“The day that they voted to close, I came home and just broke down in the middle of the kitchen crying. I just had no energy,” she said.

Her son went to Elmhurst United Middle School for eighth grade, but the school year was again disrupted in the spring—this time by the COVID-19 pandemic which caused Elmhurst and all other Oakland schools to close and shift to online learning. 

Ríos also echoed concerns about school resources. At Roots, she recalled how teachers struggled to get air conditioning in the summer and heating in the winter.

School closures have been one of the most contentious issues over the past few years. Last year, several parents were arrested while protesting closures at an October school board meeting, and officers drew their batons on the crowd.

Since closing Roots, the district has also closed Kaiser Elementary in North Oakland and merged it with Sankofa Elementary, and closed Oakland School of Language and merged it with Frick Impact Academy in East Oakland. When deciding which schools to close, district leaders consider enrollment, school capacity, and how far families live from the schools they choose to attend. 

“Should we have closed Roots? No one wants to hear yes,” said District 7 Director James Harris. “But in an effort to get resources to students that need them and to break up systems that aren’t working and are harming students, you’ve got to make those bold choices.” 

The aftermath of closures can be felt years later as neighborhoods change. Daniel Stewart, who lives in Adam’s Point, currently has his second-grader enrolled at Lincoln Elementary in Chinatown. When he first moved to the neighborhood 12 years ago, he said it felt like there were fewer families, and the nearby Lakeview Elementary located on Grand Avenue was suffering from under-enrollment. 

“Now I walk around our neighborhood and there’s tons of toddlers, babies, and little kids here,” he said. 

But in 2012, the school board voted to close Lakeview Elementary. Now, instead of opting for other nearby schools, Stewart said many of his neighbors move away by the time their children are old enough for kindergarten.

Charter school growth

Last year, the district leased out the Lakeview Elementary School property to AIMS College Prep High School, a charter school—a practice many parents, including Stewart, want to see come to an end with the next school board. 

“It feels like some of them are ready to give up on Oakland schools,” he said. Why are you on the school board if you’re just ready to cut it apart and close schools or turn them over to the charter organizations?”

The OUSD board has authorized 33 charter schools currently operating in Oakland, and 18 of them use district facilities. Several of those schools entered into long-term agreements with the school district, with leases as far out as 2033 or 2036.

Charter schools have their own unelected boards, usually overseen by a nonprofit corporation. They receive public funding from the state like public district schools. The first charter school in Oakland opened in 1993, and charters have since exploded in growth, siphoning away the funding that comes with students. Because OUSD receives money from the state based on its average daily attendance numbers, fewer and fewer students enrolling each year in district schools means less funding. During the 2019-2020 school year, 27 percent of Oakland public school students attended charter schools.

Some families and teachers want to see board members take a hardline stance against any new charter schools, while others favor a more moderate approach that would allow charters to continue operating as a major part of Oakland’s education system. 

The initial argument for allowing charter schools was that their existence would create competition with district schools and encourage innovation to keep students enrolled in OUSD schools and better serve students and families.

Jamila Bowling, an East Oakland mom, sends her two children to KIPP Bridge Academy in West Oakland. When the family moved here two years ago from Vallejo, they were assigned to Brookfield Elementary School, a distruct-run campus. After doing research and reading online reviews of the school from other parents, Bowling decided to seek other options. She applied to KIPP and was accepted right away, overcoming some of her previous thoughts about charter schools.

“Once I went to the school and learned that they call the students scholars and that the educators are very involved in having students reach their potential, I was on board,” she said.

Bowling wants to see school board candidates who embrace charter schools.

Vanessa Oden, who lives in Vallejo but sends her children to AIMS schools in Oakland, agrees with Bowling and thinks charter schools provide more choices to families. Oden also works as a parent coordinator for the school.

“We have diverse communities that have different needs. Families should have a choice in the school that best fits their child. That’s the only candidate that I’ll support,” Oden said.

Mosley, the D1 dad, doesn’t want to see charter schools continue growing in Oakland, but he doesn’t agree with those, like the Oakland Education Association teachers’ union, who are calling for a moratorium on charter schools.

“There’s nothing wrong with a charter school, but there’s something wrong with a charter district,” he said. “As a school board member, you’re not elected to turn the district into a charter district. But you can reign in the charters.”

Last year, the school board voted to endorse state legislation that would permit local school districts to suspend the approval of new charters or the renewal of existing charter schools. Local school district’s currently don’t have this level of control because under state law the county board of education can also authorize a new charter school or renew an existing charter’s right to operate, even against the recommendation of a local school district. The state board of education can also approve charter schools’ right to operate in a city, even when the local school board is opposed.

During the 2019-2020 school year, OUSD approved five charter renewals, but hasn’t approved a brand new charter school since 2016. However, Alameda County and the state board of education have approved four charter schools in Oakland since then. 

“The work of charter schools around Oakland has been competitive before it got overly political and politicized and rejected in a lot of ways by a small group of people,” said Jumoke Hinton-Hodge, the District 3 director who is stepping down this year. “Overall, we did see some innovation that was happening. We could have been better about learning as much as we could around that.”

Where OUSD is headed in the right direction

School board politics isn’t all conflict in Oakland. In many ways, OUSD has been doing a good job serving students and families.

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Several parents and teachers commended the school district for mobilizing to provide support to families after schools closed because of the pandemic. OUSD has provided more than 4 million meals since March and is working to supply every student with a Chromebook laptop and internet hotspot to participate in distance learning.

An Oakland High School student comes to pick up her textbooks and a Chromebook at Oakland High School. Credit: Pete Rosos

Richardson, the Reach Academy mom, sits on the Oakland Undivided committee, which oversees the technology distribution effort, and applauded the district for its work in distributing thousands of devices so far this year. But because device distribution happens on school campuses, she’s worried about grandparents and other elderly caretakers who fear the crowds. 

Similarly to Bumpus, the teacher and mom, Richardson would also like to see more community engagement from board members during the pandemic.

“People from the district should be checking in, saying, ‘Hey, this is [District 7 director] James Harris from OUSD, does anybody need anything? Is everything okay?” she said.

Shula Bien, a Fruitvale resident and teacher, said she’s grateful to the district for getting Chromebooks and hotspots to her students at Elmhurst United Middle School, where she teaches English language. “I was very concerned that they weren’t going to give out tech to families.”

Current board members London, Hinton-Hodge, and Roseann Torres, who represents District 5, all said they are eager to see superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell lead the district on the right path. If she serves out the remainder of her contract, which the board extended earlier this year to 2023, Johnson-Trammell will be the longest-serving superintendent in 60 years. Previous superintendent turnover has led to some of the dysfunction and mismanagement in recent years, said Torres, and reducing turnover among OUSD’s top jobs could significantly help the district succeed in the long term.

“If you keep changing the CEO, stocks are going to go tumbling; people do not like that. She’s the CEO,” Torres said. “With Kyla being here another three years, that’ll be the best for our children.

Editor’s note: this story was changed after publication to clarify that state tax dollars are transferred out of district schools and into charter schools when students and parents leave district schools to attend charters.

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Ashley McBride reports on education equity for The Oaklandside. She covered the 2019 Oakland Unified School District teachers’ strike as a breaking news reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. More recently, she was an education reporter for the San Antonio Express-News where she covered several local school districts, charter schools, and the community college system. McBride earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University, has held positions at the Palm Beach Post and the Poynter Institute, and is a recent Hearst Journalism Fellow.