Horace Mann Elementary School could permanently close in 2023. Credit: Kathryn Styer Martinez

Tonight’s Oakland Unified School District board meeting is going to be contentious. District officials are presenting a plan to close, merge, or shrink up to 15 schools. Eight schools could close, five might be merged or relocated to another campus, and two K-8 schools could become K-5 schools.

According to OUSD’s administration, the district has too many schools compared to the number of students currently enrolled, which drives up costs and reduces the quality of instruction.

Oakland’s attendance rates have suffered this year because of the pandemic, which means that OUSD’s attendance-based funding from the state is at risk. The average OUSD school has 438 students enrolled, far fewer than comparable districts like Stockton, which has 679 students per school and serves a student body that's similar in size. Facing budget shortfalls in recent years, district leaders say school closures and consolidations are the structural changes needed to fix OUSD’s finances.

The school district is also being pressured to rein in its budget by the county and the state, who have made it clear that Oakland schools may have to close.

OUSD School consolidations meeting

Download a copy of the agenda for tonight's meeting.

Join the meeting via Zoom at 6 p.m.

Many parents, educators, and some OUSD board members are adamantly opposed to closing schools. They believe the district’s financial problems are overblown and point out that district leaders have not shown evidence that school closures work to save money.

A report presented by district officials last year showed that overall OUSD spending went up after the last waves of Oakland school closures, with the district spending more money on schools that expanded as a result of mergers.

Critics of the plan say also closures would disproportionately fall on schools attended by Black and brown students. Some who oppose the expansion of charter schools in Oakland point out that emptied school buildings could be legally leased by charters.

Other opponents of school closures say they drive students out of OUSD altogether. Last year's report showed that when Kaiser Elementary closed in 2020, 37 of its 221 students—or about 16%—ended up going to non-OUSD schools. After Oakland School of Language closed the same year, 15% of its former students left the district.

During a presentation last June, district officials outlined how the next group of schools to be closed would be chosen: by evaluating standardized test scores, reading levels, suspension rates, absenteeism, teacher retention, enrollment trends, and other metrics.

In November, the school board voted against another round of school closures and mergers, voting instead to cut other costs. But in December, board members Shanthi Gonzales and Board President Gary Yee asked the superintendent to come up with a new list of schools that could be closed or consolidated at the end of this academic year.

Last Tuesday, OUSD school board director Mike Hutchinson, who opposes school closures, publicly released a draft list of elementary, middle, and high schools. Hutchinson said on social media that he released the list in the name of transparency so that affected school communities would have more time to digest the changes and weigh in.

On Friday, OUSD officially informed those school communities that their schools could be closed at the end of this academic year.

Tonight, the school board will discuss the possible closures. On Tuesday, Feb. 8, the board is expected to vote on them.

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.