Students at Westlake Middle School in Oakland walked out of their classrooms and marched to the district office to demand that OUSD not close any schools. Credit: Amir Aziz

In the next seven days, the Oakland Unified School District board will be voting on whether to permanently close and merge up to 15 schools over the next two years—a plan that has brought an immediate backlash from those school communities, including parents, teachers, and students. 

For more than four hours on Wednesday night, community members pleaded with the school board to keep their schools open, or to at least take a slower approach. Despite reservations expressed by some school board directors about the short timeline, the board seems poised to greenlight changes that will impact thousands of students, families, teachers, and staff over the next two years in an effort to balance the budget. 

Even more stark are the disparities in who could be impacted by the closures. Of the students at the eight schools slated for closure this year and next year, about 43% are Black—nearly twice the proportion of Black students in OUSD overall, which is 22%. Five of the 10 OUSD schools with the highest Black student enrollment percentages are at risk of closure: Community Day School, Grass Valley Elementary, Prescott Elementary, Parker K–8, and Carl B. Munck Elementary, each of which are at least 50% Black. 

“This is not easy for me to present this information, especially knowing that African American students and families will be the most impacted by the school recommendations,” said Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell.

The plans prompted protests across the city this week, and two staff members at Westlake Middle School are beginning a hunger strike today that will last until OUSD abandons the school closure proposals. Students and staff at Westlake Middle School, MetWest High School, and La Escuelita marched from their campuses to the downtown district office Tuesday to protest the closures.  

Westlake students held a walkout demonstration to demand that OUSD not close schools on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022. Credit: Amir Aziz

The board is set to vote on the closures and mergers next Tuesday, Feb. 8.

Votes to postpone the decision until June or August failed, with Directors VanCedric Williams and Mike Hutchinson voting in favor of rescheduling. Williams and Hutchinson, who represent districts 3 and 5, respectively, are the only two board members completely opposed to any plan to close schools. They and other critics of school closures and consolidations argue that doing so in the midst of a pandemic would cause disruption and drive more families out of OUSD—the opposite outcome that district leaders are hoping for. 

“We will not eat until you end all school closures. You all don’t want death on your hands,” said Westlake community school manager Moses Omolade. “We will not eat until you all end your attacks on our schools.”

Why is the district deciding to close schools now?

Several community members raised concerns about the district’s timeline for the closures, saying it’s too rushed and leaves few opportunities to talk with school communities before making a decision. Three days after families at the impacted schools received letters that their schools may be closing, the board held its first meeting to talk about the plan and hear from the community. Next week, the board is expected to vote. 

Hutchinson publicly shared a draft list of the anticipated closures and consolidations last Tuesday on social media, days before schools were officially informed on Friday, in an effort to raise awareness that the board was considering closing schools. 

“One of the things I learned through fighting against school closures for all of these years is that information is key for the community in being able to engage and push back,” Hutchinson told The Oaklandside about his decision to share the list. “My job is to make sure my community has that information at the soonest possible time.” 

The school changes, if approved, would take place in two phases: this fall and at the start of the 2023-2024 school year. Schools closing at the end of this school year would include Prescott Elementary, Carl B. Munck Elementary, Community Day School, Parker K-8, Grass Valley Elementary, and Brookfield Elementary. 

Next year, Horace Mann Elementary and Korematsu Discovery Academy could close. 

Other changes include merging Westlake Middle School with West Oakland Middle School, combining Dewey Academy and Ralph J. Bunche Academy at the Westlake campus, merging Manzanita Community School with Fruitvale Elementary School, and consolidating RISE Community School with New Highland Academy. Hillcrest and La Escuelita, two schools serving kindergarten to 8th grade, could become strictly elementary schools.  

Three weeks ago the school board voted 5-2, with Hutchinson and Williams voting against, for district staff to bring forward a list of closures and consolidations “at the soonest reasonable opportunity” that could be implemented this year and next year. Superintendent Johnson-Trammell said that the resolution required a quick timeline if the changes are going to be implemented this year, and acknowledged that that meant there would be less time to engage with the community.

“I took the helm at the point of the worst financial crisis in this district since the state takeover,” said Johnson-Trammell, who became superintendent in 2017. “This is the time to make tough decisions, during the time when we have significant one-time funds from the state so we can invest deeply in the process, our schools, students, and staff.”

Director Sam Davis, who represents District 1, added that another reason for the immediate decision is that families displaced from their school due to closure can take advantage of OUSD’s “opportunity ticket” policy. Normally, students who live in the neighborhood around a school are prioritized for enrollment at that school over students who don’t live in the neighborhood. The opportunity ticket allows families that are coming from schools that are closing or merging to have priority above the neighborhood students.

The district’s primary enrollment period, where families rank the schools they want to attend for the 2022-2023 school year, closes on Feb. 4.

“We’re not simply discussing closing schools. We’re discussing an expedited process to close our schools—just over four months between hearing that a school is being considered for closure to having padlocks on their doors,” said Jeremy Wolff, a teacher at Sequoia Elementary School. 

The school district is being urged by the county and state to take drastic measures to balance its budget, and more funds may be on the table if school closures are part of those measures.

In a Jan. 4 letter to OUSD from the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT), a state agency that helps districts in financial trouble, an FCMAT official wrote that the district could be eligible for $10 million in one-time funds if the board implements school consolidations and puts vacant district property up for sale or lease, develops short-term and long-term financial plans, and completes audits on time.

In a Jan. 14 letter to the board from Alameda County Superintendent L.K. Monroe, the superintendent concurred that “an additional $10 million in one-time funds may be available under AB 1840 if the Board of Education ultimately enacts at least some of the proposed school consolidations this fiscal year.” 

Oakland Unified School District board members at an August meeting. Credit: Kathryn Styer Martínez Credit: Kathryn Styer Martínez

“It became pretty clear to Shanthi [Gonzales] and myself and others last year that we were facing a pretty serious long-term structural deficit,” Board President Gary Yee told The Oaklandside on Tuesday. Yee initially brought forward the school closure resolution with Director Gonzales in December. “That was the warning that we’d been given by numerous state trustees and county oversight.”

How did OUSD decide what schools to close or merge?

Community members also criticized the way district leaders chose to evaluate schools. Sondra Aguilera, OUSD’s chief academic officer, explained that staff looked at sustainability measures, like enrollment trends, the number of families attending their neighborhood school, and how many families apply for seats at a school during enrollment season. Each of the schools on the closure list has enrollments of fewer than 400 students. 

Because schools in California are funded based on their attendance rates, some schools cost more money to run than the amount of revenue they bring in. According to financial analysis from a consulting firm that OUSD hired, at seven of the schools slated for closure, the district spends more per student than it receives. Community Day School, an alternative school that could be closed, wasn’t included in the analysis. If OUSD moves forward as planned with closing eight schools, merging four, and shrinking two, the savings could be anywhere from $4 million to nearly $15 million, according to the analysis. 

“You could save a maximum of $15 million by cutting these schools, if I understand correctly. With a $700 million budget, that’s just 2.1%,” said Stefanie Parrott, a parent at Prescott Elementary. “All this misery and heartache for 2.1% is really appalling.”

Oakland Unified has been here before

OUSD has decided to close schools at various times over the past decade, and each time, there’s a fight. In 2019, the district proposed closing Kaiser Elementary and merging it with Sankofa Academy, which led to a contentious series of meetings that led to police action and a lawsuit against the district. Also in 2019, the board voted to close Roots International School after students tearily asked the board not to. This time is no different. 

On Monday evening, dozens of students and parents called into the school board meeting to plead that the board keep their schools open. 

“You’re closing schools for minorities. Where do you expect us to go?” asked Tiffany Hampton-Amos, whose daughter is in fifth grade at La Escuelita. “What sacrifices have you made? Have you asked parents what sacrifices we’ve made?”

“Please don’t slay our dragons. I love my teachers and I love my friends,” said Hazel, a kindergartener at Carl B. Munck Elementary, where the mascot is the dragon. “Please don’t close my school or I will be very sad.”

Analyses of previous closures haven’t provided convincing evidence yet that closing schools will result in more money or better educational outcomes for Oakland students. During a report last year, district leaders said it was too early to draw conclusions about whether or not closures and mergers from 2018 to 2020 had worked the way they’d projected. 

Next Tuesday, the board is expected to meet again to discuss, suggest changes, and vote on the proposed plan. 

“The community showed up last night and made their voices very clear,” Hutchinson told The Oaklandside. “It’ll be unconscionable if elected school board directors don’t listen to the will of their community.”

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.