person holding a sign that says no school closures
Parents, teachers and organizers protested in front of OUSD board director Shanthi Gonzales' and Sam Davis' house in opposition to permanent school closures. Credit: Amir Aziz

Two Oakland Unified schools will close this year and five next year under a modified plan approved by the OUSD board of directors during an emotional eight-hour meeting that began Tuesday night and ran into Wednesday morning. 

The vote, which happened shortly before 1 a.m., followed two weeks of protests, marches, a hunger strike, and other demonstrations against school closures, which were abruptly announced at the end of January

During four hours of public comment, dozens of community members and students spoke out against closures. Many requested more evidence from the administration that closing schools will save money. Opponents also noted that the closures will disproportionately impact Black and brown students, and they questioned why OUSD did not give the community more time to deliberate. 

The initial consolidation plan was revealed two weeks ago, when District 5 Director Mike Hutchinson shared a draft list of schools to be closed, days before OUSD officially informed those school communities. It would have caused six schools—Brookfield Elementary, Carl B. Munck Elementary, Community Day School, Grass Valley Elementary, Parker K-8, and Prescott Elementary—to close this year, while two more—Korematsu Discovery Academy and Horace Mann Elementary—would close next year. The original resolution would have also merged Westlake Middle School with West Oakland Middle School, Manzanita Community School with Fruitvale Elementary, and Dewey Academy with Ralph Bunche Academy on the Westlake Middle School campus.

Facing massive opposition from these school communities, last night a majority of the board scaled back the closure and merger plans.

Students at Westlake Middle School walk out of their school to protest against school closures proposed by Oakland Unified School District. Credit: Credit: Amir Aziz

Under the new plan, Parker K-8 and Community Day, an alternative education school for expelled students, will close at the end of the 2021-2022 school year. Korematsu, Horace Mann, Brookfield, Carl B. Munck, and Grass Valley will close next year. Prescott, established in West Oakland in 1869, will stay open. 

La Escuelita, which currently serves kindergarten to 8th grade, will become an elementary school this year, and Hillcrest K-8 will become an elementary school next year, both changes that were part of the original plan. Most of the mergers in the original plan, including Westlake Middle School with West Oakland Middle School, Dewey Academy with Ralph Bunche Academy, and Manzanita Community School with Fruitvale Elementary, will no longer happen, but Rise Community Elementary will merge with New Highland Academy on the same campus this year. 

Four school board members—Aimee Eng, Shanthi Gonzales, Sam Davis, and Gary Yee—supported the plan. 

“We do have to acknowledge that our students deserve better, that they do deserve more resources at their schools. We need to be able to provide them more academic and social-emotional support,” said District 2 Director Eng. “And we know that we need to increase our compensation to our educators and we need to remain fiscally solvent and retain local control.”

Directors VanCedric Williams and Mike Hutchinson voted against the plan. Director Clifford Thompson abstained, and the two student directors Samantha Pal and Natalie Gallegos, whose votes are symbolic, were also against the closures and consolidations. 

“Now is not the time to be having this conversation. Now is not the time to have a vote,” said Pal, a senior at Oakland High School. “Instead of investing time to close down schools that serve majority Black and brown students, invest your time as a district to build community and to empower students to lead school improvement campaigns.”

Hundreds of other students attended the meeting via Zoom to object to the closures.

“If you truly care about students’ mental health, then prioritize their well-being. Prioritize these relationships and connections that make them feel safe,” said Rochelle Berdan, an OUSD student. “These families should never have to beg for you all to care about them the way you all promised you would. The community voted you into positions of power because they had faith in you all to make the decisions that benefit and represent them. But these school closures do the complete opposite.”

Community members criticized the board for a rushed process, sought more time

At the very beginning of the board meeting, District 5 Director Hutchinson made a motion to postpone a vote on school closures until January 2023, so that the public would have a chance to vote in the November school board election and reveal whether or not there is support for the directors who are in favor of closures and mergers. At that time, directors Eng, Yee, and Gonzales will be up for re-election. Williams, Pal, and Gallegos supported Hutchinson’s request, but the rest of the board voted it down. Throughout the rest of the meeting, Williams and Hutchinson voted the same way—against any proposal or amendment that would have implemented closures. At times, Pal and Gallegos stayed silent to highlight the fact that their votes—and voices—are essentially meaningless when it comes to board decisions.

“All I can figure is that none of you have ever experienced the trauma of having your site threatened with closure. None of you have had to comfort crying families who are ripped away from their home,” said Hutchinson, who has campaigned against school closures for years. “How are you going to accommodate our families who are living under multiple stresses? When you tell them they have to go to a school a mile and a half away from where their current school is?”

District 5 Director Mike Hutchinson, pictured at an August school board meeting, has spoken out against OUSD closing schools for years and made it a core part of his campaign. Credit: Kathryn Styer Martínez

Hours before Tuesday’s meeting, directors Davis and Eng released their revisions that would take several schools off the closure or merger list. Their changes were approved with four yes votes from Eng, Thompson, Davis, and Yee. Gonzales abstained, and Hutchinson and Williams voted against the amendment. 

Davis, who represents District 1, said he felt compelled to take Prescott off the list of closures because there isn’t enough space for students at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary, which would have been one of two remaining OUSD elementary schools in West Oakland. Merging Westlake with West Oakland middle and Manzanita Community with Fruitvale Elementary also didn’t make sense, according to Davis, because it would have forced families to travel to another neighborhood to go to school. And without Westlake students moving to West Oakland Middle School, there wouldn’t be room for Dewey Academy and Bunche Academy to merge on the Westlake campus, which was part of the original plan.

“I agree the process has not been good here, but I do feel like there’s urgency to move forward because of the financial situation in the district,” Davis said. “I am worried that what we’re doing is not enough to make the progress that we need to make on our structural deficit.”

It’s unclear how much money the amended closures and consolidations could save

The original school consolidation plan was estimated to save the district $4 to $15 million. The district’s revenues totaled more than $700 million this year. District leaders did not present updated figures for how much the revised plan approved last night may save. 

For years, district leaders have said that OUSD has too many schools for the number of students it serves, and having fewer schools with higher enrollments would enable the district to avoid budget shortfalls and improve the quality of education for all students. But plans to close schools have always been met with community opposition. In 2012, OUSD closed four elementary schools. In 2019, Roots International Academy was closed, and in 2020 Kaiser Elementary School was closed and merged with Sankofa Academy

District officials said the schools on the original list were chosen because of low enrollments, fewer families opting for those schools, and fewer children in the neighborhoods around the schools. 

“In my opinion, this process is 20 years overdue. Around the year 2000, the board started to approve charter schools and they had no plan for how they were going to reconcile the impact that that was going to have on the district’s enrollment and the district’s financial health. And it shows,” Director Gonzales said during the board meeting. “We have twice as many schools as a district of our size would normally have. And it’s taxing everything from our facilities to our inability to offer attractive pay.”

Gonzales added that OUSD also embraced the small schools movement 20 years ago and opened more schools without a plan for how it would impact the district’s enrollment or finances. 

Since the board voted to close schools, the district is eligible for $10 million in one-time funds from Assembly Bill 1840—a law that was passed to incentivize financially strapped districts like Oakland to make sizable budget reductions through actions like closures and mergers, and rewards them with extra funding. The board also voted last night to direct any AB 1840 funds it receives to support services for students when they transition to their new schools, as well as bolster the work of the district’s Black Students and Families Thriving Task Force

Some saw this move as an underhanded way to justify closing schools that enroll higher rates of Black students.  

“What we’ve done here at OUSD is continue to harm the educational outcomes of Black folks, Black students, generation after generation after generation,” said Director Williams. “We have organized, talked to the community and passed reparations for Black students to provide a sense of hope that our district would pivot in the right direction and start to value our students. But yet, we’re back at the same place fighting to keep our heads above water, and fighting for our communities.”

The fight over school closures is not over

Two staff members at Westlake Middle School began a hunger strike last week that will last until their demands are met and no schools are at risk of closure. Although Westlake is no longer being merged or relocated, Andre San-Chez and Moses Omolade said they will continue starving themselves until they’ve met with Governor Gavin Newsom, Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell, and all of the school board members. They’re also calling on state legislators to use their budget surplus to pay off OUSD’s remaining loan balance to the state, refund the payments that OUSD has already made, and let go of the state and county oversight of the district. 

André San-Chez, the choir director at Westlake Middle School, shares their demands on day eight of a hunger strike protest against school closures. Credit: Amir Aziz

Four members of the Oakland City Council—Rebecca Kaplan, Sheng Thao, Nikki Fortunato Bas, and Carroll Fife—are introducing a resolution to request that the governor and state lawmakers eliminate OUSD’s remaining debt and revise the school funding formula that gives money to schools based on their attendance rates. 

The Alameda County Board of Education passed a resolution Tuesday night submitted by community members that recommends school districts run an equity analysis ahead of taking action on school closures to see whether they disproportionately impact any marginalized groups. The resolution also advises school districts to involve families early in the process of school closures or mergers.

Despite the Alameda County resolution being a direct response to OUSD presenting its closure plan with limited engagement, or recognition of how it would uproot low-income students and students of color, OUSD’s board still decided against starting the process over to follow the county’s recommended approach.

“I firstly want to apologize to all of our students, families, teachers, and community members for having to deal with such an unfair board and a board who has not taken every single student and family into consideration,” said student director Gallegos, a student at Oakland High School. “I am grateful and I thank you, the community, for having the courage and strength to share stories with us about your experiences within these schools.”

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.