Students from Westlake Middle School and West Oakland Middle School join a rally against school closures at Frank Ogawa Plaza. Credit: Amir Aziz

In the wake of last week’s contentious vote to close seven schools and shrink two more over the next two years, the Oakland Unified school board is facing mounting pressure from community members, elected officials, teachers, and families to reverse or delay the decision. 

As it stands now, the board’s plan calls for two schools, Community Day School and Parker K-8, to close this year. Another K-8 school, La Escuelita, would be reduced to an elementary school.  Rise Community Elementary would also merge with New Highland Academy this year. 

Next year, Brookfield Elementary, Carl B. Munck Elementary, Grass Valley Elementary, Horace Mann Elementary, and Korematsu Discovery Academy would be closed, and Hillcrest, a K-8, would lose its middle school. 

Those opposed to the plan are working on multiple fronts—at the community, city, and state levels—to stop the closures from happening. 

Hundreds of students from Oakland Technical High School took to the streets Friday to oppose the plan. As the most populous school in OUSD, Oakland Tech will likely never be at risk of closure, which is why students there said they felt a need to fight for the schools on the list. 

“As a student here at this school, it is your obligation to do things when you see things going wrong,” said Zoe Lloyd-Trotter, the student body president at Oakland Tech. “We all deserve a right to education. Black education matters, Black lives matter. And they deserve to be fought for.”

Zoe Lloyd-Trotter, right, addresses a her classmates at Oakland Technical High School during a rally against school closures. Credit: Ashley McBride

Black students account for about 41% of the enrollment at the seven schools currently slated for closure this year and next, but are only 22% of the OUSD student population overall. That fact has led to criticism that the plan will disproportionately impact Black students and families. 

Latino students are also overrepresented at schools that are closing—Brookfield and Korematsu’s enrollments are 64% and 71% Latino, compared with 44% of students in OUSD overall.  

Facing a strong backlash to their original proposal, the board voted to remove Prescott from the closure list and put off most of the planned mergers and closures until next year. Most of the impacted schools, however, are still predominantly Black and brown. 

Despite the school board modifying its plan, activists say their fight won’t end until no schools are at risk of closure this year.

Andre San-Chez and Moses Omolade, two educators at Westlake Middle School, began a hunger strike on Feb. 1 to protest the closure plan and have chosen to continue in solidarity with other schools, even after their campus was taken off the closure list. As their strike enters its third week, they are demanding a meeting with Gov. Gavin Newsom, job protection for teachers and staff protesting the closures, and for the school board to postpone all closures until next year. 

“We haven’t eaten in 16 days. Every day our bodies are deteriorating,” Omolade said to school board directors Sam Davis and Aimee Eng at a community meeting at La Escuelita earlier this week. “What do you believe in? What do you love? We’re asking for a year and you all are saying, ‘Nah.’” 

At a community meeting at La Escuelita on Wednesday, parents asked why families at Hillcrest, a North Oakland school that is nearly half white, and where fewer than 10% of students are low-income, were given a year to plan for the elimination of their middle school grades, while families at La Escuelita—where 88% of students are low-income and 96% are students of color—are having to scramble now to figure out their enrollment options for the fall because the school will lose its middle school this year. 

Director Eng, who along with Director Davis, created the amendment that modified the school closure plan, replied there wasn’t enough time to do an equity analysis in the few weeks between when the board asked the superintendent to propose a list of closures, and when the board voted. However, both directors said they would consider the possibility of postponing phase one of the plan, which includes closing Community Day and Parker and merging Rise Community Elementary with New Highland Academy this year. 

Director Mike Hutchinson, who has been outspoken against school closures for a decade, said that he plans to introduce a resolution at next week’s school board meeting that would postpone phase one to next year. 

“That gives the community one year to prepare. And we’re going to have three school board directors who are leaving office in November,” Hutchinson said.

Rocquel Colbert, the principal at Parker K-8, said being placed on a closure list now—even if the school is able to avoid closure later— makes it more difficult to recruit students and staff. That, she said, leads to a decrease in enrollment and more teacher turnover, which will make the school even more likely to be targeted for closure in the future. 

“This is devastating. This is devastating for us, for our community, and for our students. Parker is needed in the community,” Colbert said at a virtual town hall hosted by Councilmember Loren Taylor last week. “I’d like to invite our 200-plus students and families that live in our neighborhood back to Parker. Come and schedule a tour of Parker to actually come into the building and see what happens at our school.”

Other elected officials are calling on the state for a solution

The Oakland City Council, which doesn’t have any authority over OUSD, nonetheless unanimously approved a resolution urging the state to use its surplus funds to eliminate OUSD’s state loan debt, which stands at about $21.5 million and is scheduled to be paid off by 2026. The resolution also calls on California to change its school funding formula, which is currently based on attendance. That model has been especially punishing for school districts this year, since student absences are higher because of the pandemic.

In Sacramento, Assemblymember Mia Bonta has also pledged to help support OUSD and put forward a resolution this month to help the district with its financial troubles. 

“It hurts my heart to know that we haven’t put forward a plan that people can get behind and that truly thinks about the consequences that these actions have on our Black and brown communities,” said Bonta, who represents parts of the East Bay.

Assemblymember Mia Bonta has pledged her support to help OUSD through it’s financial troubles without closing schools. Credit: Amir Aziz

Bonta introduced a bill last week, co-written with Assemblemember Buffy Wicks, who also represents parts of the East Bay, that would give OUSD more time to make decisions about closing and merging schools, or seek out other ways to balance its budget. Bonta’s legislation also addresses Assembly Bill 1840, a 2018 law that incentivizes school closures by offering additional funds to debt-burdened districts like OUSD if they take certain steps like consolidating schools or leasing district property. 

Over the past several weeks, OUSD had received letters from Alameda County Superintendent L.K. Monroe and the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, a state agency, informing board members that the district is eligible for $10 million in one-time funding through AB 1840 if they take those steps. Bonta’s bill, Assembly Bill 1912, would enable the district to receive that funding without having to implement closures right now, if OUSD leaders continue to make decisions to balance the budget in the short and long-term.

The school board members who voted to support the closure plan have pointed to pressure from state and county officials for why the board made such a hasty decision. 

“There is more that the legislature should and can do to ensure that school districts like Oakland have the resources they need to provide children and youth with quality education,” Bonta said last week. “So we must fight to ensure that the state is doing its part, and I’ll be part of the solution.”

Another pending bill that could help OUSD is Senate Bill 830. Introduced last month, SB830 would provide school districts with extra funding based on enrollment in addition to attendance.. If that bill passes, OUSD could be eligible to receive an extra $24 million, said state superintendent Tony Thurmond. 

Community members are planning more demonstrations to pressure the board to reverse its decision. On Thursday, a rally will happen in front of the Elihu M. Harris state building in downtown Oakland at 4:30 p.m. to demand no closures and for the state to cancel OUSD’s debt. On Saturday, a community town hall will be held at Markham Elementary from 2 to 4 p.m. to plan more actions.

“If we’re going to start organizing, we’ve got to start in the east,” said Timothy Killings, a case manager at Westlake Middle School, referring to East Oakland school communities. “We’re going to have to build a movement.”

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.