Families, teachers, and community members gather for a march against school closures on March 26, 2022. Credit: Amir Aziz

The topic of school closures dominated much of Wednesday’s Oakland Unified School District board meeting—the first to be held in person since December and since the school board voted in February to close or consolidate 11 schools over the next two years. Dozens of community members showed up to the meeting at La Escuelita, a bilingual K-8 school near Lake Merritt and one of the schools chosen to be downsized, with signs, posters, and banners to protest the plan.

“There is so much at stake because every single school site is the heart of a community,” said Kira Allen, whose mom worked at Kaiser Elementary for 25 years before it closed last year. “It is a beating heart for these families—for Parker, for Community Day, for La Escuelita. In the very building that we are in, these young children are fighting, and I ask you to stop pretending that [closures] don’t have lifelong effects, and I ask you to think with your heart instead of with your budget.”

Parents, students, teachers, and staff opposed to the closures have organized rallies, marches, and a teach-in over the last couple months to challenge the board’s decision. But OUSD board members who support the plan have remained staunch in their opinion that the closures are needed to ensure the district’s long-term financial health, and have given no indication that they’ll reverse or reconsider their decision.

On Monday, the ACLU of Northern California announced that it had filed a complaint with the California Department of Justice, urging Attorney General Rob Bonta to investigate OUSD’s closure plan on the grounds that it is racially discriminatory against Black students and families. Of the seven schools being closed this year and next, four of them have student populations that are more than 50% Black, while Black students make up less than a quarter of students in OUSD overall. 

In a statement on Thursday, the district reiterated that the school closures are difficult, but necessary.

“The schools to consolidate were selected based on a number of factors including, but not limited to, low enrollment. OUSD is investing some of its newly available funding to better support students, prioritizing Black students in many areas,” the statement said. “The district has been, and continues to be, focused on addressing inequities that exist in student outcomes, and must make ongoing funding adjustments to do so.”

Max Orozco, a parent at La Escuelita, addresses the school board about its decision to close schools on Wednesday, April 13, 2022. Credit: Ashley McBride

Community Day School and Parker K-8 will close entirely at the end of this school year. Community Day is OUSD’s school for expelled students, and with its closure, students who are dismissed from OUSD will go to Quest Academy, the county’s independent study school.

“One of the concerns that I have as a parent is that we’re losing opportunities to provide rehabilitative spaces for our children to return to school after making a mistake,” said Azlinah Tambu, a parent of two daughters at Parker. “With Community Day being closed, I’m scared that the space between expulsion and juvenile hall is becoming smaller and smaller.”

Parker is a nearly 100-year-old school in East Oakland. La Escuelita, also a K-8 school, will lose its middle school grades beginning this fall.

Next year, five more schools will close: Brookfield Elementary, Carl Munck Elementary, Grass Valley Elementary, Horace Mann Elementary, and Korematsu Discovery Academy. Hillcrest K-8 will also lose its middle school next year. 

Those actions, which the board took to stave off financial insolvency, have led to a slight reprieve from Alameda County oversight. In November, county Superintendent L.K. Monroe wrote to the OUSD board and Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell that she approved the district’s budget, but with a “lack of going concern” notice over its reliance on one-time funding to cover deficits. Monroe warned that she could take tougher oversight measures if district leaders didn’t take steps to strengthen their financial projections. 

In January, the school board voted to have district staff compile a list of schools to be closed or merged as a way to save money, and in February, voted to approve a pared-down list of closures and mergers. The board also voted in January to make $40 million in budget cuts that included layoffs, reorganizing OUSD’s central office, and eliminating vacancies.

Moses Omolade, the community school manager at Westlake Middle School, went on an 18-day hunger strike in February to protest school closures. At the April 13 school board meeting, he encouraged teachers and school staff to take a one-day strike from work. Credit: Ashley McBride

“The Governing Board should be recognized for the budget balancing solutions that have been recently identified and approved,” Monroe wrote in her March 31 letter. “With the most recent Governing Board actions supporting OUSD’s Budget projections, and the OUSD staff directed to implement the detailed budget balancing solutions, I am willing to remove the Lack of Going Concern determination effective immediately.”

Closing schools also makes OUSD eligible for an extra $10 million in one-time state funding from Assembly Bill 1840. The bill, passed in 2017, allocates extra money to school districts like OUSD that have outstanding state loans, if they take certain actions to improve their finances, such as consolidating schools or selling or leasing property. Earlier this month, Monroe asked the state to release that funding to OUSD in light of its decision to consolidate schools and slash its budget. 

While the extra funding is good news for the district, it doesn’t mean OUSD is out of the woods yet.

“I think the big debate is whether we’re set for success in the long term,” Board President Gary Yee said Wednesday. 

The $10 million from AB 1840 will be spent over the next three years and will go towards support for schools that are merging and to “welcoming schools,” or those expected to receive many of the transfer students from closing schools. School board members will decide exactly how the money will be used when they meet in May and June to develop and approve the budget for the 2022-2023 school year. 

“Looking forward, it’s really about investing in what’s needed post-pandemic in all of these schools,” Superintendent Johnson-Trammell said about what her priorities are for the one-time funding. “Promoting acceleration with literacy, with numeracy, and with school culture.”

Not all board members feel that closing schools was necessary or worth the AB 1840 funds. District 5 Director Mike Hutchinson, who has questioned whether the district is actually in financial distress, saw Monroe’s letters as politically motivated, since she is running for re-election as county superintendent

“It shows how flimsy that [lack of going concern] determination was in the first place,” Hutchinson said. “If we have $10 million more that we didn’t have before, shouldn’t we be looking to restore some of the things that we just cut?”

District 3 Director VanCedric Williams, who along with Hutchinson voted against the school closure plan in February, doesn’t think that the board should be celebrating the extra funding.

“This $10 million is like blood money,” said Williams. “You have to stab yourself or cut yourself to get this money, and then you turn your back on the community time and time again.”

New campaigns aim to boost enrollment

The school board also heard a presentation Wednesday night about how the district is implementing the enrollment stabilization policy that the board approved last year. The policy separates OUSD’s enrollment process from that of charter schools, and directs more money towards marketing and outreach to increase enrollment at district-run schools

As districts across California are dealing with enrollment declines, some nearby districts including Piedmont and San Leandro have begun advertising to Oakland students. 

“Regardless of the policies that we may tweak or revise, we’re in a choice era,” said Superintendent Johnson-Trammell. “Everyone is struggling. From Mountain View, to Cupertino, to San Francisco to Oakland, it’s a wild, wild west. Everybody is recruiting from everywhere. And as much as we focus on charters and district [schools], I think what we miss is there is an increase in inter-district transfers.”

The district’s new marketing strategies include a campaign for OUSD elementary schools called “Town Sprouts,” and one for high schools, called “The Link.” Those campaigns supplement the “Oakland in the middle” campaign that the district launched a few years ago to market middle schools. OUSD is also advertising with online outlets, on social media, and through physical media like billboards and bus ads. 

Despite declining enrollment numbers overall, OUSD saw an increase in applications for kindergarten and transitional kindergarten this year, said Geoff Vu, who works with the enrollment stabilization team. Across the district, Fruitvale Elementary, United for Success Academy, and Fremont High School have seen the largest increase in applications for kindergarten, sixth, and ninth grades.

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.