signs to keep school open lean against a podium at an OUSD board meeting
Disruptions by community members protesting school closures caused the OUSD school board to recess the meeting and resume virtually. Credit: Ashley McBride

In the four months since the Oakland Unified School District board voted to close seven schools, including two this year, a lot has happened: multiple marches and demonstrations protesting the closures, an 18-day hunger strike by two educators, a parent-led occupation of Parker K-8, and the resignation of the District 6 school board director. At the same time, the district’s budget outlook has improved, and OUSD will receive tens of millions of dollars in one-time funds for community schools.

School closures continued to take center stage on Wednesday night at the second-to-last school board meeting before summer recess. Reaffirming their commitment to the plan as a necessary cost-saving move, members voted down a resolution brought by District 5 Director Mike Hutchinson that would have delayed this year’s closures until the end of the 2022-2023 school year. Hutchinson had hoped the delay would allow time for new directors to be elected this November, who could then possibly reverse the plan next year. 

“Of the seven board members who closed Kaiser Elementary, five of them are now gone. And there’s going to be more changes in November,” Hutchinson said. “So you see where the community is. You know the community is going to be voting around these priorities.” 

The beginning of the meeting was interrupted by dozens of community members, students, teachers, and parents protesting the closure of Parker K-8, an East Oakland school that enrolled about 230 students this year. It was a familiar sight: They marched around the great room of La Escuelita where the board meetings are held, carried signs demanding to keep Parker open, and pleaded with board members to reverse their closure decision, but were unsuccessful. 

“I truly want to believe the school board majority really cares about our students and really values our Black and brown communities,” said Denise Huffstutler, a former Parker teacher. “In order for me to do that, it’s really hard for me to understand how you choose to close schools.” 

In addition to Hutchinson, the resolution to delay the closures of Parker, Community Day School, and La Escuelita’s middle school received approval from District 3 Director VanCedric Williams. But in the end, they were out-voted by directors Sam Davis, Aimee Eng, Gary Yee, and Clifford Thompson, 4 to 2. It was the second vote the board has taken to consider a postponement. In mid-February, the board called an emergency meeting to reconsider the closures in light of the ongoing hunger strike, but remained committed to the plan.

Parker supporters also submitted a resolution of their own that would go even further than Hutchinson’s proposal, completely reversing most of the planned closures and establishing a new process for approving closures and mergers. 

After the board declined to put the Parker community resolution on the agenda for next week’s meeting, chants from the crowd grew so disruptive that the meeting took a recess and continued virtually on Zoom an hour later. As board president, District 4 Director Yee could still choose to place the resolution on next week’s agenda for a vote, and implied that he may do so. 

But the remaining school board directors seem unlikely to change their minds. 

“I understand that it was not an ideal process,” said District 2 Director Eng. “At this point, students are enrolled in new schools, and teachers are now at new schools. The reopening of the schools at this point for August would just be very challenging.” 

Because the school board voted to close schools as a cost-saving measure, Oakland Unified was eligible for a one-time payment of $10 million from Assembly Bill 1840, which the board agreed to use to support the schools that are welcoming students from closed schools over the next three years. A spending plan approved by the board on Wednesday includes funding for facilities upgrades at the “welcoming schools,” additional academic and social-emotional supports, engagement and enrollment support for new families, and paying for or reimbursing families for transportation to their new assigned schools. 

Contract updates for OUSD’s top leaders

The school board on Wednesday also granted Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell a three-month sabbatical, extended contracts with some of OUSD’s top officials, and created dozens of new positions in the district. 

When the board first approved a new contract for Johnson-Trammell last August, it included the option for her to take a paid sabbatical from April to June of this year, which she did not take. The revised contract that the board approved this week allows her to take a leave from Aug. 22 to Nov. 25, 2022, and would appoint OUSD chief academic officer Sondra Aguilera as the interim superintendent during that time.  

Since taking leadership of OUSD in 2017, Johnson-Trammell has guided the district through grave budget concerns, layoffs, a teachers strike, school closures, and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is the longest-serving superintendent of Oakland Unified in decades and a majority of the board supported giving her a break to ensure her longevity. 

“The vast majority of people in Oakland deeply appreciate Dr. Johnson-Trammell’s long and deep commitment to our district and to our students,” said District 1 Director Davis. “I understand the need, after several years nonstop, to take a breather and to recharge, and I look forward to when you come back and the different perspective and vision that you bring at that time.”

Lisa Grant-Dawson, the district’s chief business officer, and Josh Daniels, the chief governance officer, both received contract extensions. Grant-Dawson will serve as chief business officer through June 2023, and will transition out of her position by June 2024. Daniels will remain in his position through June 2025. 

The district will also be hiring for many new positions that the board approved Wednesday. They range from administrative roles like Title IX coordinator and executive director of enrollment, to facilities jobs like custodians, plumbers, and electricians, and school-site positions like teachers, assistant principals, and tutors.

While these resolutions received support from much of the board, Williams and Hutchinson worried about the optics of spending millions on new positions and offering six-figure salaries to top officials while closing schools in low-income neighborhoods.

“I think our budget narratives are constantly moving the goalposts, always shifting positions and shifting priorities at any given time,” Williams said. “I really feel that as we’re talking about hiring these additional [people], I believe strongly that there’s some money for the Parker community school families.”

Ballot measure decisions

After discussing Measure N at the last few regular meetings, the school board voted to place the parcel tax on the November ballot this year. Measure N was approved by voters in 2014 for 10 years to support college and career pathways in Oakland high schools. Since its implementation, OUSD has seen higher graduation rates, lower drop-out rates, and more students graduating with their college entry requirements fulfilled. 

In November, voters will be asked to approve a 14-year parcel tax, at the same amount of $120 per parcel, that will raise about $12 million every year to support career pathways, internships, college counselors, and more, for Oakland high schoolers. 

The board also approved a resolution supporting the implementation of the youth vote. In 2020, Oakland voters supported allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to cast votes in school board elections, but implementing the measure has proven difficult because it involves updating the county registrar’s voting system to include people under 18. Daniels, OUSD’s chief governance officer, said on Wednesday he is uncertain whether those hurdles will be overcome in time for the November 2022 election. 

While those difficulties are being sorted out, youth leaders in Oakland have been working to make sure that students will be informed and prepared to vote if it does happen this fall. The resolution adopted Wednesday establishes “High School Voter Education Week” at OUSD schools in September and April. During those weeks, students will be able to register to vote on their school campuses and raise awareness about becoming civically engaged. 

District 6 candidate interviews

Wednesday’s meeting was the second board meeting this week. A special meeting occurred Tuesday evening, where board members interviewed eight candidates vying for the D6 seat over three hours. When it was all said and done, the board decided against eliminating any of them and will choose from among the entire pool of applicants next week to replace former District 6 Director Shanthi Gonzales.

During the public interview process, directors questioned the applicants—a mix of parents, teachers, and community advocates—to get their views on the biggest issues in East Oakland schools, OUSD’s budget and school funding, charter schools, and school closures.

Last week, several board directors expressed concerns that coming to an agreement on a single candidate out of nine would be challenging, and suggested ways for the board to narrow down the pool to a smaller group of finalists. The board couldn’t reach a decision Tuesday on how exactly to do that, leaving directors in the exact situation they’d hoped to avoid. 

Next Wednesday, the board will gather ahead of its scheduled regular meeting to decide who will be appointed to the seat. Each candidate will be considered, and the first candidate to receive four affirmative votes from the board will become the new director. 

That person will remain the District 6 representative until January, when the newly elected director is sworn in. 

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.