Oakland Unified School District’s incoming school board will have some significant issues to tackle when it convenes for the first time in January: a contentious school closures plan, academic loss caused by the pandemic, low literacy rates, important facility decisions including how to spend Measure Y bond money, glaring safety concerns on school campuses, approving a new contract with the teachers union, and paying off a state loan that has saddled the district and restricted its financial decision-making power for 20 years.
While the district’s budget has been somewhat stable, mostly because of an influx of one-time COVID-relief funding, OUSD is also facing declining enrollment, which means less revenue in the future.
The group tasked with navigating these challenges will be notably light on experience: None of the seven directors has served on the board for more than two years. The three newly elected members, Jennifer Brouhard (District 2), Nick Resnick (District 4), and Valarie Bachelor (District 6), are first-time directors. They’ll join directors Sam Davis (District 1), VanCedric Williams (District 3), Mike Hutchinson (District 5), and Clifford Thompson (District 7), each of whom was elected in 2020.
Meanwhile, in the superintendent’s office, Kyla Johnson-Trammell is entering her sixth year leading the district, longer than any of her predecessors in the past six decades—a fact many observers have pointed to as a sign of stability. The superintendent is hired and evaluated by the board, and works with her staff to implement the policies it passes.
Will the new board reverse course on school closures?
One of the first issues the new school board will almost certainly take up is the remaining school closures. Last February, the current board voted on a plan to close or merge 11 schools, setting off a fierce backlash that derailed several school board meetings. Two schools were ultimately closed this year, two others were merged on the same campus, and one K-8 was downsized to an elementary school.
Hutchinson, who represents District 5, has already introduced a resolution to rescind the closures planned for next year at Brookfield Elementary, Carl B. Munck Elementary, Fred T. Korematsu Discovery Academy, Grass Valley Elementary School, Horace Mann Elementary, and the middle school at Hillcrest K-8.
“I’m really excited about the possibility of passing my resolution in January,” Hutchinson said during the Nov. 30 meeting when he introduced the resolution. “I will not be putting any pressure on President Yee to [place it on the board’s agenda] before then.”
In interviews with The Oaklandside, both Brouhard and Bachelor said rescinding the closures will be their top priority once they are sworn in. Hutchinson and District 3 Director Williams were the two board members who voted against the closures in February, and with the addition of Brouhard and Bachelor, the OUSD board appears to have the four votes necessary to reverse the decision.
Doing so could have enrollment ramifications, since the enrollment window for students is open from now until Feb. 10.
“I’ve already had parents and community members reach out to me about the challenges with the enrollment system,” Bachelor said. “As we work to rescind the school closures, I want to make it really clear to families: You do not have to put in paperwork until Feb. 10, 2023, to enroll your student in OUSD. If you want to be at a site affected by closures, please hold off on enrolling your student until the new school board is sworn in and we’re able to vote to rescind those closures.”
District 6, which Bachelor will represent, saw two of its schools close this year: Parker K-8 and Community Day School, an alternative school for students who have been expelled from other campuses. Another focus for Bachelor will be ensuring that OUSD continues using those buildings for education. In October, the school board voted to repurpose the Parker building as an adult education and community center.
Resnick, who was elected in District 4, said he is not entirely opposed to the idea of downsizing the district but has concerns over the process and timeline of the current closures, and wants to gather more information about how the schools on the closure list were chosen.
“I have questions about the disproportionate nature of school closures on Black students particularly,” he told The Oaklandside. “I do believe over the next 10 years we need to work in partnership with our community to think strategically about how many school sites we have, and the possibility of consolidation over time.”
The California Department of Justice is reportedly looking into school closures in Oakland Unified School District, months after the American Civil Liberties Union asked Attorney General Rob Bonta to investigate the district’s history of closures, which have largely impacted schools that enroll a disproportionate number of Black students. A letter from the department went out to parents in October asking families to share their experiences regarding school closures and mergers.
The Attorney General’s press office declined to comment to The Oaklandside on a potential or ongoing investigation into OUSD.
If not school closures, OUSD may need to cut elsewhere
Rescinding the closures will likely have implications for the OUSD budget. District officials have said that the schools on the closure list are under-enrolled, and thus cost more to keep open than the revenues they bring in. Since districts are funded by student attendance numbers, revenue declines when enrollment declines.
Prior to the board’s February decision, it received a letter from outgoing Alameda County Superintendent L.K. Monroe urging the board to take steps like consolidating schools to balance its budget or face consequences that included a freeze on the superintendent’s and school board directors’ salaries. The county superintendent is responsible for evaluating the budget of every school district in the county.
But Alameda County will have a new superintendent in January, Alysse Castro, who said she’s not opposed to alternatives for Oakland Unified, as long as they result in a healthy budget.
“If a newly elected board wants to re-examine their closure plan in light of different fiscal circumstances, I would 100% support them to take another look at that,” Castro told The Oaklandside. “If they can produce a budget that meets their legal obligations without school closures, to me that would be very exciting. It is my job to support the board to meet their fiscal obligations, not to impose my own opinion about what path the district should take.”
Brouhard, who spent the majority of her 27-year teaching career in OUSD, said that if other cuts are required in light of keeping schools open, she would need to more fully understand and examine the district’s financial situation before speaking about where those reductions could come from.
Bachelor, who said during her campaign that the district should consider cutting administrator salaries at OUSD’s central office, told The Oaklandside that she would want to have more discussions with school communities first about programs or services that could be cut before making those decisions.
“Instead of using a hatchet to make drastic cuts like we usually do as a district, I want to make sure I’m understanding all the different pieces that go into working with the district office so we can make more surgical cuts to the budget in that way,” she said.
New board members want to create a culture of consensus
At times, board meetings have been rife with heckling, arguments, and tense interactions with the public. The new directors say they’re eager to begin a new chapter where consensus votes are more common.
“Coming to a consensus is important to me. There are differences on the board and that’s a healthy thing,” Brouhard said. “I think the three of us have an idea of how we’ll work together and not do the sniping kind of stuff that goes on. I think it’s possible.”
Resnick, the CEO of a curriculum company, said one of his top priorities will be getting to know the other board members and forming a positive working relationship with them.
“It comes down to relationships and understanding each individual’s values and their mission for being a board member,” Resnick said. “I can’t do anything as an individual and I don’t believe any of us can, especially to support 34,000 children and families. They deserve for us to find ways to work together and actually do things differently.”