On Wednesday, nearly a year after the Oakland Unified School District board voted to close, consolidate, and downsize 11 schools over two years, the newly formed board reversed the decision. The move will allow five elementary schools that were slated for closure this year to remain open.
Directors VanCedric Williams and Mike Hutchinson were joined by new directors Jennifer Brouhard (District 2) and Valarie Bachelor (District 6) in voting to end the closure plan that the previous board had approved last February. Directors Sam Davis and Clifford Thompson voted against the resolution, and newly elected Director Nick Resnick, whose victory in a close District 4 race is being challenged in court, abstained.
Brookfield Elementary, Carl B. Munck Elementary, Grass Valley Elementary, Horace Mann Elementary, and Korematsu Discovery Academy will stay open, and Hillcrest K-8, which would have lost its middle school, will remain intact.
“As a Parker Elementary School community member I saw the devastating impact of the school closures on our community and I don’t want that to happen across the city, especially in East Oakland,” Bachelor said, referring to one of the two schools that closed last year.
The board’s decision last year to close schools sparked an immense backlash that included protests, walkouts, an 18-day hunger strike, a one-day teachers’ strike, and an inquiry by the California Department of Justice.
Wednesday’s board vote does not impact either of the schools that were closed last year, Parker K-8 and Community Day School, or a third school, La Escuelita, which had its middle school shuttered. Also as part of the closure plan last year, two East Oakland schools, RISE Community School and New Highland Academy, were consolidated into one new school called Highland Community School.
OUSD has a long history of school closures, and opponents argue they’ve disproportionately targeted Black and brown students. Critics have also questioned how much money the closures are saving the district.
“This last year has shown that OUSD has had no real implementation plan for this action. Things like transportation and transition for kids and families, social and emotional supports, have all been neglected,” said Janelle Scott, a parent and former OUSD teacher. “There has not been due diligence to understand the fiscal impacts of past and current closures.”
Questions remain about the financial implications of the vote. District leaders who supported closing schools said they were necessary to balance the OUSD budget, which is largely funded from state coffers based on student attendance rates. Over the past several years, OUSD has had declining enrollment, a trend that is expected to continue, which could mean less revenue in the future.
The schools that were listed for closure were under-enrolled, officials said, and could cost more to operate than the amount they bring in per student, causing OUSD to dip into its general fund to keep them afloat.
“When I go to schools in this district, I constantly hear there’s not enough staff and people are paid too little. It’s an ongoing crisis and that’s the fiscal crisis that we face,” said District 1 Director Davis.
More recently, OUSD’s financial outlook has been more stable. In December, the board submitted its interim budget to Alameda County with a “positive certification,” which means the district is expected to meet its financial obligations for the next two years. It’s the first time in 20 years OUSD has had such a designation.
This year, board directors hope to pay off the remainder of a loan that the district borrowed from the state in 2003 when it was on the brink of insolvency. Since then, and until the loan is repaid, a county-appointed trustee has veto power over the district’s budget decisions.
Wednesday’s vote was the first major decision of the year for the new school board, which added Brouhard, Bachelor, and Resnick this week following their swearing-in on Monday. Resnick’s seat remains disputed as Hutchinson, who also ran in District 4, is contesting the election following an admission by the Alameda County registrar on Dec. 28 that the ballots in that race were miscounted, and that Hutchinson should have finished with the most votes after ranked-choice tabulations.
The board also voted for a new president Wednesday, two days after VanCedric Williams was initially elected by his peers to lead the board. Hutchinson successfully motioned for a reconsideration of the vote on Wednesday and was ultimately elected president with votes from directors Davis, Resnick, Thompson, and himself. Thompson, who was voted vice president of the board on Monday, remains in that post.
“I really look forward to working with my board colleagues to create a new culture in our city, to turn the corner on what’s happening over the last 20 years, and most importantly, for us to be able to leave [state] receivership this year and finally regain full local control of our school district,” Hutchinson said.