Community members hold signs opposing school closures at the special OUSD board meeting on Jan. 11, 2023. Credit: Carla Hernández Ramírez

At its first special meeting of the year last Wednesday, the Oakland Unified School District board voted to reverse its previous decision to close schools, to cheers and applause from community members in attendance. But in the days since, the move has come under scrutiny by Alameda County education officials who say the board made its decision before fully examining how it will impact the district’s budget.

Newly elected Alameda County Superintendent Alysse Castro and OUSD’s fiscal oversight trustee, Luz Cazares, who is tasked with making sure the Oakland school board doesn’t make any decisions that could imperil the district’s finances, have expressed concerns over how the vote could complicate the district’s efforts to balance its budget and decrease reliance on one-time funds. The board’s decision could also threaten a separate influx of state cash the district was expecting as a result of closing schools.

OUSD has been under state receivership since 2003 after it required a $100 million bailout to meet its financial obligations, and the Alameda County Office of Education assesses the budget to make sure the district can remain solvent.

Last February, the school board approved a plan to close, consolidate, or downsize 11 schools over two years, citing budgetary constraints. At the time, the expected savings ranged from about $4 million to $15 million if all of the closures and consolidations were enacted. In 2022, two schools were closed, one K-8 became an elementary school, and two elementary schools on the same campus were merged. Five more schools were slated for closure this year, and another K-8 was to be downsized to an elementary school.

School closures were a major topic leading up to the November election when two-thirds of all Oakland school board candidates ran on a platform to stop them. Once the new board was sworn in last week, one of the first things it did was vote to rescind this year’s remaining closures. Last year’s closures were unaffected.

OUSD’s newly elected board president, District 5 Director Mike Hutchinson, has been among the most vocal opponents of school closures. But he acknowledged to The Oaklandside this week that hasty budget decisions have hurt the district in the past.

“We approved [the resolution to halt the closures] without the fiscal impact analysis, which has led to the trustee asking questions,” said Hutchinson. “[Examining financial impacts first] is one of the practices that the board in the past did not use, and it led to financial problems for the district. As part of our financial recovery, these are the sorts of internal controls that have been established that we definitely need to continue.”

OUSD staff are expected to present a fiscal analysis to the school board at its next regular meeting on Jan. 25. As board president, Hutchinson said he wants to reassure OUSD’s oversight bodies that the district isn’t returning to its old habits of making decisions without considering their financial impact. 

Cazares, who can intervene to stay or veto board decisions that affect the budget, did not respond to a request for comment from The Oaklandside. But in a message to the public on Friday, OUSD wrote that the trustee is “reserving the right to exercise that authority over this Board decision pending the receipt of additional information.” 

A county trustee will oversee the district’s finances until it can pay off its state loan and pass financial audits. 

The last time a trustee publicly warned the board about using their veto power was in 2021 when directors were considering a “Reparations for Black Students” policy. The resolution included a ban on school closures at schools whose students were more than 30% Black. Chris Learned, the former trustee, said he would pause any resolution that prevented the district from being able to close schools to balance its budget. The board ultimately passed the reparations resolution without that stipulation included.

In 2022, of the seven schools that the board voted to completely close, four of them—Parker K-8, Community Day School, Carl B. Munck Elementary, and Grass Valley Elementary—were more than 30% Black.

“As a community, Oakland has made it clear that we do not want to close our schools, especially the way that previous plan was laid out,” Hutchinson said. “We have to be allowed to make that decision.”

County Superintendent Castro, elected last June and sworn in on Jan. 3, told The Oaklandside previously that if the board decided to not pursue closures, she would support that— as long as it can show how it will balance the budget without them. 

The county evaluates all school district budgets and certifies them as positive, qualified, or negative, based on the district’s ability to cover all its expenses for the next two years. In December, the board submitted a budget that was self-certified as positive, but late last week, following the board’s decision to keep schools open, Castro gave OUSD a “qualified” certification, indicating the district may or may not meet those financial obligations. 

The board’s vote last week is consistent with a pattern of OUSD making financial decisions only to change course later, Castro wrote in a letter to the board on Jan. 13. 

“While the student-centered intent behind the recent decision is clear, the plan to implement it is not,” Castro wrote. “It is impossible to predict the impact of decisions made without fiscal analysis, adding further challenges to the stewardship of a very complex budget.” 

Over the next five months, Oakland’s school board will begin developing its budget for the 2023-2024 school year. Castro noted that the district will need to shift its reliance on one-time funds, which previous county Superintendent L.K. Monroe also remarked in 2021. The board will need to reduce the district’s general fund by $110 million in 2023-2024 and 2024-2025 to account for expiring COVID relief money. 

The board’s decision to not close schools could also threaten a one-time infusion of $10 million from Assembly Bill 1840, which offers districts money as an incentive to make certain budget-balancing decisions, like closing schools. After last year’s vote to close schools, the Oakland school board intended to use AB1840 funds to support the “welcoming schools” that receive students from closed schools. In Hutchinson’s resolution to rescind the closures, however, that money—if the district receives it—will be redirected to schools on the closure list to offset the cost of keeping them open. 

The county office of education is working with state agencies to determine whether OUSD is still eligible for the AB1840 funds, Castro said. 

Oakland Unified is also bargaining a new contract with the Oakland Education Association teachers union this year, and district officials including OUSD Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell and school board directors have consistently stated the need to fairly compensate all the district’s employees, which will require increased spending. 

“Our resources are limited. Our first priority has to be compensation,” said Johnson-Trammell during the special school board meeting on Jan. 11. “We could double the amount of schools that we have, but if we can’t attract folks to be here, we won’t have the staff that we need.”

With three new board directors, an entire school board with no more than two years of experience, a new county superintendent, and a looming legal decision over the outcome of one school board race, the board will need time to adjust and learn to work together with its other partners, Hutchinson said. 

“There’s going to be this transition period where we need to figure out these relationships and in some cases re-establish how these relationships are going to work,” Hutchinson said. “In the end, everyone wants the same thing, which is a thriving, sustainable OUSD, and that’s what we as a school board will keep pushing towards.”

Correction: The story previously misstated the district that Director Mike Hutchinson represents. He is the District 5 director.

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.