The OUSD school board at a meeting on Jan. 11, 2023. Credit: Carla Hernández Ramírez

A long-awaited report on the financial impacts of reversing school closures was presented to the Oakland Unified School District board this week, two weeks after directors voted to keep five elementary schools and one middle school open this year. 

Prepared by district staff, the report lays out how the board’s decision could affect OUSD’s budget, enrollment, and facilities—and forecasts difficult financial decisions ahead for the district. The most significant impacts include $5 million in staffing costs for the six schools and $83 million in facilities upgrades to keep the school buildings open—costs that were previously earmarked to come off the books. 

The decision to keep schools open could also affect enrollment numbers at other OUSD schools, since many students from the schools previously slated for closure had either already enrolled or were expected to enroll in other district schools. Because school-site funding is tied largely to attendance, lower enrollment would mean less revenue for individual campuses, and more schools that need support from OUSD’s general fund to cover costs.

The six schools that are no longer closing—Brookfield Elementary, Carl B. Munck Elementary, Fred T. Korematsu Discovery Academy, Grass Valley Elementary, Horace Mann Elementary, and the middle school at Hillcrest K-8—have already been added back to OUSD’s enrollment platform. OUSD Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammel said at Wednesday’s board meeting that since the changes were made hastily, some technical bugs remain, which could affect school acceptance rates. The enrollment window is open until Feb. 10, and families who apply on time are expected to receive their offers on March 9. 

Directors will need to decide over the next few months where to make cuts to offset the costs created by keeping schools open, in addition to $110 million in expiring one-time COVID-relief dollars from the general fund, as they shape the district’s budget for the 2023-2024 school year. 

Alameda County Superintendent Alysse Castro, who is responsible for evaluating all school district budgets, has warned school district leaders that they’ll need to do so while avoiding the missteps that have led the district to financial insolvency in the past, such as making decisions without first analyzing fiscal impacts, or reversing budget decisions after they were already made. 

During the board meeting on Wednesday, directors grappled with how they’ll balance the budget and keep schools open while making significant cuts elsewhere. 

“When we are saying that we are no longer going to close six schools but we are going to keep them open, the students for those six schools and the funding has to come from someplace,” said District 5 Director and Board President Mike Hutchinson, who has long been opposed to closing schools as a cost-saving measure. “I don’t know if we can find a way where everyone’s going to be happy with it. It is a real fact that we are going to be challenged with enrollment.”

Some members of the public urged the board to keep academic outcomes at the forefront of their decision-making and criticized the board for deciding to keep schools open before receiving the financial impact report, which they knew was slated to be presented on Jan. 25. 

“Roughly half our students are below grade level for math and reading,” said Annie Gottbehuet, a parent of two OUSD students. “Rescinding these school closures will make the vast majority of OUSD students’ experiences and outcomes worse. We should be funding more intervention and more resources, not trying to figure out how to stretch limited funds across more schools.”

OUSD, like many urban school districts in California, is facing declining enrollment that is expected to continue. Next year, the district is expecting 100 fewer kindergarten students than this year, said Killian Betlach, the district’s executive director of enrollment. District officials added that some of the circumstances that lead to declining enrollment, like families moving away or people having fewer children because of the cost of living, are out of the district’s control. But OUSD leaders still need to respond to those circumstances. 

Other enrollment impacts include the loss of the “opportunity ticket,” which gave students from closing schools enrollment priority at other schools in the district, regardless of where they live. Normally, students are prioritized by their neighborhood when enrolling at a new school. 

The decision to keep schools open could lead to more under-enrolled schools across the district. Since schools are funded based on attendance, under-enrolled schools risk not having enough students to cover the costs of their basic operations, leading OUSD to cover those costs from the general fund. 

The report also calculated the facilities investments needed at the impacted schools, many of which are aging and need upgrades to things like plumbing, ventilation, and electrical systems to continue operating as a school. Ongoing routine maintenance will also add costs, the report stated. 

One area where cuts are expected is at the central office, which houses OUSD departments like human resources, finance, enrollment, and other areas that aren’t specific to one school. 

“There is no way around that we’re going to have to make adjustments at central office,” said Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell. “There’s going to be some ongoing conversations for you all to be in a place to make decisions as we get to the end of February and March.”

School board president Hutchinson made it clear that reversing the closures two weeks ago was just one step in the process, and now the work begins to address the enrollment, facilities, and budgetary challenges while remaining fiscally solvent. 

“One of the main reasons I was against the school closures as we’ve seen them in Oakland was how that process worked,” he said, referring to the way the board presented and voted on closures in the past without community engagement. “The process for many people in the community has felt like it was being dictated. If we can create a process to have these real conversations and work our way through it, that is going to be a lot of our work this year.”

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.