Students at Westlake Middle School in Oakland walked out of their classrooms and marched to the district office to demand that OUSD not close any schools on Feb. 1, 2022. Credit: Amir Aziz

The Oakland Unified School District board will meet tonight to vote on a package of budget cuts that could include layoffs, closing unfilled positions, and the consolidation of at least 10 schools, beginning in the 2024-2025 school year. 

The board meeting begins at 6 p.m., and the public session, when the directors will discuss the budget proposals, is expected to begin at 7:30 p.m. The meeting will be held in person at La Escuelita Elementary School and streamed virtually over Zoom and broadcast on KDOL-TV, OUSD’s television station. 

The budget proposals were posted on Monday, one day before the meeting.

During a town hall meeting Monday evening to discuss the budget, District 1 Director Sam Davis echoed a refrain expressed by other district officials: that OUSD is not in a fiscal crisis, but that budget reductions are needed to support salary raises for teachers and other district staff. 

“If we weren’t going to give any raises this year, then we wouldn’t have to make any budget adjustments. We do have a surplus this year,” Davis said during the town hall. “We’re trying to create the space to give compensation increases to all our employees—not just teachers but everybody in the district.”

Nearly three-quarters of the school district budget, or $550 million, currently goes to compensation and benefits for staff. That share is relatively low, said DeCarlos Kaigler, OUSD’s chief financial officer. It’s not uncommon, he said on Monday, to see school districts spend about 85% of their revenues on staffing.

OUSD’s declining enrollment, expiring COVID relief funds, and uncertain budget projections from the state mean the board will have difficult financial decisions to make.

OUSD has lost more than 2,000 students since the start of the pandemic, which translates to about $30 million in lost revenue per year, according to a joint statement from Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell and OUSD Board President Mike Hutchinson

Some of the cuts the board could vote on tonight include eliminating dozens of vacant positions in special education, and layoffs of case managers, attendance specialists, literacy tutors, library technicians, restorative justice facilitators, and more. The budget proposal also lists dozens of other positions, like campus culture keepers and teacher openings, that will be supported with one-time funds instead of ongoing money, which means those positions could be eliminated when that one-time funding expires in 2024 or 2025. 

School sites could see fewer dollars for operations, school supplies, and staffing beginning in the 2024-2025 school year.

The schools that could be merged are not listed in the budget proposal, but the plan calls for consolidating no fewer than 10 schools. If the board approves the proposal, the 2023-2024 school year would be a planning year and no mergers would occur before the 2024-2025 school year.  

“Over the last five years, we have successfully implemented mergers of schools, which in addition to the goal of maintaining fiscal solvency, has resulted in increased enrollment, gained efficiencies, and program improvements,” said Johnson-Trammell and Hutchinson in their statement. 

Because the school district must give layoff notices by March 15, the board is expected to vote on the budget reductions tonight. Board members could also propose amendments to the proposal or suggest cuts elsewhere. 

Last year, two schools merged as part of OUSD’s school closure plan, when New Highland Academy and RISE Community School became one new school called Highland Community School. The original closure plan presented to the board last January included the additional mergers of West Oakland and Westlake middle schools, Manzanita Community School and Fruitvale Elementary, and Dewey Academy with Ralph J. Bunche Academy. None of those three mergers were approved. 

School consolidations have been met with opposition in the recent past, including in 2019 when the board decided to close Kaiser Elementary and merge it with Sankofa Elementary. The former Kaiser Elementary is now operating as an early childhood education center. Roses in Concrete, a former charter school, merged with an OUSD school, Howard Elementary, in 2020 to become Oakland Academy of Knowledge.

In 2019, Alliance Academy closed and merged with Elmhurst Community Prep to become Elmhurst United Middle School. Lockwood STEAM Academy opened in 2021, the result of a merger between Futures Elementary and Community United Elementary School. Frick Middle School and Oakland School of Language merged in 2020 to become Frick United Academy of Language. 

A 2021 report on the results of OUSD’s recent mergers showed that students who attended a school that closed left OUSD the following year at higher rates than students who did not. Critics of school closures and mergers point to that attrition as a financial argument against them, since OUSD loses money when students leave the district. 

The same 2021 report showed mixed results in the first year of the Elmhurst, Frick, and Sankofa mergers: Elmhurst saw a 10% jump in enrollment and a $650,000 higher budget. Frick saw a 13% decline in enrollment and $62,000 fewer dollars, and Sankofa’s enrollment dropped by 52% and lost nearly $1 million in its budget. 

Since then, enrollment at Sankofa has increased and in 2022 reached 213 students, its highest enrollment since 2017. Enrollment at Frick has grown to 316 students in 2022, up from 246 in the 2019-2020 school 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.