exterior shot of bret harte middle school
The OUSD board rejected a plan to locate East Bay Innovation Academy, a charter school, on the Bret Harte Middle School campus. Credit: Pete Rosos

Oakland’s school board members once again found themselves at odds this week, this time over a state law that requires public school districts to offer classrooms and other spaces to local charter schools.

The board failed to approve space for two charter schools, East Bay Innovation Academy and Envision Academy, during a special meeting on Wednesday, opening the door for possible litigation over charter co-locations as defined under Proposition 39. Approved by California voters in 2000, Proposition 39 is meant to ensure that all public school students have access to similar facilities, whether they are enrolled in district or charter schools. 

Each year, Oakland charter schools can request additional space—general education classrooms, specialized classrooms like labs, and common areas like athletic or dining spaces in OUSD schools—and the district must offer facilities that can accommodate their students, that are “reasonably equivalent” to the district schools they’d otherwise attend. The district must also take into account the current location of the charter school. 

Last week, the school board voted to offer space at East Oakland Pride Elementary School to Aurum Preparatory Academy, a charter middle school currently located at Acts Full Gospel Church in East Oakland. Board members also approved the use of rooms at Brookfield Elementary School for Yu Ming Charter School, a Mandarin immersion K-8 school in North Oakland. Those charters have until May 1 to accept or reject the offer.

But requests from East Bay Innovation Academy and Envision Academy of Arts and Technology, both 6-12 schools that are asking for additional space to accommodate their high school grades, were put on hold after the board asked OUSD’s office of charter schools to come back this week with recommendations that didn’t include placing those schools on elementary school campuses like Franklin or Markham. 

Sixteen charter schools are on OUSD properties this year, but only four of them share a campus with a currently operating district school.

Wednesday’s special meeting brought out parents, teachers, principals, and students who pleaded with the school board to not give away their school spaces. It also led to debate over how OUSD should be using its properties, and whether the district should comply with a state law that some feel is unfair and displaces students. 

“We can choose to follow the law or we can choose to not follow the law, but both of those actions have consequences,” said District 1 Director Sam Davis, who added that he has been arrested for leading civil disobedience efforts in the past. “We as a board have to take into account those consequences, and recognize when those consequences are severe.”

Last year, the board denied space to Yu Ming, and was subsequently sued by the charter school. The suit was later settled, Davis said.

The board voted on several co-location proposals for East Bay Innovation Academy and Envision Academy on Wednesday, and all failed to receive the necessary votes. District 6 Director Valarie Bachelor was absent from the meeting, which reduced the number of voting members to five. But four votes were still needed for a majority, since the board currently has six members. A seventh seat, in District 5, is currently vacant and must be filled either by a board appointment or special election. 

For East Bay Innovation Academy, one proposal called for the school to share classrooms with Markham Elementary and lab space with Bret Harte Middle School. Directors Davis, Mike Hutchinson, and Clifford Thompson were in favor, while directors VanCedric Williams and Jennifer Brouhard were not. The other option was to offer space at OUSD’s Hillside campus, adjacent to Castlemont High School, and classrooms at Bret Harte. For this proposal, directors Brouhard, Davis, and Hutchinson voted yes, and Williams and Thompson voted no. 

A recommendation to offer Envision Academy space at Franklin Elementary also failed, with yes votes from Davis, Thompson, and Hutchinson, and no votes from Williams and Brouhard. A second option, to locate the school at McClymonds High School and Claremont Middle School, was not voted on.

Co-location presents challenges. But how can they be fixed?

Community members who gave public comments were united in their opposition to the Proposition 39 offers, and pointed out what they view as flaws in OUSD’s formula for determining how much space charter schools are entitled to, which is largely based on projected enrollment at district schools. Those schools also need extra rooms for special education services, speech therapy, counseling, testing, reading or math tutoring, or other activities that take place outside of the classroom, parents and teachers added. 

“McClymonds is struggling as it is, and the spaces we do have, we have for our community partners because our students have a lot of needs,” said McClymonds High School Principal Jeffrey Taylor. “I get the formulas, but they’re not adequate, and they don’t work for us because we will be pushing out our community partners who provide much needed services for our students, which is not fair to our students and our families.”

Parents also said the current system is pitting schools and parents against each other: If space at one school isn’t offered, another will be, creating resentment and more opposition from that school community. 

“Making a move like this would basically be prioritizing charter school students over public school students and disenfranchising the very community that supports public schools,” said Heta Dave, the parent of one Claremont graduate and one prospective Claremont student. “To have two schools on the same campus with completely different curriculums, bell schedules is disruptive, and it will be damaging to a school that is one of the few OUSD middle schools that is currently thriving and doing well, and actually having to turn students away.”

Some community members suggested offering space at campuses that don’t currently house traditional schools, like Santa Fe, Community Day, or Parker. District staff clarified that Santa Fe currently houses OUSD’s Young Adult Program, which serves students 18 to 22 years old with severe disabilities, Community Day (which closed last year) isn’t on OUSD-owned property so the district can’t lease it to charter schools, and Parker is being used for adult education and potentially community organizations. 

OUSD central office and technology staff will also soon be filling some empty classrooms at various schools, since the board previously voted to disperse staff at school sites instead of continuing to lease office space downtown at 1000 Broadway, until the new central office is finished in 2024.

“We need to prioritize our students over folks at the central office or technology department. I love my colleagues, but we have to find room and we have to follow the law, we have to prioritize our students,” said Lusa Lai, the principal of Franklin Elementary. “Our students get the space first.”

School board and community members were split on the best way to move forward: follow the law and possibly take a different approach next year that involves more community engagement and research, lobby the state to change the law, or reject the charter requests and deal with the legal consequences. Parent Kim Davis suggested that OUSD make the offers, but encouraged community members to attend charter school board meetings and express their concerns about co-locations.

“This is not a fight we can win, so we need to organize for the fights we can win,” she said. “We cannot fight the law but we can convince charter schools that this is not the right thing to do.”

Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell, who did not attend this week’s meeting but was present last week, urged the board and the community to think more creatively about how to follow Proposition 39 in a way that could also benefit Oakland Unified. During last week’s meeting, she noted that it’s the responsibility of the board to ensure the quality of both district and charter schools that OUSD authorizes, which includes quality facilities. One option could be to have more conversations with charter schools, especially those that are interested in rejoining the school district.

“If we can sit down and figure out, what are some of the flexibilities of charters that are running good programs, and that are offering something we’re not? Are there ways we can come together? That helps us to build enrollment,” she said last week. “I think what everyone is trying to say is co-locations don’t work. If we’re trying to move away from that, we need to bring some ingenuity to this conversation.”

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.