When powerful storms pounded the Bay Area with rain last winter, many Oaklanders took cover in their homes, offices, school buildings, and stores. But at Cox Academy, a K-5 public charter in deep East Oakland, staying indoors wasn’t enough to keep students and teachers dry. At one point, rain was leaking so heavily from the ceilings that students held umbrellas over their heads during class.
“The kids [were] asking every day, ‘Why hasn’t this been fixed? How come the roof keeps leaking?’” said Viveca Ycoy-Walton, a parent of a third grader at Cox, where teachers have kept bins in their classrooms to catch water when it rains.
For months, Ycoy-Walton and other parents at Cox have been raising the alarm about dire conditions at their school, urging the Oakland Unified School District board to take action by approving the release of state money that was awarded to Cox months ago to fix its aging campus.
But the school board has yet to do so, leading some at Cox to accuse its members of dragging their feet due to anti-charter sentiment.
Cox Academy, an elementary school near 98th and Bancroft Avenue, is operated by Education for Change, a charter network that manages six schools in Oakland. The campus sits next door to a district-run elementary school, Reach Academy. Both schools primarily serve low-income Black and Latino families living in East Oakland.
In addition to the leaky roof, Cox school leaders and parents who spoke to The Oaklandside described extensive water damage and mold in classrooms and other rooms, flooding in a boiler room that has exposed electrical wires, and tiles falling from the ceiling.
The school was closed for two days last semester as a result of blackouts caused by the flooding, according to parents. Some of the described damage was captured in photos shared with our newsroom.
Because Cox leases the building from OUSD, the district is responsible for maintenance and repairs. Last year, the OUSD board supported Cox in applying for money through the Charter School Facilities Program, a state fund that offers grants and loans to charter schools to construct or renovate school buildings.
Cox was awarded $28 million from the fund in October in the form of a $14 million grant and a $14 million loan. The loan would be repaid by Education for Change through a long-term lease agreement with OUSD.
The grant and loan from the state program would be enough to replace Cox Academy’s leaking roofs, make seismic upgrades, replace portables that are in disrepair, and modernize the aging heating and ventilation system, according to Education for Change. Cox also plans to use its own funds to renovate the play spaces at the school, which could also benefit REACH Academy.
For Cox to receive the money and begin renovations, the Oakland Unified school board first has to approve a memorandum of understanding with Cox and the charter organization outlining terms, including the lease agreement. In November, the board discussed the issue in a closed session but the details of that conversation were not shared publicly and the money for Cox was not approved.
Cox Academy’s facilities were again on the closed-session agenda during the board’s most recent meeting on June 7. But that meeting came and went also, without the board approving the release of the money to the charter for repairs.
Parents and school leaders who are currently working to persuade the board to give the project a green light say it would be a win-win for all sides.
“It saves the district a very significant amount of money, and it allows the district to continue to use Measure Y funding for other campuses,” said Larissa Adam, superintendent of Education for Change, referring to a $735 million bond measure that voters approved for facilities improvements at OUSD.
The OUSD board has two more regular meetings scheduled before it goes on summer recess, on June 21 and 28. If it doesn’t make a decision at those meetings, the issue will be delayed until school resumes in August, at the earliest.
When contacted by The Oaklandside, OUSD Board President Mike Hutchinson denied that the school board has been holding up the process. He said he agrees that the district could benefit from Cox receiving outside funds to renovate the campus but has concerns about approving a long-term lease with the charter, which would be part of the arrangement to repay the loan.
Under a similar arrangement in 2015, Lazear Academy, also an Education for Change charter, signed a lease with OUSD for 20 years, with options for two 10-year extensions.
“It makes sense for the district to take advantage of the opportunity to have other resources pay to fix one of our facilities. But I am not in favor of it if it ties the district to a long-term lease,” said Hutchinson. “I am not in favor of giving our public school facilities to privately managed charter schools.”
Across Oakland, public schools need $3 billion in repairs
The average age of OUSD facilities is 75 years, and the district’s buildings need more than $3 billion in renovations, according to a 2020 facilities report. OUSD currently leases out 31 of its properties, and 16 of those are to charter schools.
Hutchinson said he is “definitely sympathetic” to the issues that Cox Academy is facing. But he suggested that Cox parents should be looking to the board of the school’s charter organization, Education for Change, not to OUSD, for help.
“As a school board director, I am not responsible for charter schools. They pulled themselves out of our governance system to establish their own private board,” Hutchinson said. “Charter schools have the ability to tap into a lot of resources, and I would also expect that the leaders at Cox and their board would be looking into any avenue to ensure a safe environment for their students.”
The Oakland school board voted 5-0 last May 25 to support Cox’s application for state funds. Hutchinson was absent, and District 6 Director Shanthi Gonzales had resigned. At the time, OUSD staff noted that the district would need to invest at least $2.5 million and possibly more than $12.3 million of its own dollars to rehabilitate the Cox campus if outside funding isn’t secured.
Cox families have invited school board directors to the campus to see the conditions for themselves in order to convince them to support the project. Ycoy-Walton, the third-grade parent, said the timing is critical because the school’s charter is up for renewal next year.
“If the facilities aren’t repaired by then, the Alameda County Board of Education can opt not to renew [our charter],” she said. “So we’re in the fight to try and get them to understand that this is for the kids, and this is needed because the children are walking down hallways that are just tattered and gone.”