A man walks by a playground structure.
Principal Omar Currie of Cox Academy, a K-5 public charter in deep East Oakland, gives a tour of the school’s ongoing structural issues on campus on Aug 21, 2023. The aging play structure on campus has damaged turf and has caused injuries to students, according to school leaders. Credit: Amir Aziz

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Sept. 5.

More than 100 parents, students, teachers, and staff from Cox Academy turned out to a recent Oakland Unified School District board meeting, urging district leaders to approve a contract for the charter school to receive funding to upgrade its building and fix leaky roofs, mold, falling ceiling tiles, and a deteriorating play structure. 

During heavy rainstorms last winter, teachers and students at the East Oakland school used buckets to catch water leaking from the ceiling, and umbrellas in class to keep their work dry. Flooding in the school’s boiler room came dangerously close to exposed wires and caused $32,000 worth of damage to desks, chairs, tables, and other materials that were stored there, according to the school’s principal. 

Leaders with Cox Academy and Education for Change Public Schools, the charter network that Cox Academy is part of, applied for a grant from the state last year to fix up its building, which is leased from OUSD. Cox qualified for a $28 million award, but in order to receive the money, the school must come to a lease agreement with OUSD over the use of the facility. The money would come from a state fund that supplies grants and loans to charter schools for renovating school buildings.

Over the past couple of months, OUSD has been in negotiations with the leadership at Cox and Education for Change over the terms of the lease. But some Cox families and staff believe the district is holding up the process because Cox is a charter school.

“You need to fix the benches on the playground because they are wobbly and someone could break their arm. The ground of our playground breaks when we step on it and it needs to be fixed,” said Carter Ycoy-Walton, a fourth grader at the school, during last week’s school board meeting. “It makes me feel mad and angry that you don’t give us the money to fix our playground.”

Left: Cox Academy Principal Omar Currie (left) stands in line to speak at the OUSD school board meeting on Aug. 23, 2023. Behind him in line is Larissa Adam, the superintendent of Education for Change. Right: Family members from Cox Academy attended the meeting to advocate the release of state grant money to improve their campus. Credit: Ashley McBride

John Sasaki, a spokesman for OUSD, said the leaks were fixed last winter after receiving requests from the school, and the district’s roofing contractor has been making repairs to the roof over the past few months.

“Of course, we never want any students or staff to be working in challenging conditions, so our dedicated Facilities and Buildings and Grounds teams are always quick to resolve issues to ensure safe, warm, and dry conditions in all of our schools,” Sasaki said in a statement.

Board President Mike Hutchinson maintains that the process is progressing as it should be, and that neither district staff nor school board members are holding it up. But Hutchinson also said he is opposed to long-term leases with charter schools, which is typically the agreement that OUSD offers to charter schools receiving money through Proposition 51, the state fund Cox applied to for its facilities improvements. 

Cox Academy is also a “conversion” charter school, which means that, unlike other charters leasing buildings from OUSD, Cox Academy is entitled to the building it occupies at 9860 Sunnyside St. in East Oakland for as long as it keeps its public charter.

With that in mind, Hutchinson said he hopes that the school can agree to a shorter lease. 

“In the end, the issue at Cox is, there needs to be facility upgrades. Somebody is going to need to pay for those facility upgrades that are long overdue, like many of our schools in Oakland,” Hutchinson told The Oaklandside. “The previous Prop. 51 leases we’ve had in Oakland, I was very strongly against. But this is a different situation, and as a school district it makes sense for us to use Prop 51 and have the state pay for these facility upgrades at Cox Academy.”

Cox Academy is a public charter school in deep East Oakland. School leaders applied and were approved for $28 million in state funds for campus improvements, but the money can’t be released until OUSD reached an agreement with the school on its lease. Credit: Amir Aziz

Hutchinson added that he is hopeful the school board will vote on a contract for Cox Academy during a meeting in September. 

In the meantime, staff and students at Cox are left using the stop-gap measures they developed last year, like storing buckets in their classroom to be used if the roof leaks. Over the summer, Cox received a fresh coat of paint and replaced some of the ceiling tiles, said Principal Omar Currie.

“That’s all the things that we can do within the bounds of a tight budget,” Currie said. “There’s no amount of penny-pinching in our budget where we’re going to be able to afford to do the structural upgrades that need to happen to this building.”

When there were heavy rains during the 2022-2023 school year, teachers and students at Cox Academy had to use umbrellas to protect their work from water falling from the leaky ceiling. Credit: courtesy of Cox Academy

If released, the state funding, which would come in the form of a $14 million grant and $14 million loan, would go towards replacing the leaky roof, upgrading the heating and ventilation system, replacing deteriorating portables, and bringing a new playground to the campus, which is shared with REACH Academy, a district-run school.

Mariela Nuñez teaches fourth grade at Cox and has been at the school for the past seven years. Raised in Oakland, Nuñez said she enjoys teaching there because of the supportive environment that enables students to thrive. But in her classroom, students at times have to grab buckets to put them under leaks, and avoid sitting on the wet carpet when it rains, which takes away from the learning experience, she said. Nuñez’s classroom was also the one where students brought umbrellas to keep themselves dry.

“It makes me sad that the kids have to be desensitized like this. Why can’t my kids come into a classroom where it’s not leaking and they’re ready to learn? Instead, they’re coming into the classroom, seeing that the roof is leaking, and go and get a bucket,” she told The Oaklandside. “Even though as a teacher I’m trying to do everything to make it seem like their education is important, this makes it less so.”

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.