A colorful mural depicting Cesar Chavez behind a chainlink fence with a sign that says "Welcome to Cox Academy."
A mural at Cox Academy in East Oakland. The OUSD board agreed on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023 to allow the charter to receive $28 million for fixes and upgrades at its campus. Credit: Amir Aziz

Cheers erupted in the Great Room at La Escuelita on Wednesday night when the Oakland Unified School District board unanimously approved a contract allowing Cox Academy, an elementary school in deep East Oakland, to receive nearly $30 million in state funding for campus renovations. 

Education for Change, the charter network that runs the school, had been negotiating with OUSD for months over the terms of the contract under Proposition 51, a state bond measure passed in 2016 to fund school construction and campus improvements.

Parents, students, and staff at Cox Academy had also been attending school board meetings for several months to urge the board to authorize the funds so the school could fix up its run-down building, which has a leaky roof, flood-prone boiler room, and crumbling playground. During heavy rains last winter, the leaking became so bad inside one classroom that teachers and students resorted to using umbrellas to keep themselves dry. 

Cox Academy applied for the Prop. 51 money last year through the state’s Charter School Facilities Program. Cox’s building at 99th and Bancroft avenues is owned by OUSD, and the school shares a campus with the district-run Reach Academy. 

“Last rainy season, instead of my students coming into a classroom to learn, they came into a classroom worried about getting wet by the amount of leaks that are in my portable,” said Mariela Nuñez, a fourth grade teacher, at Wednesday’s school board meeting prior to the directors’ vote. “This is an opportunity for our students to feel their community is more than the sirens and gunshots they hear on the daily. This is an opportunity for us to create changes on our school campus that will make them feel like they matter as Oakland students. So make the choice that will make a positive environment for our Oakland students.”

Of the roughly $28 million awarded by the state, half is in the form of a grant and the other half is a loan. In this case, the loan portion will be repaid through a long-term discounted lease agreement between OUSD and Education for Change for use of the campus. School board president Mike Hutchinson had expressed concerns about signing decades-long leases with charter schools, but on Wednesday he and the other five school board directors approved the terms.

Cox leaders and supporters had argued that allowing Cox to receive the Prop. 51 money would be a win-win, providing millions for renovations that will also benefit Reach Academy students. Some Cox families had accused OUSD leadership of prolonging discussions over the funding because of anti-charter school sentiment, which Board President Hutchinson had denied.

OUSD has more than 100 properties in Oakland which need more than $3 billion in repairs, according to a 2020 facilities report. The school board is currently overseeing a $735 million bond that will pay for long-overdue upgrades at schools across the district. 

“This agreement is a win for OUSD finances. It saves OUSD up to $28 million in repairs that must be performed on a district-owned facility,” said Larissa Adam, the superintendent of Education for Change. “It’s a win for Reach kids, because it also increases their play space, and finally, most importantly, it’s a win for Cox kids—93% of whom are classified as high-needs by the state, and 100% are Black and brown children.”

The agreement with Cox includes a four-year lease with an option to extend up to 35 years. Beyond the building renovations, Cox will also use the funds to construct a new playground that both Cox and Reach Academy students will use, and some of the school’s portables will be removed to make room for more outdoor play space for both schools. Cox will also cap its enrollment at 550 students and if enrollment falls below 400, OUSD will be allowed to reclaim space from Cox Academy. Last year, Cox enrolled 483 students. 

Investigation into American Indian Public Charter School

The school board on Wednesday also accepted a report from the district’s charter school office investigating complaints about American Indian Public Charter School II, a K-8 school, and its sister sites, AIMS Middle and AIMS High. AIMS is the name of the charter management organization that runs the three schools. 

Between April 2021 and June 2022, teachers and staff at the schools made complaints that included labor and pay disputes, a lack of human resources staff, charges of nepotism, incomplete safety protocols, and a failure to serve students with disabilities. The over-1,000 page investigation report, which includes interviews with current and former AIMS staff, concluded that the K-8 school is struggling to implement the educational program outlined in its charter and is not serving all students who want to attend.

Some former AIMS employees attended Wednesday’s meeting to support the investigation and speak about their experiences at the school.

“I’m making this statement to urge the board to continue to hold AIMS accountable in its negligence of student wellness and safety,” said Cassandra Stevens, a former teacher at AIMS College Prep High School. “It wasn’t until after I filed a Cal-OSHA complaint against the school that they were forced into creating and implementing a comprehensive safety plan for the first time.”

It’s not the first time the school has come under scrutiny. Ben Chavis, the former principal, was accused of making racist statements, mismanaging funds, and in 2017 was charged with fraud. The fraud charges were later dropped and Chavis was sentenced to a year of probation and a $100 fine.

Kevin Troy, an attorney for AIMS, said at Wednesday’s school board meeting that the school “fully intends on addressing all of the concerns raised in the report.” AIMS Superintendent Maya Woods-Cadiz acknowledged the missteps and said that many of the complaints came from the pandemic year.

“It was a very challenging time with all of us emerging from the ravages of the pandemic. Nevertheless, we believe in continuous improvement, and we commit to you that we can and will do better,” Woods-Cadiz said.

Wednesday’s vote acknowledged the report, and when the AIMS charter comes up for renewal in 2025, the OUSD board will evaluate whether the school has addressed the findings before issuing a decision on the renewal. 

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.