School board members Shanthi Gonzales, Nina Senn, Jumoke Hinton Hodge and Aimee Eng.
The Oakland Unified School District’s Board of Education is moving ahead with a “Community of Schools Policy” that will mean closing as many as 24 schools over the next several years, arguing that these closures are the best way to improve the quality and equity of schools across the district.
Among the outside agencies pressuring the district to close and sell school property are: a state-financed nonprofit called Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT), which has been pushing for school closures in Oakland for almost 20 years, a state-appointed trustee who has the authority to “stay and rescind” district budget decisions, the Alameda County Office of Education, and pro-charter groups like GO Public Schools, which stand to reap the benefits of the downsizing.
“OUSD will need to operate fewer schools. OUSD currently operates too many district-run schools for the number of students we serve,” a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) sheet produced by the district reads.
The number and names of schools that will be closed or “consolidated” will not be made public until February when the board releases a “final citywide map” that will include the number and location of “surplus properties,” that may be offered for sale.
District officials have gingerly approached the prospect of shutting down and merging schools, one of the most explosive issues in Oakland that over the years has mobilized an angry opposition consisting of parents, students, teachers and school communities.
“This policy is heavily backed by charter school groups because it makes way for more charter school growth,” said Mona Lisa Treviño, a parent and public school advocate.
“Our neighborhood public schools need to be protected because they are lifelines in our community, and they are democratically run. Parents and teachers are not going to allow them to be closed,” she said.
Adding to the potential for conflict, other budget-related concerns are coming to a head—the possibility of a teachers’ strike for a new contract in the next few months and the already approved budget cuts of $30 million that will deeply impact school site programs.
The district says it is not committed at this point to closing the designated 24 of the 87 schools it currently operates. The reduction of the number of schools by 24 would leave the district with the estimated minimum number of schools it would need to operate, say officials.
That minimum number of schools is the number the district needs to serve all of its students over the next five years, according to the FAQ.
A recent report from the district does not name the 24 schools but identifies those that might be closed by grade level and location:
- One high school in East Oakland;
- Six middle schools, including five in East Oakland and one in West Oakland, and:
- 17 elementary and K-8 schools, including 14 in East Oakland, two in Central Oakland and one in West Oakland.
Significantly, no closings are proposed for schools serving hill areas and more affluent students. Schools that are protected from the threat of closure include: Claremont Middle, Edna Brewer Middle, Oakland Technical High, Hillcrest (K-8), Piedmont Avenue (K-5), Peralta (K-5), Chabot (K-5) and Glenview (K-5).
Officials optimistically say these reductions will produce greater educational equity among remaining schools and “long-term sustainability” of the school system. However, judging by the past aggressive tactics of the charter school industry, there is a real possibility that existing or new charter schools would take over the vacated schools, leasing or purchasing the properties, potentially pushing district into a cycle of declining student population and loss of revenue.
Currently, 45 charter schools operate in Oakland, serving about one-third of the public school students in the city. While these schools are publicly funded, diverting resources from public schools, they are privately managed. They are not bound by most of the State Education Code and operate with little oversight.
State regulations for establishing new charters allow them to open in Oakland, even without OUSD board approval, if they successfully appeal to the Alameda County Board of Education or the State Board of Education.
The district’s school closure proposal does not examine the performance of charters nor place any of them on the list of possible closures. The plan says charters and the district will work together for the benefit of the students and schools, although there are few legal requirements the charters have to honor.
Adding to pressure on the district, a recently passed law, supported by Governor Jerry Brown and Oakland elected state representatives, requires the district to cut programs and close schools as a way to obtain temporary extra state funding.