An OUSD facilities board meeting turned into an emotional protest Tuesday afternoon when parents, faculty and staff from Kaiser Elementary School showed up unannounced, rallying to keep their school open.
A protester asking, “What will you do with the property if Kaiser is closed down?” was the only question that hinted at the agenda of the scheduled bimonthly meeting of the facilities committee. This group, consisting of board members Alice Spearmen, Jody London, and Noel Gallo, attends to the district’s infrastructure, including development, renovation, and the leasing of property.
But this week, distressed Kaiser parents looked at the OUSD board’s calendar and saw another chance to protest the inclusion of their school’s name on a list of schools targeted for closure. “Facilities meeting @ 4:30 tonight at OUSD. Come one, come all!” was one message posted on “Oppose Kaiser Elementary Closure,” a Facebook group with 80 members.
Parents passed the word through Twitter and a Yahoo parents’ group, too, and by the time board members arrived for their meeting, protesters were already filling out OUSD speaker cards.
“We explored all of the schools in our neighborhood and didn’t feel they would make a good fit for our family,” Kaiser parent Kirsten Foley told the panel. “I’m coming to you today because I have not had any clarification from the district that if this school is closed an identical or similar opportunity for my kid will be available.”
Foley began to cry. “Our concerns were that Zindzhi [her daughter] would be the only kid like her. The only biracial kid. The only kid with two moms. The only kid who had one Caucasian parent,” she said. “Glenview is full, Sequoyah is full. Where will we send her?”
The line of protesters waiting to speak continued to grow. Joanna Fraguli, a West Oakland resident in a wheelchair, told the board members Kaiser had provided support her family was unable to find in other schools. “I have a physical disability,” she said. “My partner and I chose to build our family through adoption. As a white woman parenting an African American daughter who heard comments like ‘You’re such a lucky little girl,’ ‘You are so inspirational,’ ‘What happened to your real mom?,’ ‘Are you white?’ We chose Kaiser because of the strong supportive community. My child was not a diversity token. Though I’m a physically disabled mom I’m treated with respect.”
“My spouse and I have two children,” said Zeus Leonardo, a professor of education at UC Berkeley. “Our kids are tri-racial—Filipino, black and Jewish. We had options, including private schools, but wanted them at Kaiser.”
Many protesters made a point of distinguishing their neighborhoods from the comparative affluence of the Oakland hills. “My four children share one bedroom,” said Leora Barzell-Weber. “We are flatlands. School district number seven.”
The protesters repeatedly reminded board members that many families go out of their way, with carpooling and regular text messages, to bring their children to Kaiser. “Is it elitist to drive kids, predominantly black, to a place they don’t live?” Christopher Malone, whose daughter Lily goes to Kaiser, said after the meeting. “Or is it elitist to say those children should not be up there in the North Oakland hills?”
Malone said he is willing to pay for a structural engineer to evaluate the school building in order to see if it can handle 150 more students. Kaiser now contains kindergarten through fifth grade. An expansion would increase that to eighth grade.
The OUSD, whose board members have the final vote on closures, is arguing that there are too many schools in Oakland’s district to maintain a high education standard.
Other Bay Area districts have far fewer schools in relation to their overall number of students. San Jose Unified has 52 schools for 32,000 students; Mount Diablo Unified has 55 schools for 34,000 students. Oakland has 101 schools for just over 38,000 students.
Although the OUSD released a list that included two middle schools, Frick and Claremont, for possible closure, they will not be the first to go. Ahead of them on the possible closures list are eight elementary schools—Marshall, Burckhalter, Lakeview, Santa Fe, Kaiser, Lazear, Maxwell, and Sobrante.
Although the final announcement won’t be known until mid October, the first trial will take place in seven days. According to the board, they looked at numerous factors when deciding on what schools to close—enrollment percentages, building capacity, school performance rank, population density around schools, newly built school locations and the number of neighborhood students attending each school.
Kaiser is a school in high demand, usually with an enrollment waiting list. The school’s enrollment data for 2009-10 totaled 275 students with an average daily attendance rate of 97%. Its black population totaled 47% from 2009-10. Latino’s made up 4% of enrollment, Asians 11%.
Last year, black students at Kaiser were above district average for the state’s Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) Report, earning 816 out of 1,000 points.
After the line of protesters dwindled, many of them finding seats, board member Noel Gallo addressed everyone. He described visiting other schools on the closure list. “Those parents are engaged,” he said. “There not showing up here at every meeting, but they are meeting.”
Gallo and other members of the board said they want to preserve Kaiser’s program, but move it to a different part of Oakland.
“Only 10% of the students live in the attendance area,” Gallo said.
“So keep the hills white! Is that it?” a protester yelled.
“How about folding your program into another school?” Spearman asked.
“No way! No way!” repeated the crowd.
“I don’t appreciate you coming down to the committee meeting,” Spearman said. “I’m not going to lie to you.”
She leaned forward in her chair. “I’m not running for city council,” Spearman said. “I don’t have to lie. From where I sit, whether you say ‘no way’ or not, somebody’s going to make a decision.”
Protestors continued to shout, and Gallo had heard enough. “I’m adjourning the meeting,” he said.
“Why not merge Emerson onto our campus!” yelled a protester from the audience.
“Because a lot of them can’t haul up to Kaiser,” said London, who had left the panel and entered the public seating area. “I have a problem with a school where 26 students of the neighborhood attend.”
“Given the tone here at this meeting, an expansion plan seems useless,” said Christopher Malone after Gallo’s abrupt announcement.
Surrounded by Kaiser families, London continued to listen to their concerns, but remained firm.
“You’ve heard what I’m willing to offer,” she said. “There’ve been three committee meetings this week and you’ve been at every one. We need to relocate the school to a site more accessible to the population. Some schools are going to close. No way around that.”
The first hearing will be held on Tuesday, September 27, although the location has not been confirmed: “I’m pushing for it to be held upstairs [in the Paul Robeson Building],” London said. “There’s been talk about changing the location, but everyone knows how to get here already. ”