OUSD board votes to close five elementary schools at contentious meeting

Two school closure protesters held a handmade sign below the stage at Wednesday's meeting. Photo by Amna Hassan.

Two school closure protesters held a handmade sign below the stage at Wednesday's meeting. Photo by Amna Hassan.

The Oakland Unified School District board voted 5-2 to close five elementary schools — Lakeview, Lazear, Marshall, Maxwell Park and Santa Fe — and transform or merge several other schools at its meeting at Oakland Technical High School on Wednesday night.

Before the meeting began, about 100 people marched from Mosswood Park to Oakland Tech to protest the board’s decision to close schools. Many in the crowd carried signs that were influenced by the occupy Oakland movement—one said “I teach the 99%.” A young couple carried a large quilted banner than read, “Oakland Rise Up!” They sat on the floor, holding the sign, in front of the board members for the first half of the meeting.

A crowd of about 100 parents, students, teachers and other community members marched from Mosswood Park to the board meeting.

But by the time the vote happened at nearly 11:30 pm, the original vocal crowd of a few hundred people who nearly packed Oakland Tech’s auditorium in the beginning of the evening had dwindled to fewer than 60.

Closing the schools is expected to save OUSD $2 million, according to a report by Vernon Hal, the CFO for the district. Board members David Kakishiba, Gary Yee, Christopher Dobbins, Jody London and Jumoke Hinton Hodge all voted yes, while Alice Spearman and Noel Gallo voted no.

The reaction from the crowd was one of exhausted, depleted dismay—the energetic shouts, hoots and heckles from earlier in the evening were absent. Someone called out “I don’t believe this!” Others muttered frustratingly and headed for the door. Another person called out “You better look over your shoulders,” from the back of the auditorium.

Less than two months have passed since the district hosted its first School Closure Study Session on September 7, when many parents first learned about the possible closures. The decision to begin closing schools is a part of a bigger strategic plan that Superintendent Tony Smith said is to provide quality education to all students in the district. The OUSD currently operates 101 schools for 38,000 students, and many of the schools have less than 300 students attending them. Because of statewide budget cuts, the intention of the district is to teach the same number of students with fewer schools in order to save money.

The OUSD board looked at several factors when deciding which schools to close—enrollment numbers, facility capacity, the number of students who live in the neighborhood, whether the school is a popular choice for families in the options process, the financial state of the school, and its academic performance.

The five contested elementary schools were on the list for different combinations of these factors. Marshall has a small building relative to other schools in the district. It also has a high percentage of students attending from different neighborhoods. Santa Fe also has a small facility, as well as a high decline in enrollment during the past year. Maxwell Park has had low enrollment, low test scores and is low on the options list. Lakeview also has had low enrollment numbers and a low percentage of improvement on English and math scores. Lazear has also had low test scores, a small facility capacity and the highest enrollment decline of any OUSD elementary school in the past three years.

In the past several weeks, OUSD superintendent Tony Smith, school board members, and community members from these five elementary schools attended at least ten meetings that lasted well into the night, moving from the OUSD building to high schools like Oakland High and Oakland Tech in order to use their larger auditoriums. Night after night, parents, students, teachers, principals, board members and Smith have stayed at meetings past 11 pm debating the contentious plan, many parents there with their young children.

In the end, the vote took less than a minute. As the clock ticked past 11 pm and the crowd dwindled, school board vice president Jumoke Hinton-Hodge (District 3) suggested delaying the vote entirely. She was responding to several comments by speakers from the public who asked the board to take more time to engage with the community by having more meetings and discussions before making its decision.

Mark Hutchinson, a life-long Oakland resident and alumnus of OUSD schools said, “I’m tired. This isn’t my first meeting. If you would have come to us first with all the energy and brain power in this room we could have come up with a solution to come up with a plan to keep these schools open. There is nothing that says you have to decide this tonight.”

But superintendent Smith was not swayed. “The [options] deadline is not arbitrary,” he said, referring to the start date for OUSD’s school options process, where parents can opt to send their children to public schools outside their neighborhood. Smith then said that in order for children from closed schools to get priority in the options process in December—so parents could choose an alternate school for their children if they were dissatisfied with the nearest remaining neighborhood school—the vote had to happen Wednesday night.

Students from Lakeview Elementary School sat on the floor by the stage during the meeting. Photo by Amna Hassan.

Both Spearman and Gallo represent schools on this closure list: Thurgood Marshall and Lazear, respectively. Both made it clear that these connections affected their decisions. Immediately before the vote, an emotional Spearman described the difficult position she was in. As she looked down and slowly shook her head she said, “Thurgood Marshall is my neighborhood school, it’s not a block away from my house. There’s nothing more personal to anyone else on this board. So I’m sorry Mr. Superintendent. I just can’t do it. I can’t go through with it.” Gallo spoke up earlier in the evening when Lazear parents and teachers gave public comments. “What I resent the most is the way I treated the parents at those engagement meetings,” he said. “Those weren’t engagement meetings. I came down and told you ‘This is the way it is.’”

The public’s comments and concerns of the evening were similar to those at preceding meetings. Gerlen Anderson, a Lakeview grandmother, listed grievances other community members also shared during public comments—disgruntlement with the closure process itself, a lack of specifics about transportation for students at closed schools, and the growing trend of charter schools.  “You wonder why people are upset,” she said, “It’s because you didn’t include us from the beginning. You have no clue how much money you are going to save. You have no idea how you’re going to transport these children. The more charters you keep adding, the more the public schools are disappearing.”

The issue of transportation has been a heated topic at every school closure meeting thus far, and that continued Wednesday. As public commenters pushed Smith to explain how students at closed sites were going to get to their new schools, Smith reiterated that the details had not yet been worked out because every family’s situation and needs were going to be different. When asked by a community member how OUSD would get necessary funds for transportation needs, Smith said OUSD may have to use part of the millions in savings from closing schools. Alice Spearman asked, “So we’re going to close a school, but we’re going to use part of that savings to shuttle select students to a new school?” Smith responded, “After exhausting every other option, the answer is, possibly yes.”

Charter schools were another heated issue of the evening. Several charter schools presented applications for renewal from the board at the beginning of the meeting. Charter schools get approval for a period of five years, after which they need to resubmit their charter proposal for renewal. Two public schools, Learning Without Limits and ASCEND Elementary School, also submitted applications to transform into charter schools. Maria Martinez, a 5th grade teacher from Lazear Elementary School, told the board that though Lazear’s leaders wanted the school to stay with OUSD, they had prepared an application to transform into a charter school as well. In that case Lazear would re-open as a charter school after being shuttered by OUSD.

Betty Olsen Jones, president of Oakland Education Association, the teachers union for OUSD, said, “I think we see the writing on the walls,” in response to the talk of charter transformations. “We’re going to become a two-tiered district,” she said, saying that one tier would be the children who chose charter schools and were successful in them. The other tier she spoke about would be the kids left out of charter schools. Though charter schools officially have to accept all children just like traditional public schools, their critics claim that the schools often find ways to control which students they accept, reject, or ask to leave.

After the meeting, those who didn’t leave immediately quietly talked in their seats about next steps. Gerlen Anderson, a Lakeview grandparent, talked about taking legal action against the district. “This is just the beginning,” said Joel Velasquez, parent of a Lakeview 4th grader, who has attended every OUSD meeting this fall. “There’s still a lot of time to organize and make it a positive outcome.”

 

 

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