Breaking down in tears, Hae-Sin Thomas appealed to the Oakland Unified School District board “emotionally and personally,” she said, in asking the board to approve a charter application for Lazear Elementary, a Fruitvale area school that the district has slated for closure in the fall.
Thomas is the CEO of charter school management company Education for Change, and she urged the board to convert Lazear to a charter school instead of closing it as planned next fall. Education for Change would manage the school if it became a charter.
But the board can’t make emotional decisions, board member Christopher Dobbins said, and “this is an issue that is about the numbers.” Last fall, citing too few students at too many schools, the board voted to close five elementary schools to save $2 million.
A majority of the board took Dobbins’ side, voting 5-2 on Wednesday night to deny Lazear’s application to convert to a charter school. The vote was along the same lines as in October, when the board voted to close five schools, including Lazear, with board members Noel Gallo (District 5) and Alice Spearman (District 7) opposing both times.
The board’s vote on Wednesday effectively closes Lazear, pending an appeal by the school to the Alameda County Board of Education.
After the board voted, Lazear parents and supporters, many wearing burgundy school T-shirts, cried and hugged as they filtered out of the building.
“Thank you for fighting for my kids, and my families,” Lazear principal Kareem Weaver said to Thomas in the hallway outside the board meeting.
“We’re not done,” she responded.
Parents of Lazear students first submitted a charter application last fall, after the board voted to close the school in October. That petition was rejected by OUSD’s charter school office, but with assistance from Education For Change, the school applied again to convert to a charter school in February.
In late March, voting against the recommendation of the charter school office, the board voted unanimously to allow general counsel Jacqueline Minor to negotiate a “partnership” agreement with the school, in which it would become a charter school but remain closely tied to the district, and continue to pay the district for services and contribute to the district’s annual payments to reduce its debt to the state.
Minor had recently negotiated two other partnership agreements with other Fruitvale area elementary schools, Learning Without Limits and ASCEND, which are the first two schools in the district to fall under this new category. But unlike those two schools, Lazear was already scheduled to close, and converting to a charter would cost the district $1.4 million because the money the district was to save from the closure had already been included in the budget for the next fiscal year. Superintendent Tony Smith said keeping Lazear open as a charter school would throw off the district’s financial plan. Smith said by closing the five schools, the district is able to increase per-pupil spending next year by five percent.
“There are way too many schools in Oakland, still,” Smith told the board at Wednesday night’s meeting. “When I got here, there were 20 to 30 too many schools, and at this moment going in to next year, there would be 18 fewer schools. To accomplish the aspirations we have for every kid, we have too few dollars spread too thin across the district.”
But Spearman said that making a decision on a school’s charter status based on financial information is “illegal,” and Thomas agreed, saying in an interview after the meeting that financial implications are not among the criteria the state allows districts to use when considering charter applications. The district is supposed to consider matters such as whether the educational program will be unsound, she said.
Smith said OUSD’s business office analyzed the financial implications to the district if Lazear converted to a charter because it was a question posed by the board, and that the decision on the charter status should be based on the findings by the charter office. Smith he said that while the cost of to the district of Lazear staying open is “significant,” the decision came down to the charter office not approving the school’s program. “At the root of this, it didn’t meet the quality standard of the charter office,” Smith said.
Regardless, Lazear parents, many speaking in Spanish, implored the board to keep the school open. “The Lazear children have been passed over for decades,” Lazear parent Patricia De Leon told the board. “We finally have the chance so many other Oakland children have had for years. Please, please keep your promise to the Lazear families.”
Thomas isn’t so sure the decision didn’t come down to just the numbers. She said she didn’t remember the board asking for financial analysis of Lazear’s conversion to a charter school in late March. “If they did, I would have probably flagged that as illegal,” Thomas said.
Thomas said she would help Lazear parents find new schools for their kids if the appeal is rejected by the county and then the state board of education, which would be the final agency to handle an appeal. She said kids from Lazear have been assigned to 21 different schools in the fall, and she is going to do her best to keep them together.
“The fact that this community is going to be dispersed is a tragedy,” Thomas said. “It’s a tragedy to have empowered brown mothers in the Fruitvale for who are this support structure for each other disbanded.”