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School board to parents: No closures for now

on October 9, 2008


Oct. 8 — The anxiety over the possibility of some school shutdowns played out in tonight’s Oakland Board of Education meeting as individuals and groups took the microphone to passionately say, “Don’t close our small schools.”

In the wake of announcing a plan to study closing certain schools in order to increase fiscal stability, the Board found itself on stage tonight—literally and figuratively.

Under spotlights, seated in a row behind a blue-skirted table lined with microphones, the board, Superintendent and State Administrator made their way through an agenda that included funding for a variety of programs aimed at raising student achievement and teacher competence. But for most of the patient, anxious audience, it boiled down to a single issue: school closures.

“Tonight’s been miscast as a night we’re actually going to close schools,” said board member, Gregory Hodge.

Other board members also addressed the audience’s concerns and made clear that the board’s intention had never been to close schools immediately, nor had it ever been the objective in tonight’s meeting. In response to overwhelming public skepticism and criticism about its plans, board member Kerry Hamill said the entire process had been started “in the wrong vein.”

“We threw a big blanket of fear over the issues,” Hamill told the audience. “Presentations and engagement meetings that began with talks about how to fight the fiscal battle instead of ways schools can improve wasn’t the best approach.”

OUSD Board of Education during Wednesday's meeting on stage at Oakland Tech's auditorium

OUSD Board of Education

“I came for information,” said one parent. “I had no idea any of this was going on until my daughter came home today and told me there was a meeting tonight because they were going to close schools.”

Parent Tavita Bass reflected much of the audience sentiment toward the District’s financial hardship. “When there’s more crime, they allocate more money for officers,” said Bass. “Why can’t we do that for our children’s education?”

In a Power-Point presentation, titled “A Case for Fiscal Sustainability,” the board not only laid out its fiscal challenges, but more importantly for those looking for alternatives to closing schools, it presented priorities and strategies for achieving long-term financial stability.

Opposing one of the long-term financial goals identified in the presentation, Hodge said he didn’t agree with accelerating the payoff of the district’s current state loan. Instead Hodge said, “We should demand the loan be forgiven,” a statement met by vigorous applause.

OUSD showed the audience its Case for Fiscal Sustainability at Wednesday nights BOE meeting

OUSD showed the audience its Case for Fiscal Sustainability at Wednesday nights BOE meeting

The board proposed actively recruiting new students and sustained fundraising as two strategies for increasing revenue and enrollment

Board member Noel Gallo said the District should aggressively recruit students in the same way as private and charters schools. Instead of complaining about losing students to the Catholic schools or the charters, Gallo said, “We should be out there putting our pamphlets right next to theirs.”

Board members were in unison when it came to getting the students in the schools and keeping up their attendance. Because schools receive their funding per student, maximum enrollment and maximum attendance are vital.

Based on community input, the board decided to take on its financial challenges by monitoring under-enrolled schools, considering the fiscal health of schools, while also bearing in mind the academic consequences of closing schools. More community engagement meetings will be scheduled to gather more input.

Charter schools attracted attention tonight as audience members, as well as the board, spoke about the impact charters have on enrollment and funding at non-charter schools. Closing charters was not offered as a solution, yet audience members complained about how charters draw students and money away from other district schools. Board members said that they must be mindful of everything that impacts the fiscal health of the district, including charters.

The backlash over proposed school closures comes at a time when the district is trying to shore up its finances so it can regain local control from the state, which took over OUSD in 2003.

During the meeting there was a bit of good news toward achieving that goal. A favorable report regarding textbook availability and numbers of books in the hands of students was presented to the board. Because a rise in student achievement is critical for the district to emerge from state control, anything that goes to helping students is a step in the right direction for the district. State Administrator Matthews said the board may indeed regain authority over the area of instruction as early as December or January.

“We knew the idea of closing schools would be met with a lot of passion,” said OUSD spokesperson Troy Flint. “Tonight’s meeting, along with all the input from the community, as well as the board’s recommendations,” he said, “gives us a place to start as we move forward from here.”||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||


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