Citing budget woes, OUSD to close 3 schools
on December 17, 2009
After weeks of public meetings and intense discussion with parents and teachers, the Oakland Unified School District Board voted unanimously Wednesday night to shut down three schools in the district by the end of June 2010. The vote means that students currently attending Explore Middle School, Business and Entrepreneurship School of Technology (BEST), and the Paul Robeson School for Visual and Performing Arts will have to find a different school next year. Superintendent Tony Smith also presented a preliminary recommendation for budget cuts to deal with next year’s expected $27.8 million reduction in school funds from the state.
Two of the schools—BEST and Paul Robeson—had already been slated to close by the end of the 2010-11 and the 2011-12 school years, respectively, but last night’s decision cuts short the schools’ phasing-out period. According to OUSD officials, the schools were selected for closure due to under-enrollment and low performance, as well as the presence of adequate substitute schools in the neighborhood. By closing the three schools, OUSD anticipates total savings of around $1 million, the majority of which comes from salary and custodial savings.
Before the vote, opponents spoke against the decision.
“I’m asking for our one more year,” said William Young, a teacher at Explore Middle School. Young said the school has been performing adequately for the past four years, and that OUSD had promised to grant the school a fifth year to improve student performance. “I’m asking for our fifth year,” he said.
Another teacher from Explore, Gwenn Martin, said that the school has been used as a “safety net for students who are not doing well in other schools,” and described the school as, “for the lack of a better word, a dumping ground.” She said there has been improvement over the past few years.
“I’m appealing to you not to take our students back to big schools,” she said.
A teacher from Paul Robeson, one of the two schools whose closure is being accelerated, blamed the district for “jerking around the kids.” He said that by previously closing some of the school’s best programs, the district set the very conditions that made its closing inevitable, adding that students at Robeson have described feeling unmotivated since hearing about the school’s near closure.
“I’ve come here to ask for an accounting,” he said.
OUSD’s Chief Academic Officer Brad Stam said OUSD would provide presentations, individual sessions and counseling to help parents at closing schools decide what other school is best for their children. He also said he expects the majority of students from Explore to be relocated to Frick Middle School, which would help with that school’s present low enrolment problems.
In the other big business of the night, OUSD Superintendent Tony Smith presented a proposal to reduce the 2010-2011 OUSD budget in order to account for a $27.8 million cut in education funds coming from Sacramento next year. According to the proposal, the cuts would be spread in such a way that K-12 School funding would take 33 percent of the reduction, amounting to $9.3 million. In practice, Smith said, the budget cut would mean a 5 percent drop in real dollars per school in the next school year.
The remaining 67 percent of the cuts would be divided among budgets for central services, adult education and facilities upkeep. Adult education would suffer the most, with a 40 percent drop in its current budget.
“They are making us make those decisions locally,” Smith said, about how the cuts will be spread throughout the district. He said these decisions are difficult, and that choosing between K-12 and adult education is “not why anybody got into the job.”
Smith said the proposal he presented last night is “just the start of this conversation,” and that the road ahead in a difficult budget environment is likely to be rough. The superintendent criticized the state government for the cuts, calling them “unacceptable and unconscionable.” Smith’s budget recommendation is based on a projection for next year’s overall state budget, which has not been officially presented by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
OUSD Board President Noel Gallo gave Superintendent Smith a vote of confidence, and asked for continuing transparency in the budget process. Gallo compared the school budget situation to a doctor telling a patient he has some bad news and some worse news: the bad news is the patient has only 24 hours to live; the worse news is the doctor forgot to tell him yesterday. Gallo said he doesn’t want the same thing to happen to Oakland schools.
“I trust you, and I’m going to support your recommendation,” he told Smith. “All I ask is that you keep us balanced, that you keep us informed.”
Critics of Smith’s budget cut proposal were divided into two camps. The first worried that too much was being taken away from non K-12 site funding, particularly from adult education programs.
“What is disturbing and not surprising is that all you’re talking about tonight is cuts,” said Bob Mandel, an adult education and ESL teacher.
Another public speaker said she worried about the fate of older teenagers who are past the cutoff age to complete high school and could be sent to already underfunded adult education programs.
The other group opposing Smith’s proposal worried, on the contrary, that not enough was being done to preserve the quality of K-12 education. Oakland Education Association member Ward Roundtree said he would have liked to have seen OUSD cut less of the K-12 budget, even if that meant more reductions to adult education.
“That would have shown a real commitment that the cuts are moving away from the classroom sites.”
In other businesses, the board granted the Oakland School of the Arts and Aspire Berkley Maynard Academy their petitions for charter renewal. It also approved Bret Harte Middle School’s decision to name its gym the “Ernest G. Fernandes Gymnasium.”
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