Concerned parents, children and community members packed the Oakland Unified School District board meeting Wednesday night, clutching protest signs opposing the district’s possible closure of as many as ten elementary and middle schools. So many people showed up for the meeting that latecomers were led to a fourth-floor overflow room, where they watched a live telecast of the meeting.
The OUSD has tried to close schools before, most recently three years ago, but met opposition from parents and teachers. The district operates 101 schools for 38,000 students, a much higher ratio than those of nearby comparably-sized districts. Oakland’s schools began multiplying more than a decade ago, when concerned parents sought to transform the flatland’s struggling schools by creating smaller ones in their place. Though many people support the movement toward smaller schools, the initial funding has run out, and the OUSD says it is unable to fund all 101 schools.
Three weeks ago, the OUSD began the closures process, approving a ranking system to help officials decide which schools to close. The school board presented a preliminary list of ten elementary and middle schools at its September 7th meeting: Marshall, Burckhalter, Lakeview, Santa Fe, Kaiser, Lazear, Maxwell Park and Sobrante Park elementary schools; and Frick and Claremont middle schools. Four of these schools — Lakeview, Santa Fe, Kaiser and Claremont — are in North Oakland.
During the public comments period, at least eight parents spoke out against the possible closing of Kaiser. The school, in Hiller Highlands, is “one of the schools that is getting it right,” said Chris Jones, the father of a Kaiser kindergartener, describing the diverse community of parents and students and good teachers. Other commenters spoke about the racial and economic diversity of the school, praising it as a place where everyone feels welcome.
Ann Whidden, mother of a Kaiser first grader, described the school as “a safe haven for students of gay and lesbian parents.” She said that knowing there are other gay and lesbian familes at the school made her feel comfortable sending her own son to the school.
Outside the meeting, Ingrid McGraw, the single mother of a Lakeview 1st grader, was dismayed by the proposed closing of her daughter’s school. “I’d be happy if they made it a charter school,” she said. “But don’t close it.” McGraw cited the experienced and thoughtful teachers at Lakeview, and said she appreciates how easy it is for parents to drop their children off at school on the way to work in San Francisco
Francisco Martinez, an 8th grade student at Edna Brewer Middle School, spoke out against the closings even though his school is not on the list. “Every time you close schools you give teachers a hard time and it’s hard for us students to learn,” he said. “Please don’t close these schools,” he continued. “We deserve our education.”
OUSD board member Jody London, whose district includes North Oakland, responded directly to the public comments by describing school closings as “one of those NIMBY issues,” using the acronym for “Not in my backyard.” She said that when she tells people that the OUSD operates too many schools, “They say yeah, they get it, but no one wants it to happen to their school.”
Later during the meeting, Jemahl Amen, a board member of the Oakland branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, presented an NAACP report asserting that racial inequality in the OUSD has remained the same or grown over a period of almost 30 years. “We need to find a different path,” said Amen, an Oakland native and alum of both Elmhurst Community Prep and Castlemont High School. What we’re doing now is not working.”
Amen pointed to statistics which showed that African-American students continued to be placed in lower level classes and have disciplinary trouble. Fifteen years ago, in 1996, 71% of special education students and 67% of truants were African-American. In 2011, although the overall number of black children in the district has dropped, half the district’s special education students and 83% of the truants are African-American.
OUSD Superintendent Tony Smith reacted with concern to Amen’s report, calling the situation for black students in Oakland “about as urgent as it gets.” He continued, “As a city Oakland has failed African-American students.” Cheryl Moore, Second Vice President of the Oakland branch of the NAACP, voiced concern that African-American students were targeted more than white students for disciplinary actions.
Later during the meeting, OUSD Chief Financial Officer Vernon Hal presented his 2010-2011 Closing of the Books report, explaining the unrestricted general ending fund balance. That fund, Hal reported, now has nearly $1 million less than expected.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Ann Whidden’s son, Kaiser Elementary School 1st grader has two mothers. It also stated that Kaiser’s principal is openly gay. Mel Stenger, who was openly gay, was Kaiser’s principal until the end of last school year. The current principal is Darren Avent. Oakland North regrets these errors.