Outraged parents confront OUSD board over school closures

on October 13, 2011

Although Oakland school board members have said they will not vote on school closures until Oct 26, scores of irritated speakers crowded Wednesday night’s meeting to plead for a second, third, and even fourth look at their schools before a final decision is made.

“I’ve been attending all of these meetings—I’m exhausted and dizzy,” said Daaimah Waqia, whose kids attend Lakeview Elementary, and who has become a familiar presence at board meetings since first warnings of school closures this fall. “I want to yell, but I don’t have the energy. There should have been parents involved in the first place. I don’t understand why we have to continue to go through all these meetings.”

This meeting, like the previous one, was moved to a high school auditorium in anticipation of a large turnout. In addition, board members have been participating in engagement meetings with schools recommended for closure for the past two weeks.

Taylor Carriedo, a kindergarten student at Lazear Elementary, colors while her parents protest against school closures.

Currently, five elementary schools are recommended for closure in 2012—Lakeview, Lazear, Marshall, Maxwell, and Sante Fe. Two elementary schools—Burckhalter and Kaiser—will either be enlarged for more students, according to the current plans, or relocated to somewhere else in Oakland.   And that’s only the beginning. A merger between Sobrante Park Elementary and Madison Middle School would create a K-12 school in just over a year.  Under the plan, seven high schools—Youth Empowerment School, College Prep & Architecture, Mandela Academy, Media Academy, Leadership Preparatory, Information Technology School of Arts and East Oakland School of the Arts—will be combined back into two schools.

Oakland school superintendent Tony Smith has said the school district can’t afford to keep its current 101 schools open for just over 38,000 students.  Other Bay Area districts have fewer schools in relation to their overall number of students. San Jose Unified has 52 schools for 32,000 students; Mount Diablo Unified has 55 schools for 34,000 students. If the board decides to close all of the recommended schools, district officials have estimated a savings of $2.2 million.

But these kinds of comparisons have not mollified some parents.  At Wednesday night’s meeting, Castlemont High School’s auditorium held over 100 parents, kids, and other Oakland community members. “I’ve just about had it,” said Wanda Boyd, a 20-year Oakland Unified School District volunteer. “$2 million is chump change in a district with a budget of over $500 million,” she declared.

The board struggled to discuss anything on the agenda beyond school closures, Public comments spanned over four hours. Once the board got a chance to respond to speakers, the crowd was unruly—yelling at board members from their seats, standing with pointing fingers, moving from the back of the auditorium toward the front.

“They gave us the chance to talk, we need to give it to them!” someone shouted from the crowded auditorium seats.

“You all are just being disrespectful,” said board member Alice Spearman.

“What do you mean? You represent us. You’re being disrespectful,” someone else yelled.

Kids from Lakeview Elementary, wearing matching yellow shirts, were among the last to leave during OUSD’s board meeting Wednesday night.

“Excuse me!” said board member Jody London. “It’s my time to speak.  If you will not let me speak, we will adjourn the meeting,” she threatened. At 8:32, she called a recess that lasted 15 minutes.

“You need to just calm down for a minute,” board member Alice Spearman said.  “It’s not going to change her [Jody London’s] mind.  It’s not going to change my mind,” she said to attendees. As Spearman was heading outside during the recess, she said to Oakland North, in obvious frustration.  “I know we have to close some schools, but nobody wants their school closed. Nobody.”

Later during the meeting, Jemahl Amen, a board member of the Oakland branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, addressed board members about an NAACP report he presented to them last month, asserting that racial inequality in the OUSD has remained the same or grown over the past 30 years.

At the time, superintendent Smith reacted with concern to his report.  But at the meeting,  Amen expressed disappointment at receiving  no follow-up or response from the board.

The next OUSD board meeting will approve or reject Smith’s recommendations. It will be held Oct. 26 at Oakland Tech High School from 5 to 9 p.m.

Photo by Basil D Soufi
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