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Oakland’s Civicorps Elementary School to shut down

on May 18, 2012

When the class of 2012 graduates at Oakland’s Civicorps Elementary School on June 8, it will be the last time that any of the 150 students currently attending the K-5 charter school will be setting foot on its campus. The school’s management is shutting the school down after 10 years of operation, citing budgetary constraints.

At this tiny urban school, focused on art integration and service learning, the decision to close shop barely eight months after the renewal of the school’s charter for another five years came as a surprise to parents, students and teachers who had raised the school’s state testing scores and begun to identify the school as their home. Teachers had taken voluntary pay cuts in the 2010-2011 school year as part of the school’s efforts to cut expenses, although their pay had recently been reinstated.   

Civicorps Chief Executive Officer Allan Lessik said it became apparent to the school’s board that they could not continue to run it after sustaining annual budget shortfalls of up to $100,000 over several years.

The annual running costs of the school, according to Lessik, were between $1 million and $1.5 million and Civicorps spent an estimated $10 million on the charter school over the last of 10 years. The school’s enrollment has declined from 208 to 150 students over the last year, against cuts of up to 11 percent in state funding over the last four years, he said.

“I think we now know that this is not a program we can get to work right. It’s impossible,” Lessik said, adding that Civicorps would help families find new schools for students as well as pay a severance package for the 11 permanent members of staff who will lose their jobs as a result of the school’s closure.

“I cannot give specifics at this point, but we are offering all permanent members of staff a severance package,” Lessik said. “Non-profits do not normally have severance programs, but because of the circumstances in this case we have created something for our full time staff.” At least five members of staff at Civicorps Elementary School were not full time.

The Oakland Unified School District is closing five other elementary schools this year in an effort to save money and reduce under-enrollment. Students from Civicorps are expected to transfer to other schools in the district.

Members of Civicorp’s staff, like art teacher Constance Moore, were caught off-guard by the board’s decision to close the school. For Moore, although it was clear that the school was sustaining budget shortfalls, it seemed as though Civicorps’ efforts to turn the venture around were beginning to pay off.

“We had three things happen over the last few months that made us feel very secure,” Moore said, “our charter was renewed, we raised our APA score by 43 points and we reduced the deficit of the K-5 significantly. Our budget looked a lot better. We could have saved the school. There were several options were never given time to pursue.”

Civicorps’ decision to close the school came a week before California Governor Jerry Brown presented the state budget, which is expected to cut at least $15 million in spending to the Oakland Unified School District if a vote to increase taxes fails to go through this fall.

Civicorps’ board of directors made the decision to close the school following a vote during a special board meeting. Unlike previous meetings to decide the fate of the school, which explored four alternative ways to keep the school running, the decisive board meeting had just one item on its agenda, a resolution to close the school.

Only 15 minutes had been set aside for public speaking before the vote, but parents and members of the community came to the meeting en masse and demanded more time to speak. After that, the board voted to close the school at the end of the school year.

Soon after word started spreading among the school’s close-knit community that the board was considering shutting it down, one of  Moore’s second grade art students approached her and asked where he would go. She reassured him that there are many other schools in the district. “No this is my school, this is where I belong, this is where I am welcome and I don’t want to go somewhere else,” Moore said, sobbing as she called the incident.

Moore and the other teachers at the school will  lose their jobs on July 31, along with the other staff members. They will lose their healthcare benefits at the same time, but Moore says it is the students she is most worried about.

“It’s going to be very hard for them to transition. The curriculum at Civicorps is very different from that other schools,” she said. “We emphasized on service learning, music and art were at the core of how the students learn shaped their daily learning experience.”

Inundated with applications from Civicorps families seeking to move their children into traditional district schools, the Oakland Unified School District has expressed dismay at the manner in which decisions leading to the closure of the school were communicated to parents and staff. “This situation was very unorthodox,” said Troy Flint, spokesperson for the Oakland Unified School District. “We don’t condone the lack of public information and manner in which the school was closed. That’s the difference between a publicly accountable school district and an independent school.”

While the process to shut down the district’s other five schools took more took several months of community engagement, parents and staff became aware of Civicorps’ intent barely a week before a decision was reached.

“Before the closure of Oakland Unified School District schools, lawsuits were filed, documents were presented and there were consultations with the involved parties, but this was not the case with Civicorps,” said Mara Tobin, a parent with two girls attending Civicorps Elementary School. “The problem with what the board has done is that it’s not illegal, and yet we feel like we have been assaulted. It’s completely unjust and unethical and irresponsible.”

Tobin is currently on six waiting lists to enroll her children at other schools and says her girls ask her whether she has found a school for them every day.

“Waiting lists are long and the schools are full, I have no idea what I am going to do,” Tobin said. “I think the media is missing the most important story, which is that Civicorps is sacrificing the school and choosing to maintain its other ventures rather than serving the community.”

Tobin alleged that some of the board members derived direct financial benefit from other Civicorps ventures and therefore should not have been involved in deciding the fate of the school. But Lessik said that was not the case. “One board member has financial interests in one of the buildings we rent and whenever we have an issue that requires a board decision he recuses himself,” Lessik said.

Lessik said Civicorps will continue to “focus on the one percent on the bottom that no one works with” through its academy, which offers high school and job training classes, which he says is comprised mainly of students who had previously dropped out of school. The academy has a graduation rate of 85 percent, he said.

Closing Civicorps Elementary School “will allow us to really focus on that program, our high school is the only one in Oakland that does what we do,” Lessik said.

Although Governor Brown’s budget appears to be flat, with no new cuts to school funding, Flint said it is all predicated on the passage of the tax measure on the November ballot, which voters are unlikely to approve. For now the school district is drastically reducing costs and has cut $15 million from its 2012 -2013 planning year, and reducing the district’s number of schools from 56 down from 61.

“We are planning as if the tax measure will fail,” said Flint. “We have taken a budget cut every year for the last five years and reduced our budget by 25 percent, including school closures, reductions in classified staff, and the elimination of some adult education programs.”

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