At Oakland school board meeting, debate over school closures and charter schools intensifies
on March 21, 2019
Tensions from the recent Oakland teachers’ strike were still reverberating among attendees during a special meeting for the Board of Education on Wednesday night. Hundreds of people filled the auditorium at La Escuelita Education Complex, holding small green signs that set the theme for the night. One side of the signs read “No new charters.” On the other: “No school closures.” Many in the crowd wore the black and green of the Oakland Education Association (OEA)—the teachers’ union—or red, the color of the national “Red for Ed” movement to support public education.
Two of the promises made during strike negotiations to address the issues of charter school growth and school closures were on the agenda. Board President Aimee Eng (District 2) brought forward a resolution supporting a pause of eight months in the approval process for new local charter schools, and asking California Governor Gavin Newsom to review and update the state’s law that governs the process for charter school applications, renewals and oversight. She also presented a resolution for a five-month moratorium on school closures, declaring that it was part of the agreement between the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) and the union that ended the strike.
Many people, though, were at the meeting for a different agenda item: a board vote on the Citywide Plan. School district officials have been developing this plan over the course of the school year: a framework to redesign the district over several years. It addresses a range of issues, from how to best use surplus facilities, to creating stronger “feeder” patterns between elementary and middle schools in the same neighborhood, to supporting more innovation and autonomy among schools.
It incorporates other district initiatives like the Blueprint for Quality Schools, which includes a quality assessment of every school in the district, and makes recommendations to either close, merge or expand schools. It also uses the “Community of Schools” policy—a call for more collaboration between charter schools and district-run schools—in an effort to encourage the staffs of both to work together to determine best practices. The plan also seeks to give the district stronger oversight over charter schools and encourages them to be accountable to the same quality standards as district-run schools. (Those standards will be determined during the implementation phase of the plan.)
Since the Citywide Plan seems, in some places, to contradict the call for no school closures and to take a positive approach to charter schools, it led to tensions among some at the meeting. From the outset, the audience let the board members know how they felt, with a few of them booing as the board came out onto the stage.
During the public comment sessions that stretched throughout the three-hour meeting, dozens of attendees urged the board to keep schools open and not issue new charters. Some also criticized the Citywide Plan, calling it an effort to obscure district officials’ true intention—to close more schools.
Andy Marshall-Buselt, a special education teacher at Leadership Public Schools—a charter school—gave the board a letter signed by about 175 Oakland charter school teachers. The letter called for an immediate stop to the proliferation of charter schools in Oakland and expressed solidarity with the demands of union teachers. “We cannot support opening or expanding charter schools when there are proposals to potentially close a OUSD school,” Marshall-Buselt said.
Tania Kappner, a teacher at Oakland Technical High School and member of the OEA executive board, spoke about school closures, saying she was among the 42 percent of teachers who voted against the tentative agreement between the union and the district that led to the strike’s end. She said she believed it did not meet the demands of the teachers. “We want no more schools closed. We want the community in control and the strike showed our strength and we will continue to mobilize,” Kappner said. The audience cheered her on.
During board discussion of the Citywide Plan, OUSD’s Director of Innovation Yvette Renteria said that the vote Wednesday night would be on the overall framework of the multi-year plan. Each specific element of the plan would come before the board again when it was time for that part to be implemented.
But contention arose around the plan’s call for a map identifying a “fiscally sound” number of schools for the OUSD to operate. “The ‘Community of Schools’ is really just a fancy way of saying that you want to close public schools. And that’s wrong,” said union treasurer Deirdre Snyder.
Other teachers and parents spoke in favor of the Citywide Plan, arguing that collaboration between charter and district-run schools is vital and calling the plan a step in the right direction. Latora Baldridge said that she sends her kids to charter schools because her neighborhood school doesn’t provide a quality education. “You need a plan where we work together,” said Baldridge, who teaches at the district-run Frick Impact Academy. “I, like most people, are tired of the same old thing, same Oakland, same program, same failing schools.”
Baldridge is also a Teacher Policy Fellow at GO Public Schools (GO), a nonprofit that has advocated for more collaboration between the two kinds of schools. During the strike, OEA teachers criticized GO for its ties to charter school advocates. As Baldridge and other staff members from GO spoke during public comment, the audience—which included many OEA teachers—booed and hissed.
Parents from The Oakland Reach, a group that works with families from underserved schools, also spoke out in support of the Citywide Plan. At a board meeting last month. there had been an altercation between The Oakland Reach parents and other community members. This time, several Oakland Reach parents wearing yellow shirts formed a protective semi-circle around each of their members as they addressed the board.
But a heated conversation ensued between the parents in the semi-circle and other members of the audience. As one parent spoke at the podium in support of the plan, people started to argue with those in the semi-circle, saying the plan was really just about closing public schools. The Oakland Reach parents disagreed, and argued that if a school is failing, it should be closed. The chaotic scene lasted for a few more minutes, as people continued to argue and shout over one another, leading one of the speakers at the podium to ask if security needed to be called.
After public comment ended, student school board director Yota Omosowho expressed her disappointment with the whole process. “I just want to say, in this moment right now, this is not Oakland,” she said. As a student, she said, she was scared and frustrated by the way that community members and parents were fighting. “I’m all for unity. I’m all for standing in solidarity, but not off each other’s backs,” Omosowho said. She also suggested postponing the vote until the board had more meetings and conversations with families and teachers who would be affected by the plan.
Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammel responded to Omosowho’s concerns and acknowledged the tension in the room. “Even though people are sitting on different sides of the fence, I think the common denominator is frustration for generations of not having quality schools,” she said. Johnson-Trammel said she believes that some of this dialogue is healthy. She also highlighted that the plan would not go into effect immediately and that the board would consider each specific element before it is implemented. “My fear is that if we do absolutely nothing, we will continue to have the same outcomes for our students,” she said.
The board then voted to approve the Citywide Plan; it passed with five votes in favor, one against and one abstention. Director Roseann Torres (District 5) voted no and Director Shanthi Gonzales (District 6) abstained. Directors Eng, Jody London (District 1), Jumoke Hinton-Hodge (District 3), Gary Yee (District 4), and James Harris (District 7) all voted yes.
Each yes vote was met with a chorus of boos from the audience. After the vote, the majority of people in the audience left.
Before the vote on Eng’s resolutions on charter schools and
the five-month school closure moratorium, Director Hinton-Hodge said the vote
was happening too quickly because the resolutions were only introduced last
week. This session should have been a discussion of the resolutions and then
they should vote at the next meeting, she said. She stated that she would not
be pressured by the state legislature or unions to act quickly.
Eng said that the votes could be postponed if the majority of the board wanted that, but no other board members supported a postponement.
The five-month moratorium means that the board will not vote on the closures or mergers of schools until August. Originally, they planned to vote this spring on closing or merging what are called “Cohort Two” schools in the Citywide Plan. Those schools would have the 2019-20 school year to plan for their closure or merger. Now, the next few months will be dedicated to doing more community engagement in those school neighborhoods.
During discussion of the resolutions, Director Harris added an amendment to the school closure moratorium. The amendment explicitly states that even if the board votes on “Cohort Two” schools in August, the 2019-20 school year will still serve as the planning year. The board adopted that amendment. So, while the moratorium will allow for more community engagement, it will not alter the timeline for any school closures or mergers.
Both of the resolutions—to create a moratorium on school closures and to pause the creation of new charter schools—passed by a vote of six to one. Only Hinton-Hodge voted no.
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