“Save Oakland Schools” protesters take over school board meeting
on September 26, 2019
As the president of Oakland’s school board began her report at Wednesday night’s regular meeting, dozens of people wearing black stormed the stage chanting, “No school closures! Oakland is not for sale!”
Although school closures were not on the agenda, protesters—the majority of whom were Kaiser Elementary School parents and staff—had come out to make noise about the board’s decision two weeks ago to merge Sankofa and Kaiser elementary schools on Sankofa’s campus. That decision means that Kaiser, a high-performing, small school in the Oakland hills, will close at the end of this school year, and students will be relocated to the lower-performing Sankofa campus in North Oakland’s Bushrod neighborhood.
“We’re here to tell them we’re not going away,” said Steve Neat, speaking before the meeting. Neat, a fourth and fifth grade teacher at Kaiser, was wearing a “Save Oakland Schools” shirt and passing out neon green and pastel yellow fliers that announced a follow up protest that will take place in front of the school board’s main office on Friday.
Neat said the demonstration was the result of a series of talks and community meetings held after the school board voted to merge the two schools. He said that parents “decided this was an opportunity to stop this whole thing. We’re looking for drastic action, civil disobedience.”
On Wednesday, protesters turned the school board meeting—which was supposed to cover district contracts and evaluate textbook quality, among other agenda items—into a community meeting about school closures. The last time community activists took over a school board meeting was in February, when thousands of striking teachers and supporters marched around the building where the meeting was set to be held. The school board cancelled that meeting before it began.
At the start of Wednesday’s meeting, board members recognized the district’s teachers of the year and heard the student representatives’ reports. During these items, protesters stood quietly in the back, holding picket signs. As soon as board president Aimee Eng began to deliver her report, they began chanting.
Protesters had just reached the stage when Eng announced the board would recess. The adult board members left the stage, but the student representatives remained in their seats. A group of Kaiser Elementary parents and teachers took the open seats and convened what they called the “community school board” meeting. Someone banged a gavel repeatedly as the crowd cheered.
The school board members “have abdicated the responsibility to run our school district,” Neat said to the crowd. Meeting attendees abandoned bags and water bottles on their chairs and gathered around the stage. A few young students sitting on the stage made makeshift name placards for the community members out of yellow paper.
Using their own sound system, Kaiser representatives began reading a list of demands, including scrapping the district’s Blueprint for Quality Schools, which calls for the assessment of each campus to determine which should be closed or merged.
They also called for a moratorium on school closures until the summer of 2022, which would allow time for the statewide Schools and Community First Act—a ballot initiative which aims to reverse commercial property tax provisions under California’s Proposition 13— to go to a vote in 2020. Proposition 13, passed in 1978, enacted a slew of property tax limitations, reducing the amount of money available to public schools. If the new ballot initiative passes, billions of new tax dollars may become available to public schools in California.
“We’re going to be sitting in these chairs until they drag us out of the chairs,” said Saru Jayaraman, a Kaiser parent. She and the other people onstage had written lawyers’ phone numbers on their forearms in permanent marker, in the event that their protest led to arrests.
Officers from the Oakland School Police Department were present—they’ve come to every meeting for decades—but they told Oakland North reporters they would not intervene unless things got violent.
Student board members Mica Smith-Dahl and Denilson Garibo applauded the demonstration. Smith-Dahl said since teachers cannot strike given the union’s agreement in February, it’s up to the students and community members to “take up this leadership position and do this work for them.”
“We’ve got the power for the movement,” Smith-Dahl said. “Y’all have to be about it like y’all say you are.”
Some attendees said they would continue demonstrating beyond this week. “We do not let them meet until our demands are met,” said Jayaraman. She added that she was willing to “do this every week,” suggesting the group shut down every meeting until November 2020, when four board seats are up for reelection.
“We’re not here to stop the board from ever meeting again,” Neat said to the crowd, explaining that even if protesters were able to stop that night’s meeting, the board would be able to call another meeting 24 hours later. “We’re here to let them know that at least for tonight, it’s not business as usual.”
The school board members having never returned from their initial recess, and the meeting was adjourned at 8:50 p.m.
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