Protesters at OUSD school board meeting decry school closures
on October 11, 2019
For the second meeting in a row, protesters disrupted the regularly-scheduled Oakland Unified School District board meeting, decrying recent and anticipated school closures.
At the start of the meeting, Board President Aimee Eng announced that if protesters planned to disrupt the meeting, as they had on September 26, completely shutting down the meeting, the board would be forced to relocate to a private upstairs committee room. Without regular meetings, she said, the district can’t function on a basic level. “We cannot operate with constant and complete disruption,” Eng said.
About 6 p.m., one protester stood with a guitar and began to sing “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Audience members joined in, reading lyrics from packets and shaking bells and bead-filled eggs, all provided by members of the Oakland Not For Sale coalition, a group of parents and teachers who oppose school closures.
According to Katy Hunter, a teacher at Kaiser Elementary, their goal was to hold a “people’s board meeting” in the space to raise awareness and to convince more parents to join, especially those who may be affected by future school closures. “If this isn’t affecting someone’s traditional public school in Oakland now, it will soon,” Hunter said. “It’s not going to stop until we make it stop. Tonight was about keeping the pressure on and letting them know we’re not just going to lie down.”
About a dozen police officers and school security guards formed a line between the group of protesters and the stage. According to district spokesperson John Sasaki, top district officials, including the superintendent and district chief of police, had made the decision to increase security at the meeting. “This was a matter of knowing the board has to get their business done,” Sasaki told Oakland North during the meeting. “We wanted to have circumstances in place to make sure that could happen.”
Five minutes after the disruption began, Eng adjourned the meeting and board members filed upstairs. She reconvened the meeting about 6:20 p.m. The meeting continued, and downstairs in the gym where the protesters remained, people could continue to watch via a video stream.
As protesters—many parents and teachers from Kaiser Elementary—held puppet shows and sang songs in the room below, board members discussed a proposed “Opportunity Ticket”—which would give priority enrollment to students affected by school closures—and plans to rezone the area that formerly fed students into Kaiser Elementary, which will close at the end of this year to be merged with Sankofa Elementary on Sankofa’s campus.
Sonali Murarka, executive director of enrollment and charter schools for the district, presented recommendations to the board regarding its Opportunity Ticket policy, which was created earlier this year to give priority enrollment access for students of the newly-closed Roots International Academy. Murarka said district administrators need to rewrite the administrative regulations related to the policy to allow students currently enrolled at Kaiser and Oakland School of Language (SOL) to receive the same priority treatment. Oakland SOL is being merged with Frick Impact Academy.
Priority enrollment is already granted to siblings of enrolled students, as well as residents of the schools’ designated attendance zone.
Presenting on behalf of a working group chosen by OUSD Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell, Murarka laid out three recommendations. She said that at schools with Opportunity Tickets, 51 percent of seats not allocated to siblings and neighborhood students should be reserved for Opportunity Ticket holders. This would amount to less than 10 percent of the total enrollment at receiving schools. She also said that all students who are affected by a school closure—which would include the students who are uprooted from their campus in a merger, as is the case with Kaiser—will receive a ticket, unless they’re transitioning from elementary to middle school or middle to high school.
The third recommendation proved the most contentious: the working group suggested that students at shuttered charter schools should also receive an Opportunity Ticket, allowing them to enroll at any OUSD campus. Student board representative Denilson Garibo said giving charter school students the same priority as district students would send a negative message. Many board members agreed, saying families who opted out of district-run public schools shouldn’t be given special access when they return.
“I understand the value of bringing students from charters back into OUSD,” said Board Director Shanthi Gonzales (District 6). “We need to grow and stabilize enrollment, but they shouldn’t get priority over our district students.”
Board members pushed back against that recommendation, saying the working group was disproportionately stacked with people affiliated with charter schools. Board Director Rosann Torres (District 5) said the makeup of the working group compromised the integrity of the recommendations. “It’s astounding that we would prioritize people who aren’t prioritizing us,” she said during the meeting.
Eng suggested district administrators move forward with the first two recommendations, since Kaiser and SOL students must enroll soon for next year, but that they revisit the charter school topic. Murarka and Sondra Aguilera, chief academic officer for the district, promised to return to the board with an alternative solution.
Also on the agenda was the issue of what to do with the relatively small number of students who live within Kaiser’s official attendance boundary. According to Murarka, only five students living in the Kaiser district attend OUSD schools for transitional kindergarten or kindergarten, and only 21 attend grades 1-4.
Kaiser’s attendance boundary sits between Thornhill and Chabot Elementary. Murarka recommended expanding Thornhill’s attendance boundary to “absorb” Kaiser’s region, as it had more room for neighborhood students than Chabot. “We don’t want a situation where neighborhood families can’t get into their schools,” Murarka said.
The plan has some downsides, as Thornhill is farther from Kaiser than Chabot is, and traffic patterns would require parents to get on the highway to take their kids to school. Thornhill also feeds into a different middle school than Kaiser and Chabot. Murarka said another option would be to split the boundary geographically between Chabot and Thornhill, or to create a shared boundary so all families could have equal priority.
“Moving attendance boundaries is a political issue,” said Board Director Gary Yee (District 4), as attendance boundaries have a profound effect on school demographics. He said the board should not change attendance boundaries until they have a fuller picture of which school closures are still to come.
Board Director James Harris (District 7) agreed, saying a temporary solution, like making special accommodations for the families currently living in Kaiser’s attendance zone, makes more sense than a permanent change. “The citywide plan means Thornhill might not even be there in 10 years, let’s be honest,” Harris said.
Both the Opportunity Ticket and Kaiser’s redistricting were discussion items, so board members did not vote on either one.
In other board business, members approved a report saying the district meets minimum standards for textbook and instructional material quality. Members also heard a report on some metrics for district performance over the last year. The report showed that district facilities and instructional materials met state standards, but many teachers were teaching outside their credentials or were temporarily filling vacant positions. It also touched on campus culture and safety—about 61.5 percent of students reported feeling safe at their schools. Both reports showed students lagging behind state standards in academic achievement, but cited yearly progress toward meeting the standards.
The next board meeting is scheduled for October 23 at La Escuelita.
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