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A protester demonstrating against school closures is taken into custody by Oakland School Police. Photo by Michelle Pitcher.

Police arrest protesters at Oakland school board meeting

on October 24, 2019

For the last three Oakland school board meetings, protesters from the newly-formed Oakland Is Not for Sale Coalition have tried to prevent the meetings from taking place, chanting, raising banners and attempting to take over the stage where board members are seated in order to hold what they call a “people’s board meeting.”

The group is protesting the “The Blueprint for Quality Schools,” a district-run plan that supports the closure and merger of under-enrolled and underperforming schools. The protests coalesced after the September 11 school board vote in support of closing of Henry J. Kaiser Elementary, a well-performing and diverse school in the Oakland hills, and merging it with Sankofa Academy, which serves a predominately African-American student body and has struggled with academic performance. The protesters have vowed to continue to disrupt meetings until the “Blueprint for Quality Schools” is scrapped and a moratorium is placed on schools closures for the next two years.

Their first protest on September 25 led to the complete cancellation of the meeting, and another on October 11 led to the board temporarily adjourning the meeting, and then continuing it from an upstairs room, streaming a video feed of their meeting into the gym, where the protesters continued to chant, performed a puppet show, and held their own version of a school board meeting.

But the meeting on Wednesday was the first time it led to violent altercations between the protesters and school district police officers, who were posted inside the gymnasium at La Escuelita Elementary School, resulting in 6 arrests.  

The public meeting had begun with attendees—a number of whom were holding handmade signs and wearing Save Oakland Schools (SOS) and Oakland Educational Association (OEA) t-shirts—quietly entering the gymnasium. This time, the stage was cordoned off by sets of stanchions covered in green cloth, leaving only the podium accessible to the public. More than a dozen school police officers and security guards were posted on either side of the barricade, as well as at school gym’s East 10th Street entrance, which was the only one accessible to the public.

At a few minutes past 6 pm, board members began filing on stage and taking their seats. Student board members Mica Smith-Dahl and Denilson Garibo were absent.

President Aimee Eng announced the commencement of the public meeting. Addressing attendees, as she had in the previous meeting, she spoke about the issue of school board disruptions. “By making sure our board meetings take place, we are not silencing anyone,” Eng said.

“Except for last time!” a man in the audience shouted in response.  

At 6:28 pm protestors surrounded the barriers as a spokesperson read demands from Oakland Is Not For Sale Coalition, which include the elimination of the “Blueprint for Public Schools” and a moratorium on school closures, which they claim are an attempt by the school board to turn Oakland’s public schools into for-profit charter schools. 

Within minutes, some coalition members tried to rush the stage, while others attempted to move the physical barriers to the side, in order to hold a “people’s school board meeting” as they had done on September 25. Several officers raised their batons while another yelled “Get back!” at the protestors.  Two coalition members were shoved to the ground by police officers. School board members quickly left the room, heading for a private committee room upstairs in the same building.

Six coalition members, including a few of same ones pushed to the ground by officers, were handcuffed and detained outside of the gymnasium during the scuffle, while additional officers were called to the scene. They were cited for disturbing the peace and disturbing a board meeting and released later that evening, according to John Sasaki, the director of communications for the school district.

Inside the gym, the atmosphere was tense as police officers stood in front of the stage to prevent other protestors from attempting to access it. Protesters clapped and chanted in unison, “We will not be moved!” A number of attendees raised their camera phones to record as protestors stood facing the district police officers chanting “Whose side are you on?”

A line of Oakland School Police blocked protesters from taking the stage at a Wednesday night school board meeting. Photo by Michelle Pitcher.
A line of Oakland School Police blocked protesters from taking the stage at a Wednesday night school board meeting. Photo by Michelle Pitcher.

In the commotion, the children in attendance were led by hand to the back of the gym by parents and other adults. 

Jocelyn Bailey, 13, a former Kaiser student who had come to the meeting with her younger sister and her mother, sat in the back of the gym after the confrontations between the police officers and some protestors had died down. Jocelyn and her mother were wearing t-shirts that read: “I Ain’t No Punk. Stand Up Fight Back.”

“It’s just a very scary experience for me, and I’ve never experienced it before,” Bailey said, sobbing and struggling to maintain her composure as the crowd chanted. “I saw people get beat that I know.”

Because the board had relocated to a committee room, as the meeting continued, they heard public comments from the audience by speaking through a video relay. Several people chose to speak about the protest and how it was handled by the board and district police officers, even during the public comment periods on other items. Many people expressed their anger at what they said was an excessive police response and alleged that the school board was unwilling to engage respectfully with community members.

“I’m very disappointed in the board,” said Tracy Gordan, a parent of two Oakland children, during a public comment segment on a separate agenda item. “The way you had all of these police officers pushing down our teachers, knocking down our parents.”

Eng interjected, stating that if people were not speaking about the item at hand, they would not be allowed to speak. Throughout the meeting, the mic was cut off several times when audience members were told they were speaking off-topic, or when their 1 minute speaking time had elapsed.

Megan Bumpus, a fifth grade science prep teacher at Reach Academy, addressed the board to complain that she was not allowed into the committee room, even though as a school staff member she was initially told that she could. “We came here to participate because we care about our schools and our kids,” Bumpus said. “We didn’t come to hurt anyone. You have been hurting people week after week, month after month, robbing our schools of funds that our students deserve.”

In an emailed public statement addressing the evening’s disruption, Sasaki wrote that the OUSD and the Board of Education “respect and support the public’s right to voice their concerns through peaceful protest. The Board still must be able to conduct its business.”

“When the protesters jumped over and pushed over the barriers,” Sasaki wrote, “the safety of the Board Directors and staff could no longer be guaranteed and the Board moved the meeting upstairs pursuant to the Brown Act.” The Act, passed in 1953 by the California state legislature, guarantees the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies. But the Brown Act also allows the legislative body to move to a secure location in “emergency situations.”

As the board began to run through its agenda items, Sonali Murarka, executive director of enrollment and charter schools for the district, addressed the board regarding the redrawing of Henry J. Kaiser Elementary’s attendance boundaries, which was an agenda item that had come up in the last school board meeting. When schools close or new ones are built, attendance boundaries and priority enrollments, based on the address of individual families and their proximity to certain schools, also change.

Murarka said that based on feedback from families and board members at the board’s October 11 meeting, some changes would be made to the proposal based on two principal concerns. “First, we heard concerns about the distance and potentially challenging commute for some families from the Hiller Highland area to Thornhill Elementary,” she said. “And, second, we heard a desire to make this change temporary so that we have the opportunity to reevaluate the attendance boundary with updated application of enrollment data, and consider the impact this change has had on families in schools in the area down the road.”

Based on these concerns, Murarka said, the updated proposal would allow for a temporary, two-year neighborhood preference policy for both Thornhill and Chabot elementary schools for families living in the Hiller Highland and Kaiser Elementary attendance area.

“I want to thank you for your thoughtful adjustment,” said District 4 Director Gary Yee. Director James Harris (District 7) and board Vice President Jody London (District 1) said that they echoed Yee’s sentiments. “The feedback was appropriate. I appreciate it,” Harris said.

“I am very interested in seeing how we move forward on a longer-term enrollment update,” London said, before adding, “I think this was a good compromise in the interim.”

The issue of budget development was a concern for a number of the board members, as the board discussed a revision to the district’s budget for 2019.

In June, responding to concerns raised by the California Board of Education and by the Alameda County Office of Education (ACOE), the board approved a resolution of “Commitment to Fiscal Solvency,” which states that the district must identify a plan for budgetreductions or revenue increases of $10 million for the 2020-21 school year and $10.5 million for the 2021-22 school year.

These changes are needed to meet the employee compensation obligations negotiated with the Oakland Educational Association (OEA) and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in February, following the teachers’ strike for higher wages, while still maintaining a 3 percent budget reserve, which is the state’s recommended minimum.

Based on a recommendation from the ACOE, the board considered adopting a resolution which would change the date for meeting these budget reduction targets. “It’s been recommended that we take a little more time to identify the target reduction numbers, and to postpone this item until later in the calendar year,” said Eng.

Director Shanthi Gonzalez (District 6) took the opportunity to address some of her concerns on the issue. “I’m just really nervous with timeline being pushed back again,” Gonzalez said. She argued that in the past, because of continued pushbacks, by the time the board received a set of budget reductions to make, “there wasn’t enough adequate time for us to really vet.”  

“What is the need to push back this timeline right now?” Gonzalez asked.

Luz Cazares, the interim chief financial officer for the district, said that her office plans to present a second interim report to the board in March that would meet the minimum reserve requirements. In order to this, she said, “We expect to have all spending reductions approved by the board by the end of February.” This, she said, would give the board time to discuss possibilities for where budget reductions would come from.

In a non-voting item agenda, executive directors, co-executive directors, and principals from schools including Lighthouse Community Charter High School, Francophone Charter School, North Oakland Community Charter School announced their submission of renewed charter petitions to the board for later review.

The meeting was adjourned at 10:45 pm. 

1 Comment

  1. […] the barricades that had been set up to block protestors during a previous school board meeting on October 23, which had ended with the arrest of several protesters who oppose school closures and charter schools. Instead, camera crews from multiple media outlets […]

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